Roots of Ex-US Slaves Still Run Deep In Liberia

In 1822, 5,000 freed American slaves sailed back to Africa and settled in Liberia. They created Africa's first republic. But relations with indigenous blacks haven't been easy.

STEPPING into Monrovia is like setting foot in a bootlegged copy of Americana.

The city itself is named after the fifth American president, James Monroe. The national anthem hails the country's ''Lone Star Banner'' - a red, white, and blue Liberian flag emblazoned with one white star.

The currency is the Liberian dollar. A fast-food restaurant is called King Burger. A radio station is called D.C. 101, the same as a radio station in Washington, D.C. And there's a shop called ''Sanford and Son,'' after the TV show about black Americans.

Liberia's emulation of things American comes from its unusual history: Its government's founding fathers were freed American slaves who settled here in the early 1800s.

American black separatist and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has said he would like financial aid from the United States to help black Americans ''carve out a place on the African continent.''

It's already been done - in Liberia.

Given the West African country's disastrous condition as a result of nearly six years of civil war, it is likely that Liberians would welcome the assistance in nation-building that Mr. Farrakhan offers. The country, however, is predominantly Christian.

Nearly 5,000 freed American slaves, many of them missionaries, sailed to Liberia in 1822, supported by grants from the US Treasury. They were sponsored by the American Colonization Society, which supported African-American resettlement in West Africa.

Only about half of Liberia's original American settlers survived the tropical diseases during their first 25 years in Liberia. By that time they had created Africa's first republic, based on the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

The problems in Liberia began shortly after the arrival of the freed American slaves, who came to be known as Americo-Liberians. The lighter-skinned settlers kept their American names and emulated the antebellum American South they left behind, while dominating the darker-skinned indigenous Liberians.

In 1980, Master Sgt. Samuel Doe, an indigenous Liberian, overthrew the predominantly Americo-Liberian government of William Tolbert, which was seen as corrupt and insensitive to indigenous Liberians.

Sergeant Doe himself was later killed in the civil war that erupted in December 1989 and eventually ballooned into a tribal conflict.

Americo-Liberian Charles Taylor began that war. The rebel leader tried to show his allegiance to the indigenous Liberians by adopting the traditional name Ghankay. He now hopes to be president.

A new peace accord led to the installation last month of a transitional government in an effort to end the fighting that has claimed more than 150,000 lives and displaced most of the population. Taylor and seven other faction leaders make up the transitional government.

After experiencing an extreme form of military rule under Doe, and corrupt rule under the Americo-Liberians, Liberians now hope to create an honest government of national unity.

''Liberia will be Liberia one day. There won't be any kind of tribalism,'' says William Cox, a wealthy businessman whose four children received American schooling and whose ancestors came from the US. ''We will call ourselves Liberians. Just like the Americans say, 'I'm proud to be an American,' I want to say 'I'm proud to be a Liberian.' ''

But while many talk of a new sense of nationalism and African pride, the old ties to the United States are as strong as ever. They've just taken a different form. Development and military aid has been replaced by humanitarian aid. About 5,000 Liberians have been resettled in the US as a result of the civil war.

Money made by some Liberians living in the US has trickled back to fund the war. Liberia is one of the largest recipients of US aid in Africa. In the past 50 years, Liberia has received nearly $750 million in US assistance, a huge amount by African standards, but far less than Israel receives from Washington per year.

Some Liberians see the special relationship that exists between the US and Liberia as paternalistic. ''I hate to believe that Liberia is a special case of the United States,'' said a spokeswoman for one of the country's factions.

''We would like the US to look at Liberia as a sovereign country once this war is over. I think that Liberia and the US can co-exist, just like Israel and the US can co-exist, because there is a shared relationship, shared interests, shared benefits,'' she says.

The war has helped Liberians rediscover their African roots. Thousands of West African peacekeepers, mainly from Nigeria and Ghana, have been guarding the capital since 1990.

As a result, more African music has replaced American pop on radio stations, and African dress has become as fashionable as jeans and T-shirts.

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