Sunday, June 17, 1917, as Harvard’s president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, addressed the graduating seniors at the start of Commencement Week, he cautioned them saying “this is no ordinary Baccalaureate Sunday to speak of the careers, the duties, the responsibilities, and the snares of a peaceful life.”1
Then, America was in the throes of war, having declared war on Germany two months earlier, on April 6, entering the fray in World War I.
In fact, as Lowell took the podium that afternoon in Appleton Chapel to address Harvard’s Class of 1917, so many of them were absent, having already enlisted in the army, that an editorial in The Harvard Crimson described that year’s commencement “as sad as a dance record at 10 in the morning.”
But, among the few members of the Class of 1917 listening to Lowell’s speech that day was a most extraordinary young man, popularly known as “the African prince.”
His name was Plenyono Gbe Wolo.
Born in Grand Cess, Liberia circa 1883 into a Kru chieftaincy, Wolo would be conferred with his bachelor’s degree a few days later, on June 21, becoming the first African to graduate from Harvard.4
“The bugle has sounded and the youth is girding on its armor. The call affects men in three different ways. There are those who could go to battle, but, unless compelled, will not; those who want to go but cannot; and those who both can go and will go. In the community at large there are many of the first of those classes…I have nothing to say to them here, for they are few among our students. The men who graduate this week belong almost wholly to the other two categories…,”5 Lowell continued.
And, indeed, “over ninety per cent”6 of the members of Harvard’s Class of 1917, who Lowell would later refer to as “the choicest of their kind”7 joined the war effort.
Some would pay the ultimate price, while others were recognized for valor in combat, including Archibald Roosevelt, the son of Theodore Roosevelt, America’s 26th President and Eugene Leon Coates Davidson, an African American student on Harvard’s varsity wrestling team.
Wolo too was no less the choicest of his kind and the story of his journey from his village and kinfolks to become a student at one of America’s most
Wolo was popularly known at Harvard as ‘the African prince’
Plenyono Gbe Wolo
prestigious universities, treading the same corridors of knowledge as the sons of America’s rich and powerful, is certainly a remarkable one.
The Progeny Of A Proud African Tribe
The son of Plenyono Gbe and Wle (Jle) Wolo, 8 he was the progeny of a noble cultural heritage. Wolo’s tribe—the Kru—were a seafaring people dispersed mainly along the coast of Liberia. One of the first Africans to encounter European voyagers along the West African coast, they became “infamous amongst early European enslavers as being especially opposed to capture.”9
According to one legendary tale, after 500 Kru warriors were captured by some Muslim tribesmen following a bloody battle and heard that they would be sold into slavery, they “killed themselves in less than four nights.”10 Commenting on this tragic exploit, a Muslim writer wrote: “With death as his refuge, the enslavement of the Kroo (sic) is an impossible task.”11
An impervious people therefore, the Kru resisted the usurping of their way of life by interlopers, including attempts by Liberia’s African-American founders to subjugate them to the authority of the fledgling nation’s central government. And, by 1883, around the time of Wolo’s birth, some 36 years after
Liberia’s founding, the Kru had fought several internecine wars with the government, and would do so up till as late as 1915, becoming the last indigenous people to vest authority to the government.
As the son of a Kru paramount chief, 12 Wolo seemed to have been especially inculcated into this proud tradition, because, despite his conversion to Christianity, he did not adopt a ‘Christian name’ as was customary at the time for most indigenous youth after conversion.
It is unclear exactly when Wolo converted to Christianity and/or commenced his schooling but, he apparently met a Methodist missionary named Reverend James B. Robertson in 1899, “who was instrumental in having him enrolled at the Monrovia Seminary.”13
In an 1891 report of the activities of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which Rev. Robertson worked for, he was described as “a hard worker” for his work among the Kru in Grand Cess, Wolo’s birthplace.
“He preaches daily, and teaches a number of boys. He has this year baptized seven who professed to have savingly (sic) received Christ…Scores are reported as seekers, but so many of them go to sea that it is hard to keep track of them, though some return with a good report,”14 the report noted.
Rev. Robertson, therefore, had been working in Grand Cess for a number of years so it is quite probably then that Wolo would have, at the least, been acquainted with Robertson, and/or his missionary work, even before 1899.
Also, Rev. Robertson would have certainly known Wolo’s father, Chief Gbe, the Paramount Chief of Grand Cess, most probably even from the time he arrived in Grand Cess, because he would have solicited the chief’s endorsement to live among the people and carry out his work.
Plenyono Gbe Wolo
Leaving Village and Kinfolks: A Quest for Intellectual Advancement
The Monrovia Seminary was the principal school of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Founded in 1839, it was one of the earliest institutions in Africa to offer a Westernized curriculum.15 According to an 1857 report of the school’s activities, its principal, Reverend J. W. Horne, noted that the students were studying courses such as History, Geography, English Grammar, Latin Grammar, Arithmetic, Physiology, and Natural Philosophy.
By the time Wolo arrived at the Seminary, it was run by an African-American educator and missionary, Alexander P. Camphor, the son of former slaves.
After taking over the school in 1896, Dr. Camphor “brought new life to the seminary…and by the close of his first year of administration he had begun the reorganization of the school to a high school…”
For 10 years, Dr. Camphor and his wife “worked tirelessly” to transform the school into a leading institution of learning, which was subsequently renamed the College of West Africa.
Wolo attended the Seminary at the crux of these transformations. And, Dr. Camphor, a man who “had shown such strength, both in scholarship and character that he was at once called to the Chair of Mathematics in his alma mater,” New Orleans University, would have certainly played a key role in igniting Wolo’s aspiration for further intellectual advancement.
