The recent passing of three great scholars who in a serious way served Liberia is cause for reflection on the current status of Liberian history written by Liberians.
The fallen scholars are Nigerian-born Dr. Igolima Amacree, Sierra Leonean-born Dr. Alpha Bah and American-born Dr. Svend Holsoe.
Dr. Amachree died in Iowa in the United States on May 1, 2017. He assisted in the drafting process of Liberia’s 1986 Constitution and as a consultant in the formulation of the Accra Peace Accord that ended the Liberian civil conflict.
Dr. D. Elwood Dunn, in his Tribute to Dr. Alpha Bah, who died last April 25, recalled that he was an active member of the Liberian Studies Association, which was keenly focused on Liberian academic and historical studies. Dr. Bah was the author of ‘Fulbe Presence in Sierra Leone: A Case History of 20th Century Migration and Settlement Among the Kissi of Koindu.’
By far the most accomplished of the three recently deceased historians was Dr. Svend Holsoe, who died in a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania hospital on May 4, 2017.
Dr. Holsoe spent part of his boyhood in Liberia along with his parents, who were involved with the U.S. Navy supervising the construction of the Free Port of Monrovia. Svend fell in love with Liberia, and most especially with the Vai people of Grand Cape Mount County. He became a great historian on Liberia and developed a passion for collecting any and everything on Liberia. His PhD dissertation was entitled The Cassava Leaf People, An Ethnohistorical Study of the Vai People with Particular Emphasis on the Tewo Chiefdom.
Dr. Dunn acknowledged that it was Dr. Holsoe who inspired Dunn’s own passion for Liberian history and culture, leading him to become one of the few truly eminent Liberian historians. One of Dunn’s most recent works is his trilogy—three volumes—on the Annual Messages of all Liberian Presidents, from Joseph Jenkins Roberts to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (2011).
Here is the ultimate Tribute which Dr. Dunn paid to his mentor: “Due to massive destruction of the Liberian government archive during the civil war, the Holsoe Collection may contain the only surviving copies of important Liberian state papers and historical and cultural documents.”
In 1997, Dunn recalled in his Tribute, Svend donated these documents, his books and other materials to Indiana University.
One day, perhaps, the Liberian government, or the University of Liberia or Cuttington University may be in the position to negotiate with Indiana U to retrieve and return some or all of these documents—or copies thereof—to Liberian or university archives.
The foregoing reminds us of Dr. Edward Wilmot Blyden III’s charge to Liberians, made in his Commencement Address at the University of Liberia in 1982. Carrying the story the following day, the Daily Observer’s headline read, “Liberians, Go Write Your History—Dr. E. W. Blyden.”
This great grandson of Liberia’s eminent historian, scholar, diplomat and politician, Dr. Edward Wilmot Blyden I, had observed that there was at that point very little attempts by Liberians themselves to write their history. Except for a handful of scholars, including Abayomi Karnga, who wrote several history books, some of which were taught in elementary and high schools and at Liberia College and Cuttington, and Ernest Jerome Yancy, author of ‘Historical Lights of Liberia Yesterday and Today’ and other books, there were hardly any other Liberian history books written by Liberians. One significant exception up to that point was Liberian historian Dr. Joseph Saye Guannu, who did his PhD in History at Fordham University in New York and returned home in 1978. In 1980 he published his first book, ‘Liberian History Up to 1847.’ This book, among others which Dr. Guannu subsequently wrote, is being taught in Liberian schools.
Besides his Trilogy, other books by Dr. Elwood Dunn that need to form part of the Liberian History curriculum are ‘Foreign Policy of Liberia During the Tubman Era, 1944-1971’; ‘Historical Dictionary of Liberia, 1985’; ‘A History of the Episcopal Church in Liberia, 1821-1980, 1992’; ‘Historical Dictionary of Liberia, Second Edition’ (with A.J. Beyan and C. Patrick Burrowes), 2001; and ‘Liberia and the United States during the Cold War: Limits of Reciprocity.’
Also worth considering to give students a pictorial reflection on the Liberian civil war is former Daily Observer Photographer Gregory Stemn’s ‘Liberia: When Darkness Falls—Liberia’s Conflict Through Images.’
Of course, there is Daily Observer Publisher Kenneth Y. Best’s ‘Albert Porte, A Lifetime Trying to Save Liberia,’ which contains a sociopolitical history of Liberia and how it changed from a citadel of stability to become a failed state devastated by war, owing to the failure of Liberian leaders to listen, learn and change.
As earlier stated, Liberia’s search is still on for historians who will tell the Liberian story. A few years ago the Sirleaf administration initiated a laudable Liberian History Project. Unfortunately, that has fallen by the wayside and become moribund.
We pray that the coming administration will revive it. We pray, too, that all Liberian universities will take seriously the work of their History Departments and start deliberately training a new cadre of Liberian historians, who will write Liberia’s history—in all its aspects.