Last Monday we published a story in the Daily Observer about an article bearing the allegations that Saudi Arabia had a master plan to Islamize West Africa, including Liberia. The article made many erroneous claims that had to be corrected by us, even as we printed excerpts from it.
It was, as we said, written by three Islamic women scholars, one from Syria, another from Iran and a third from Saudi Arabia.
In their article, the three women claimed that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf married into a Muslim family, and that the man she married, James A. (Doc) Sirleaf, was Muslim. We corrected that and other blatant mistakes in our Monday story.
Our intention in today’s History and Us is to throw a little more light on this family. Details of the family are sketchy, especially since so many family members, including Mr. Sirleaf Senior’s two sons, one of whom wedded Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, are gone. But we were able to find a few people who were willing and able to help us put together some information on this distinguished family.
We begin briefly with the mother of James A. (Doc) Sirleaf, former husband of President Ellen Sirleaf, and his younger brother Dr. Varsay Sirleaf.
Their mother, Mrs. Caroline (Caddy) Cooper was the daughter of Mr. James Wesley (Doc) Cooper II, who served as Secretary of War in the administration of President Charles D.B. King. Secretary Cooper’s father was James Wesley (Doc) Cooper I.
Caroline married Mr. Fumbah Sirleaf, a Mandingo, and that union was blessed with two sons, James A. (Doc) Sirleaf and his younger brother, Varsay.
The nickname Doc was given to all who were called James Wesley Cooper. Accordingly, James Wesley Cooper III, who married one of Judge Edward J. Summerville’s daughters, Williette Summerville, was also called “Docky” Cooper. Docky and his wife were blessed with a daughter, Erna, who was wedded to Mr. Edwin Phillips.
James Wesley (Doc) Cooper II’s first son was Lahai Cooper, once a great baritone in the First United Methodist Church Choir, and the other, Arthur Cooper.
Charles Henry Cooper, younger brother of James Wesley (Doc) Cooper II, was the father of James Wesley Cooper III. His brothers were S.D. Cooper, Charles Ernest Cooper and Dr. Henry Nehemiah Cooper, one of Liberia’s celebrated surgeons, who founded the Cooper Clinic at 12th Street, Monrovia, now known as the Cooper S.D.A. Clinic.
Their sister is Mrs. Maryann Cooper Melton, who married Mr. Johnnie Melton, son of Mr. Jacob Samuel Melton, Secretary of the Interior under President Tubman.
The two Sirleaf young men, Doc and Varsay, grew up in the church of their mother, the United Methodist Church, where their mother’s father and uncles were staunch members.
That is why President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was born a Presbyterian, later became and remains till this day a Methodist. But as President, she frequently visits other churches.
Doc Sirleaf became an agriculturist and military expert, and taught both Agriculture and ROTC (Reserved Officers Training Corps) at the Booker Washington Institute (BWI) in Kakata, Margibi County.
Varsay became a medical doctor and once served as chief medical officer at the LAMCO Hospital in Yekepa, Nimba County. He later established the Snapper Hill Clinic at the homestead of his grandfather, Secretary of War James Wesley Cooper II. There, Varsay ran a successful medical practice.
When James (Doc) Sirleaf died in 2000 in the United States, he was cremated, and his memorial service was held at a United Methodist Church in Maryland, USA. His ashes were later flown to Liberia and another memorial service was held in the First United Methodist Church, the church of his youth. Both he and his brother are resting in peace at the Sirleaf farm at Jo Vahn, just past the Todee Junction on the Kakata Highway.
Dr. Varsay Sirleaf later joined the Episcopal Church of Liberia, and his funeral service in 2007 was held at the Trinity Cathedral, seat of the Episcopal Diocesan bishop, in Monrovia. Varsay’s sister-in-law, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was among many who attended.
This is our brief attempt to set the record straight about the Sirleafs and their religion; especially the two brothers, one of whom, James (Doc) Sirleaf, married the woman who would later become Africa’s first elected woman President.