In his book, Missionary Story Sketches and Folklore from Africa, Dr. Camphor gushes about the “marvelous” transformation a few years of education could work in the lives of native children.
“Children with such life as these free, happy youngsters have are usually bright and apt at books, so in our educational system we have arranged to admit them from the lowest grades on up to the more advanced classes, and they take to books with the same enthusiasm and success they show in their sports and fun. No department of our school work is more enjoyed by our teachers than the work among our “young hopefuls,” and none holds out a more cheering sign of promise for Africa’s uplift and redemption,” noted Dr. Camphor.
By Camphor’s reckoning therefore, Wolo would have been the epitome of one of those “young hopefuls” when he graduated from the Seminary in 1908.
Then, in 1910, through the assistance of Dr. Camphor and another Methodist missionary called Mary Sharp, Wolo travelled to the US to attend Mount Hermon School, a preparatory boarding school in Massachusetts founded in 1881 by a Protestant evangelist named Dwight Lyman Moody.
In addition to the assistance from Camphor and Sharp, Wolo’s fellow Kru tribesman, Dihdwo Twe, also played a pivotal role in helping him gain admission into Mount Hermon.
Born in 1879, Twe left Liberia in the later part of 1899 with only twenty-five cents in his pocket and, travelling by way of England, he arrived in America in March 1900.
While in America, Twe attended St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont, Burdett Business College in Massachusetts, as well as Columbia University and Harvard University.
Twe forged relationships with several prominent persons during his time in America, one of whom he would call upon to assist Wolo financially at Mount Hermon.
Upon returning to Liberia, Twe apparently worked to afford indigenous youth “carefully selected from the leading families of influential centers and royalties…,” the same opportunity he had to study in America.
Whether Twe and Wolo were acquaintances during their youth is not clear, but as the son of a Kru paramount chief, Wolo fitted the profile of the kinds of indigenous youth Twe desired to help obtain further studies in America.
In Wolo’s application to enter Mount Hermon, which was submitted by Twe on Wolo’s behalf, he said his reason for wanting Wolo to attend Mount Hermon was “because I realize that to help our people effectively and successfully our education must be thorough in scientific knowledge and strong in Christian training. I believe and know that he’ll get the right kind of Christian training at Mt. Hermon.”
Twe also wrote a letter to Reverend Percy S. Grant, an Episcopalian priest, who he described as “one of my best friends in America,” regarding providing financial support for Wolo. And, despite his initial reservation, Grant would cover the cost for Wolo’s tuition and board for two terms, and also provide him with stipends during his time at Mount Hermon.
An astute student, Wolo spent only three terms at Mount Hermon, graduating in 1913 before matriculating to Harvard. Wolo entered Harvard as a freshman in the 1913-14 academic year, “where he proved to be so advanced in his studies of English that he was exempted from the second semester of the freshman course.”
While at Harvard, Wolo was also active in several student clubs and did not seem to shy away from taking the lead. In fact, on October 8, 1913, though just a wet behind the ear freshman, Wolo delivered the speech on behalf the incoming international students – “60 men representing at least 15 countries” – at an evening reception held in their honor.
He was elected first as the treasurer of the Cosmopolitan Club in 1915 31 and then vice president, a year later. He was also a member of the Christian Association, leading the association’s weekly meeting on the topic “Little Things” on October 24, 1915.33 Wolo was also a member of Harvard Mission, which purpose was “to increase the participation of Harvard men in the work of Christian Missions.”
After Harvard, Wolo proceeded to Columbia University, where he obtained his master’s degree in 1919 and Union Theological Seminary (UTS), where he obtained a bachelor of divinity degree in 1922, following in the footsteps of his former principal, Dr. Camphor, who had also studied at both institutions.
Plenyono Gbe Wolo
Homecoming: Advancing Education Among His People
Immediately after completing his studies, Wolo returned to Liberia in 1922 “with financial backing from a number of US patrons including the Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell, to open a day school in his native village of Grand Cess,” where he “began his lifework, the educational, economic, and social advancement of his people.”
However, Wolo’s relationship with some of his US patrons became frayed after a while, with some accusing him of reverting to the ways of witch doctors and having “succumbed to the drag of native inertia.”
Apparently, Wolo’s aspirations for the education and social advancement of his people must have run contrary to the “civilizing mission” of his patrons, which was rooted in the racist paternalism and cultural hegemony of the time.
He, therefore, sought to forge an independent course and, in one particular instance, incurred the reprobation of Thomas Jesse Jones, one of the directors of The Phelps-Stokes Fund, which mission was to promote education in Africa, among other things. “Mr. Wolo will need every possible influence to lead him to see that the way of salvation is not in independent action but in cooperation,”40 Jones said, regarding the need to reel Wolo in.
After several years working to promote education among his people, Wolo worked as an assistant divisional manager for the Firestone Rubber Company from 1926-1929, “where he helped to solve labor problems and collaborated in the establishment of a plantation school system.”
During this time, he also studied law privately and was admitted to the Liberian bar in 1929, becoming an attorney and counselor at law. In 1930, Wolo was appointed as the Secretary of the International Commission of Inquiry into the Existence of Slavery and Forced Labor in Liberia, whose findings resulted in the resignation of President Charles D. B. King and his Vice President, Allen N. Yancy.
Wolo then became a professor of economics at his alma mater, the College of West Africa, in 1937, before being appointed two years later as assistant secretary of the Education Board of Liberia and a director of the Banking Corporation of Liberia.
Wolo also served as the editor of a newspaper called Liberian Sentinel, and, for a time, even entertained political ambitions “but the political elite of the day erected effective roadblocks.”
Plenyono Gbe Wolo
Wolo died in Monrovia on June 2, 1940 and was survived by his wife, the former Mary Elizabeth Hansford.