Rev. Dr. Samuel E. Vanisea
I was a child in elementary school when President Tubman died. I remember when he was alive, we, younger kids used to hand-out in the Executive Mansion during Flag Day celebration. It was there that I first rode in an elevator. The staff were kind and generous to children.
The first time I came up close to the president was when he laid in his casket at the Executive Mansion. Children were allowed in to view his remains. Children were respected in those days. I stuck my head under the crossed swords above the casket and looked in the president’s face. He did not open his eyes nor say a word because he was dead. Regardless, as a child, I was glad I saw the president. I cherished that moment so much.
The anti-Tubman discourses that came up later had an impact on me too. We were told that Tubman had all the resources, yet he failed to develop the country. We believed that he usurped the nation’s resources selfishly. Some contended why only Tubman’s birthday is a celebrated holiday. Recently I have been following similar discussions in the print and electronic media. So out of mere curiosity I decided to check things out objectively and dig deeper into the Tubman story. What I found was pleasantly shocking to me. His birthday is November 29th. So, I write this tribute to President Tubman as my small contribution to his presidential history.
Of course, there were political, economic, and social misdeeds during Tubman’s regime. Critics, both Liberian and foreign, have scolded him in different details. Liberian authors like D. Elwood Dunn, Omari Jackson, and others have responded adequately to the criticisms in their own way. It is not my plan to repeat what they did. I only hope to provide a different perspective to the Tubman story—details that historians missed or concealed. All things considered, if the truth is to be told, it should be acknowledged that President Tubman did so much more for the country than all the presidents before and after him combined.
The Misunderstood President
Dr. Marguerite Cartwright, a renown international journalist of the “Negro History Bulletin”, visited Liberia occasionally in the 1950s. She wrote in one of her reports that “William V. S. Tubman and his role in Liberia are… greatly misunderstood.” She went on to say, “The jaunty cigar-smoking President of the small West African nation is one of the least known … in the sense that 95% of what is known about him is incorrect” (The Negro History Bulletin, Vol. 22. 1959).
What did he really do? Why was he misunderstood?” That is theme of this writing. But first, what was Liberia like before Tubman became president? What did he inherit?
Liberia Before President Tubman
Tubman became President when Liberia was 97 years old in 1944. Within three years Liberia would celebrate her centennial (100 years) anniversary. Regrettably, at 100 years, there were no semblance of development: no Capitol Building, no modern Executive Mansion, no Temple of Justice, no electricity, no water or sewer system, no JFK Hospital. There was no Law school or medical school. There was no Ducor Intercontinental Hotel, no modern school buildings, and no Monrovia City Hall. Monrovia consisted mainly of Ashmun Street, Gurley Street, Center Street, Snapper Hill, almost all dirt roads.
The year Liberia celebrated her centennial anniversary, the Journal of Negro History, described the country as “incredibly backward.” Historians who covered the same period concluded similarly. Here are some examples:
Education researchers Emmanuel B. Waydon, Lui Ying, and Barbara L. Ketter jointly reported that “Nothing much happened to Liberia’s education … until 1955 when William V.S. Tubman was president.” They also affirmed that it was Tubman’s Integration Policy that extended government’s education programs to indigenous Liberians (Educational Research International Journal (Vol 5(1).
S. Jabaru Carlon, author of Black Civilization and the Problem of Indigenous Education in Africa: The Liberian Experience, wrote that “Most of the early schools that existed in the Liberian Republic were along the coastal areas … attended mainly by settlers’ children and their wards.”
Economically, the outlook was just as dismal. According to a report on Liberia’s economy in The Journal of Modern African Studies (Vol 11. 1973), for the first 100 years, the country was judged as “incompetent.” Income for the government depended largely on hut-tax forcefully acquired from the natives who received no benefits in return. (M. B. Akpan in the Canadian Journal of African Studies Vol 7, 1973). Healthcare was just as grim.
On top of all that, Liberia was deeply segregated up to 1944. Until then, the settlers treated the natives worse than the British and French treated their black subjects in Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. The League of Nations found Liberia guilty on charges of abuse which lead to the resignation of President Charles D. B. King in 1930. The tension between the government and natives resulted in several tribal unrests. Particularly, 1910 to 1920 witnessed much bloodshed from revolts of the Grebos, the Krus, the Golahs, and the Kpelles.
Appeal From His Father
Historian Hassan B. Sisay (in “Big Powers and Small Nations,” 1985) wrote that William V. S. Tubman’s grandfather was allegedly beaten to death by natives during an uprising. Later, in a similar event, Tubman’s father Alexander Tubman was nearly killed. But he was rescued by a native man named Dyne Weah. On his death bed, according to Sisay, Alexander appealed to young William Tubman, that if he could, to do everything in his power to unite the settlers and the natives.
All of that social, economic, and educational complex, to say the least, plus $1.5 million in government’s coffers, plus the uncertainties of World War 2, was the Liberia Mr. William V. S. Tubman inherited as president in 1944.
From Bad to Amazing Headlines
Within 20 years of Tubman’s regime, most of the same news agencies that previously described gloom in Liberia, were overflowing with amazing headlines on Liberia. In 1959 the Negro History Journal carried a report under the title, “Liberia and Capitalism” that said, “Recently, in an impressive article in the … Wall Street journal, Liberia comes in for high praise and is called the most impressive showcase for capitalism in Black Africa.”
Lawrence A. Marinelli wrote in the Journal of Modern African Studies (1964) that “There was unprecedented expansion in all areas of the economic life of the nation.” He goes on to say, “… The benefits have been tremendous for the country and its citizens. Schools, and hospital are being built on an unprecedented scale.” Eight years later in 1972, in the same journal, Louis Beleky stated that “In focusing on Liberia, we find that this country has experienced a remarkable rate of Growth during the last two decades, despite her many incapacitating circumstances.” Louis further wrote, “The rate of expansion of the economy of Liberia during the decades preceding the 1961 surpassed that of almost any other country in the world. … It can, therefore, be safely said that Liberia has not only been growing but also developing.” How did President Tubman, in 20 years, turn such a dismal state of backwardness into an oasis of prosperity and modernization? The answer to this question is the subject of the next segments of Tribute to President Tubman.