Keynote Address by Kenneth Y. Best, Founder and Publisher of the Daily Observer Newspaper, on the Occasion of the 210th Birth Anniversary of the Founder of the J.J. Roberts Educational Foundation, the Late Joseph Jenkins Roberts, First President of the Republic of Liberia, Celebrated on March 15, 2019, at the First United Methodist Church, Monrovia
The Chairperson, Madam Clarine A. Roberts
Members of the Board of Trustees of the J.J. Roberts Educational Foundation
Representative of the Bishop
Pastor, Lay Leader, Chair Person and Members of the Church Council, First United Methodist Church
The Minister of Education and other Government Officials Here Present
Scholarship Students and Veterans of the College of West Africa
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen
Permit me first to extend my deep thanks and appreciation to you, Madam Chairperson and Members of the Board of Trustees of the J.J. Roberts Educational Foundation, for the high honor you have accorded me in inviting me to address this great occasion, commemorating the 210th Birth Anniversary of Joseph Jenkins Roberts, whom I consider one of the greatest Africans that ever lived.
Let me further highly commend the Board of Trustees of the J.J. Roberts Educational Foundation for your laudable initiative in faithfully maintaining and upholding this great Foundation, and for fulfilling the wishes of this great, generous yet humble man, Liberia’s first President who, I think you already know, is the first and so far the only Liberian President and one of the few African Heads of State, if there are any others, who in his Last Will and Testament, remembered to leave a portion of his property and other possessions exclusively and purposefully for the founding of schools and educational buildings for the enduring benefit of the educational achievement of the young and future generations of Liberians.
This extraordinary initiative of our First President, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, alone establishes him as a visionary with a heart of gold, because here was a man who was concerned not only about the welfare and wellbeing of his venerable widow, whom he described as his “faithful and affectionate wife, Madam Jane Rose Roberts,” his daughter, Sarah Ann Roberts Johnson, wife of a son of Elijah Johnson, and other members of his immediate family. No. President Roberts looked down the corridor of time and thought of succeeding generations of Liberian young people on whom the nation would depend for posterity and the sustenance of the Liberian nation. He knew that the onerous tasks of nation building would require people who were educated and ready for the leadership and maintenance of this nation state, Liberia. So he set aside in his Last Will and Testament a considerable portion of his possessions for the education and training of Liberia’s youth in every succeeding generation!
President Roberts, though a man of considerable means in his day, was not the wealthiest former Liberian President. There have been many others after him, especially his fellow Methodist, President William V.S. Tubman, the nation’s longest serving leader, 27 years who, though during his lifetime, staunchly and vigorously supported the United Methodist Church, including the Annual Conference, totally forgot about the church in his Last Will and Testament. He left his farms and many other properties and his money only to his widow, who already had her own, and his 18 children.
But President Roberts’ gift of education to future generations of Liberian youth is not the only thing that caused me to describe J.J. Roberts as a “visionary.”
I consider it a distinct and great blessing from Almighty God, that He led Joseph Jenkins Roberts, fresh out of college, to settle in Liberia. He was freeborn. The date of his birth is March 15, 1809. He obtained a liberal education in his native Virginia. In his voyage to Liberia, he was accompanied by two younger brothers, John Wright Roberts, who later became a Methodist bishop; and Henry Roberts who, supported by his big brother Joseph, returned to the USA and studied Medicine at Berkshire Medical College in Massachusetts and returned to Liberia to serve the health and medical needs of his people.
J.J. Roberts and brothers, along with their mother, came to these shores in 1829. They travelled from Virginia, USA on the vessel named the “Harriet” and arrived in Monrovia on March 24, 1829.
The Harriet was the same ship that brought the ancestors of the great Cooper family to Liberia. One of the eminent exponents of the Coopers was Bishop Samuel David Ferguson, the first Liberian Episcopal bishop, who in 1889 founded Liberia’s second institution of higher learning, Cuttington College and Divinity School in Cape Palmas, Maryland County. The school is now Cuttington University, situated in Suacoco, Bong County. Bishop Ferguson also established Bromley Mission in Clay Ashland, the Episcopal school for girls. It was Bishop Ferguson that was also responsible for the establishment of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Liberia.
Another great exponent of the Coopers was the current President of the University of Liberia, Dr. Ophelia Inez Weeks, who followed in the footsteps of her sainted father, Dr. Rocheforte L. Weeks, Sr., probably the UL’s longest serving president. Ophelia’s mother, Mrs. Euphemia Weeks, was a Cooper.
I am positive that as a staunch Methodist, J.J. Roberts, who by that time was Lieutenant Governor of the Commonwealth of Liberia, under Governor Thomas Buchanan, played a leading role in the founding, in 1839, of the College of West Africa (CWA). CWA is situated in the very same block of J.J. Roberts’ church edifice, the First United Methodist Church. You all know that CWA became a first class secondary institution that trained most Liberian leaders and citizens in the 19th and 20th centuries.
