By Rev. Dr. Samuel E. Vanisea
One of the least talked about historical milestones of Liberia was her centennial (100 years) celebration in 1947. That landmark event escaped historians. There is reason for that as we shall find out later.
The centenary events had a significant impact on President Tubman’s development initiatives. He became president in 1944, and within three years the country would turn 100 years. His regime will begin the next 100 years.
We showed in Part 1 that for the first 100 years Liberia was deemed a “backward” nation. In its editorial on Liberia’s 100th independence celebrations, TIME Magazine portrayed the country as “A nation bypassed by history” (Brenna W. Greer, “Selling Liberia” 2013). Liberia had no semblance of modernism relative to that time.
All that was against the backdrop that the country was initially viewed by black civil rights activists in America as symbol of Black progress. Unfortunately, after 100 years African Americans began to question, if not disapprove the notion that Liberia represented black progress. The view of the world toward Liberia had changed significantly, questioning the country as a progressive state.
Tubman took all of that personally. He had to act fast, strategically, and radically to combat the bad image of the country. He would start the next 100 years on a progressive note to pull Liberia from the shadows of backwardness into the spotlight of modern nationhood. His first test was the Centennial Celebrations.
The Centennial Celebrations
The president wanted a very impressive centennial celebration. He created the Centennial Committee in 1946 to plan and oversee the celebrations. They created a specialized sub-committee, the Centennial Commission, to serve as the international arm of the celebrations. Moss Hyles Kendrix, a remarkably successful African American businessman, popularly known as “crown prince of public relations” was chosen to head the commission.
Kendrix’s commission formulated the idea of “Victory Exposition” or “Victory Expo.” Their plan was to present Liberia as a country inclined to modernism, to attract business interests to Liberia, and so on. The Victory Expo prepared the groundwork for strategic development. They designed a new capitol with buildings to house the Executive Branch, Legislature, Judiciary, and other departments (back then they were called departments, not ministries). The plan included pipe-borne water and paved roads in the city. They laid the platform for development in agriculture, education, healthcare, and the like (Brenna W. Greer, in “Selling Liberia”).
According to Howard University professor Rayford W. Logan, author of “Liberia in the Family of Nations” (1946), the theme of the Victory Expo was “West Africa in the World at Peace.” The events will be celebrated simultaneously in Liberia and the USA. The projects will be unveiled over a three-year period, 1947-1949.
Moss Hyles Kendrix and his team got to work to promote those ideas to the American public, African Americans leaders, political leaders, and businessmen everywhere.
A Great Failure
The planning was extensive, and the expectations were high. Some saw it as drastic and revolutionary. Unfortunately, due to extenuating circumstances the Victory Expo failed to get off the ground. What caused it? First, the lack of transportation, telecommunication systems, and necessary infrastructure hindered the plan. Second and most importantly, the US denied Liberia the much-needed loan just one month before the event. President Tubman disbanded the commission. The centennial was celebrated, but not with the elaborate extravaganza they anticipated through the Victory Expo (Brenna W. Greer. “Selling Liberia,” published in Enterprise & Society, 2013).
A Determined President
The failure of the Victory Expo, as disappointing as it was, challenged the president even more to do whatever he could to develop the country. Most importantly, the Victory Expo gave him the much-needed blueprint for the kind of infrastructural development the nation needed at that time. Tubman lost the Victory Expo, but he would follow its design. Going forward, the president would flex diplomatic muscles in any way he could to give Liberia a modern city.
Israel Rescued Tubman
By 1950 President Tubman had established strong ties internationally. He mixed diplomacy with personal rapport and a deep sense of integrity. His personal Christian faith, coupled with leadership skills, and the ability to reach out, led him into close relationship with Israel. The Israeli historian Yekutiel Gershoni wrote that Tubman stood firmly with Israel, and that Liberia was the first African country to move its Embassy to Jerusalem after the 1967 Israeli—Arab war (Liberian Studies Journal, Volume XIV).
Tubman’s relationship with Israel served as a major stepping stone in accomplishing his development goals for Liberia. Yekutiel Gershoni further wrote that out of the relationship with Israel, Tubman pulled large-scale construction projects through Israeli companies to build the Ducor Hotel, the new Executive Mansion, the Monrovia City Hall, the Temple of Justice, the Department of Public Works, just to name a few. Tubman also paved all the existing roads in Monrovia and built new ones and bridges. All of that was accomplished within 12 years (1955-1967). By 1960 Tubman had flipped the entire outlook of the capital city from a precarious backward condition into a modern metropolitan city.
For example: By 1960 he had built the nation’s first hydropower production plant. Louis Beleky, author of “The Development of Liberia” described the Mount Coffee Hydroelectric Project like this, “In fact its I960 electricity generating capacity exceeded in size about 20 other African countries.” Tubman also built one of the largest ports in West Africa, the Free Port of Monrovia with loan from the USA. It cost between $18,000,000–$22,000,000. He built world-class school campuses like Tubman High and G. W. Gibson Schools, etc.
Tubman kept the city clean and healthy. I remember growing up in Buzzy Quarter, there were street sweepers from the Ministry of Public Works who kept the streets clean. Garbage disposal sites were built throughout the city. Garbage was collected at least twice weekly. Public toilets on Capitol Hill, Buzzy Quarters, Bassa Community, and other places were cleaned and sprayed weekly. Free pipe-borne water was provided in several communities.
News headlines were changing fast on Liberia. One journal that previously described despair in Liberia had to admit that “Under President Tubman, Liberia has awakened and is marching forward.” The same journal pointed out in 1952 that “Recent events in Liberia are in sharp contrast with the pattern of life in that country during the preceding century (“Progress In Liberia” published in Negro History Bulletin, 1952). In the next segment of Tributes to President Tubman I will offer new perspectives, never before considered, on how he got the money to fund his development initiatives. Did the phrase “Open Door Policy” originate with Tubman? Did he intimidate the US? If so, in what way? All of that plus more, to come next.