The African Jamestown

Virginia and Liberia have been inextricably tied for almost 200 years. Blacks from Virginia helped to build and lead the colony that became Liberia.

In the sanctuary of the African Community Christian Church, off Dumbarton Road in Richmond, about 35 parishioners pray for peace in the world and in their immediate community. Babies gurgle. Women in flowing, bright green and turquoise African dress rise elegantly for the gospel scripture, smiling and nodding to each other across the 1950s-era wooden pews. There are traditional hymns, accompanied by piano and drums. Pastor Calvin Birch, a Liberian divinity student, exhorts from the pulpit, his pleas welcomed by the crowd with “Amen” and “The Holy Ghost speaks.”

It’s a vibrant two-hour experience, alive in a tradition that no doubt began in Richmond’s First Baptist Church at the turn of the 19th century and later spread to converted slaves and free blacks in Virginia. They in turn carried their Christian beliefs with them when they established a colony of their own in Africa. In 1821, Lott Cary, a Baptist-educated preacher and leader of the African Baptist Missionary Society, brought the gospel to a struggling enclave that would later become the nation of Liberia, in western Africa.

It was the start of a very deep connection between Virginia and an African country. Liberia’s first president, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, was an ambitious businessman from Petersburg. Early Liberian homes show the influence of Virginia architecture. And 186 years later, the historical ties are still visible to some degree.

Cary learned to read and write in Richmond, at a night school conducted by William Crane, a deacon of the First Baptist Church of Richmond. Crane, along with the Richmond Baptist Missionary Society and the newly formed American Colonization Society (ACS), which was founded by both slave owners and anti-slavery proponents (including Virginians), helped to subsidize the mission of Cary and Colin Teague—a free black preacher who shared Cary’s passion to start a new, gospel-inspired life in Africa.

The ACS was created essentially to encourage freed slaves to resettle in Africa. Though the U.S. government had outlawed the importation of slaves in 1807, the slave trade was slow to die. Traders smuggled Africans into the country, and some were seized on ships by Federal troops before reaching American soil. Resettlement, then, seemed a way to untangle a Gordian knot: What to do with black people who, though free, weren’t exactly welcome in white society and its institutions?

Liberia, which means “Land of the Free,” declared its independence from the U.S. in 1847. Black, American-born immigrants and their descendants, including at least three Virginians, ran the country until 1980. It was then that the country began to slowly disintegrate: Samuel Doe, an indigenous African with an English name, led a military coup. President William Tolbert was assassinated, and Doe took power, becoming Liberia’s first leader to have no genealogical ties to the United States. He represented the aspirations of the ethnic majority in the country, who claimed they’d been excluded from power by the Americo-Liberian hierarchy. Fearing for their safety, Americo-Liberians began fleeing the country. Many settled in Virginia, Maryland, Indiana and Minnesota. One of them is Ida Ma-Musu, who escaped from Liberia in 1980, leaving her children and all her possessions behind. She landed in Richmond and later opened a popular restaurant.

In 1989, groups rose up against Doe, and Liberia plunged into a seven-year period of civil war and factional fighting that left 200,000 people dead and more than 1 million homeless. That prompted thousands more people to flee the country. In the late 1990s, rebels led by a man named Charles Taylor waged war against the Liberian government. Taylor had been educated in America, but he was nothing more than a ruthless warlord who used the country’s wealth, particularly diamond mines, to initiate and fund revolutions in Guinea and Sierra Leone.

Still, he was elected president of Liberia in 1997. His government proved autocratic and corrupt, and the violence Taylor fomented over several years created yet another large group of refugees, many of whom were housed in Sierra Leone, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire before making their way to America and other nations.

TV evangelist Pat Robertson, host of the Christian Broadcasting Network’s The 700 Club, took a special interest in Liberia and Taylor. In 1999 Robertson formed Freedom Gold Limited, a for-profit company chartered in the Caymans and run from Virginia Beach. Robertson was reportedly the president and sole director of Freedom Gold, which invested $8 million dollars in a Liberian gold mining venture. Taylor stood to receive 10 percent of profits. In February 2002, Robertson sponsored a three-day CBN Liberia for Jesus rally—a 700 Club spectacular featuring Taylor. A year later, after Taylor was indicted for war crimes for sparking violence in Sierre Leone, Robertson accused the U.S. government of trying to “undermine” a “Christian, Baptist president.” Robertson called the war crimes indictment “nonsense,” and said, “How dare the president of the United States say to the duly elected president of another country: ‘You’ve got to step down.’ ”

Robertson expressed concern that Muslims would take over Liberia if Taylor were removed from office, and, responding to widespread criticism of his investment in Liberia, the preacher explained that the investment was intended to help pay for evangelical and humanitarian work.

Today, Liberia is calm. The capital, Monrovia, has electric lights again—for the first time in 15 years. United Nations bans on timber and diamond trading have been lifted. Taylor has gone on trial at The Hague for “crimes against humanity.” And in 2005, Liberians elected, fairly, Africa’s first female president, Harvard-educated Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

That is all good news, but the legacy of 20 years of turmoil and violence is apparent. Some 110,000 first- or second-generation Liberians now live in America, and, according to Edward Bates, who runs the Liberian Auxiliary Association in central Virginia and is a Richmond-based restaurant manager for Bodie-Noell Enterprises, upwards of 3,000 Liberian refugees reside in Virginia—the state that gave Liberia its earliest political and formal religious foundation. “Most came to the United States as a result of the war,” says Bates.