It is so, so very sad and hardly forgivable that many of President J.J. Roberts’ successors did not take education seriously. Even more devastating and painful is that his fellow Methodist, herself a 1955 graduate of CWA, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, by far the most schooled President in Liberia’s history, left the nation’s educational system, by her own admission, “in a mess,” and, to put it more candidly, in shambles. Not only that: she bequeathed to us, that is, left us with a successor government riddled with incompetents and an educational system many of whose principals themselves do not know where they are going.
I give you two tragic examples of this grim reality. At the spur of the moment one day few months ago, President George Weah showed up at the University of Liberia’s main campus on Capitol Hill and announced that from that day, tuition at UL would be absolutely free. While this initiative was laudable and good, he did not discuss that major decision with his government officials—not even with his Ministers of Education or of Finance. The UL President herself was out of the country and knew nothing about it! Since then, the UL has received little or no money from government. With no fees being collected, how is the University expected to meet its basic needs? Where will the UL administration get the resources to better equip its laboratories and libraries, pay its teachers and other staffs and be in the position to hire highly qualified and outstanding teachers and professors to enable UL to compete with other universities in the sub-region and the world?
Second, it is this identical financial crisis that Liberia is facing at the present that has caused the Principal of the Booker Washington Institute (BWI) to close down the school, the nation’s leading technical and vocational high school. Due to the failure of government to furnish BWI with the basic finances to purchase food and other necessities, the Principal felt he had no option but the close down the school three weeks ago.
Oh, President J.J. Roberts, how we miss you! How we miss a President who not only during his day, but long, long after him, would think of and leave money to support the education of succeeding generations of Liberian children!
Upon arrival in Liberia in 1829, Governor Roberts and his brothers entered business and became very successful. According to Charles Henry Huberich, author of the two-volume Political and Legislative History of Liberia, which contains the basic texts of Liberia’s modern history, the Roberts’ trading firm became one of the most prosperous in the Liberian Colony. It was through business that J.J. Roberts made his money.
Let me digress here for a moment to reflect on the painful fact that the Liberian economy is almost completely in the hands of foreigners. What happened to the Coopers and Dennises, Monrovia’s two most powerful families in yesteryear? They and other well-to-do Liberians neglected CWA , the school that educated most of them, and all of Liberia’s other educational institutions, and sent most of their children abroad for schooling, some beginning at the age of five! So many of these children returned, having been brought up in foreign lands and foreign cultures, not knowing or appreciating their own country, Liberia, their own Liberian people or their own Liberian culture. And where are they now? These, whom I consider the most privileged generation of Liberian children, are the ones who should today be the captains of Liberia’s commerce and industry. But they are missing in action, while foreigners—Lebanese, Indians and Fulas—are controlling every segment of commerce and industry in Liberia.
I challenge Dr. Ophelia Weeks, President of the University of Liberia, Rev. Dr. Herman Browne, President of Cuttington University, Dr. Joe Isaac, President of the African Methodist Episcopal University (AMEU), Sister Mary Laurene Brown, President of Stella Maris Polytechnic, and other university Presidents, and even all high school Principals, to begin NOW training their students to become entrepreneurs—business people as J.J. Roberts was. If today we remember this great man for nothing else—and there are so many great things we remember him for today—let us remember that he made his money not after, but BEFORE he became President. Ophelia and all the other university Presidents and high school Principals, I challenge you all to start developing within each of your students the ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT, so that Liberia will not be so hopeless and surrender our people to continual poverty. Remember, it is the business people who have the money and the power. Liberians MUST be trained and encouraged to enter business so that one day, one day soon, we will be able to control our own economy and not surrender it to foreigners.
It is not his emphasis on education and business alone that causes me to call President J.J. Roberts a visionary leader. How many of us know how meticulously and expertly Governor Roberts, successor to Governor Thomas Buchanan, laid the ground work that led to the convening of the first Constitutional Convention in July 1847, to the Declaration of Independence on July 26 that year and to the establishment of Africa’s first independent republic?
At the outset of his career in Liberia, according to Huberich, J.J. Roberts took a keen interest in the affairs of the Colony. In 1833, four years following his arrival, Roberts was appointed High Sheriff and was on the committee sent to the United States to present a memorial of colonists to the American Colonization Society.
It was as Governor of the Commonwealth, succeeding Governor Thomas Buchanan who had died, that J.J. Roberts set in motion the organization of the Constitutional Convention on the first Monday of July—July 5, 1847—that led to the Declaration of Independence and the establishment of Africa’s first independent republic. Roberts had become very disturbed by the attitude of British and French vessels showing up at Liberian ports and refusing to pay import duty. This signaled to him that these two imperial powers did not respect our sovereignty nor even the little we had as Liberians; hence they took advantage of us. The time had come, the visionary J.J. Roberts felt, to establish a sovereign and independent state. Roberts was afraid that if we did not, soon these imperial powers might take liberties toward colonization of the Liberian colony!
The Convention comprised the three existing Commonwealths—Montserrado, Grand Bassa and Sinoe.
When Liberia was established as a free, sovereign and independent state, President Roberts was elected its first President in January 1848 and shortly thereafter, Liberia was recognized by Queen Victoria of Great Britain. She invited President Roberts to Buckingham Palace. This recognition was followed by the recognition by many Germanic States, the nations of Scandinavia and many other parts of Europe. They all recognized this first independent Republic in Africa as a sovereign and independent State.
The salient question I would like to pose in this Address is, Why did it take so long for our so-called mother country, the United States of America, to recognize Liberia as a sovereign and independent state? It was not until 1862, 15 years later, during the administration of President Abraham Lincoln, the American leader who freed the slaves, that Liberia was recognized by the USA as a sovereign and Independent State. The question is why? Why did it take America, out of whose belly Liberia was born, so long to recognize Liberia’s independence and sovereignty?
Why did the American government treat President Roberts that way—a man who was not only highly intelligent, a man of unquestioned integrity, an astute, patriotic and, by all standards, a truly good leader? Many people blame it on racism. But the same way Americans treated President J.J. Roberts is the same way they have treated successive Liberian leaders, with few exceptions. Those few exceptions have included those Liberian Presidents who have made American foreign policy synonymous with Liberia’s foreign policy.
There are three particular points of reference here: the first is the administration of President William V.S. Tubman. Apart from Tubman’s charisma and his Unification Policy, which largely endeared ordinary Liberians, especially from up country, to Tubman, the American government was sold on Tubman because he consistently and staunchly towed the American foreign policy line. The turning point came nearly four years following Tubman’s 1944 inauguration. In 1948 Liberia sided with the USA in the recognition of Israel as an independent Jewish state and a new member of the United Nations. It was Liberia who cast the deciding vote in favor of Israel’s recognition by the United Nations General Assembly.
From then on, the Americans began to take Liberia for granted. It was a given that in matters of foreign policy, Liberia could be expected to side with the United States in the great debates taking place at the UN and around the world.
This was, unfortunately—or so the American administration thought—the grave mistake made by President William Richard Tolbert, who at the onset of his tenure began to assume a decidedly left turn. Realizing that after all these years of staunch alignment with the United States, and Liberia continued to remain a backward country, President Tolbert began to tilt toward the East—the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China and other nations of the Eastern bloc. President Tolbert also, as the new Chairman of the Organization of African Unity, sided with the rest of Africa against Israel because of the Jewish State’s continued occupation of Arab land following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The Americans clearly did not like these moves, and vigorously resented them.
Tolbert would not live to see a continuation of this. On April 12, 1980, he was murderously overthrown by a ruthless band of non-commissioned officers, led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe. And guess what: Doe soon became the darling of the administration of President Ronald Reagan in Washington. And because it seemed that this new Liberian leader was willing to do anything the Americans wanted, for example throwing the Libyan People’s Bureau out of Monrovia, the Americans, in the space of three years, from 1981 to 1984, gave Samuel Doe more money than the USA had given to all Liberian Presidents combined, from J.J. Roberts to W.R. Tolbert—over three quarters of a billion dollars!
Little did the Americans know that, as it had happened many times in their foreign policy, they were creating their own Frankenstein. When they got tired with him, the Americans threw Doe to the dogs; and that was the end of Samuel K. Doe.
It can be argued that Liberia’s continued backwardness can be blamed partly on the way the USA treated President J.J. Roberts and so many other Liberian leaders down through the centuries. Look how the American government played a blind eye as the British and French chopped of huge chunks of Liberian land. This vastly increased the landholdings of their colonies in West Africa—Guinea, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone.
Why am I raising these issues now? Because I believe the time has come for Liberia to reexamine its relationship with the USA. We have to watch and see how the Americans will handle the Weah government; and how this Liberian government will react. I believe the time has come for Liberia and Liberians to be candid to America and tell her that we expect much more forthrightness and evenhandedness in our mutual relations.
One last thing I would say, and this is to us Liberians ourselves. We have got to get more serious with ourselves. We need to start loving one another, in the same way our first President J.J. Roberts loved us, his people, and not us only, but guess whom else—you guessed it—the generations of Liberians yet unborn! In typical Liberian parlance, I will ask you, “that’s small thing? Please answer me by saying, “Da na small tin, oh!”
Liberians must stop being envious of one another; rather, we must love one another and encourage one another in all we undertake and continue, as some others are doing today, HELPING one another. We need to begin to think harder, more soberly, exercise more vision and foresight about what we want our country to become and work harder and more conscientiously toward attaining our national goals. This, no one can do for us but ourselves.
I thank you.