Some resettled in Virginia with the help of the Richmond Catholic Diocese’s Refugee and Immigration Service (RIS). “Given Virginia’s unique history, the Jamestown settlement, the arrival of the first slaves plus the origins of Liberia, it is with an added dimension that Refugee and Immigration Services could provide resettlement and assistance in Virginia to Liberian refugees fleeing the war,” says Jane Mendenhall, resettlement coordinator and case manager for RIS.

Michael-Vee Clark-Wremeo, for example, was sent to Richmond in 2003 after being in a refugee camp in Côte d’Ivoire for 13 years. She came with her husband, her son (now age 6), a nephew and a niece. She remembers a history professor in Liberia talking about Joseph Jenkins Roberts, Liberia’s first president, being from Virginia. Clark-Wremeo is currently a certified nursing assistant and working on her GED through Henrico County. “One reason I’m excited to be here is education,” she says. “You could only get education in the camps if you paid for it.”

Following the African Community Christian service, on the front steps of the old church, Rev. Birch expresses concern about the status of Liberian refugees who entered the United States, with Temporary Protection Status (TPS), between 1990 and 1994. A U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security ruling mandates that all refugees under TPS status must return to Liberia by October 1, 2007. Birch says he has about 10 TPS refugees in his congregation, and they don’t want to go back to Liberia at this time. Though conditions in the country are slowly improving, there are few jobs. Many refugees support their relatives in Liberia thanks to their work in America. It’s a complex situation. “These are good, law-abiding contributors to society,” says Birch. “ They have Social Security numbers. They pay taxes. But most are ashamed of their status and will not speak up.”

A Colony Started by U.S. Emigrants

Liberia is, in a sense, Virginia progeny. Though it’s seldom acknowledged, Virginia and Liberia have been inextricably tied for almost 200 years. Liberia was an African Jamestown. It was a colonial settlement—started by (American) emigrants who seized land, established permanent outposts and lost their lives from disease and enemy attacks.

And, equally true, the civil strife that has nearly devastated Liberia over the last 25 years began partly as the uprising of indigenous ethnic groups against Americo-Liberians. “Some free African Americans believed the newly created Liberia opened up political, economic and social opportunities unavailable in the United States,” says Philip Schwarz, professor emeritus of history at Virginia Commonwealth University. “The new Liberian ruling class held their power and denied African [natives and freed American slaves] significant opportunity. The Virginians were not the sole elitists. But they had transported to Africa some American social and economic assumptions that created dangerous discord.”

Between 1820 and 1865, more than 3,700 Virginians, mostly freed slaves, left for Liberian shores. (It is a misconception that all American blacks were enslaved before the Civil War; in fact, the U.S. had thousands of free blacks in the early 19th century.) They were regulated, and their transport and provisions partially funded, by the American Society for Colonizing People of Color, or the American Colonization Society, which was created in Washington, D.C., in 1816. President George Washington’s nephew, Bushrod Washington, was elected its first national president. Noted statesman Henry Clay, born in Virginia, was a member and later president of the Society.

Clay thought America was no place for free slaves (or Indians). PresidentJames Monroe (1817-1825) believed slavery was wrong but also thought that emancipated slaves would be unable to live in harmony with white Americans. Other ACS supporters viewed resettlement as an economic opportunity, and still others saw it as a chance to spread the Christian word to a continent of savages. For slaves in Virginia and other states, manumission came to mean a ticket straight to Liberia; the alternative was to remain enslaved.

Among free blacks, the resettlement idea was not greeted with open arms. In January, 1817, free blacks met in Richmond and adopted a delicately worded resolution in support of the ACS but with one caveat: They would rather be colonized in a remote part of America rather than “exiled to a foreign country.” That wish was not realized.

Initially, most of the black émigrés were either born free or could afford to purchase their freedom. These were industrious, educated and independent individuals, and more than a few had money.

One of them was Lott Cary, born around 1780 in Charles City County. Cary was sent by his master to work in a Shockoe tobacco factory in Richmond. Widowed, he bought his and his children’s freedom in 1813 and set about becoming a minister. He helped create the Richmond African Missionary Society and raised funds for African mission work for the Baptist General Convention. With the Society’s funding, as well as support and encouragement from First Baptist Church and the ACS, Cary and his family, including his new wife, sailed from Norfolk to Africa in late January 1821.

While many American blacks were coerced into resettling in Africa, Cary was eager to go. According to the 1837 Biography of Elder Lott Cary, Late Missionary to Africa, written by J. B. Taylor, the minister said, before leaving the United States, “I am an African, and in this country, however meritorious my conduct, and respectable my character, I cannot receive the credit due to either. I wish to go to a country where I shall be estimated by my merits, not by my complexion; and I feel bound to labor for my suffering race.”

In the outpost that would become Liberia, Cary labored, struggled and distinguished himself. He rallied the tired, starving and disease-ridden colonists to stand firm in battle against native tribes. Taylor quotes a letter in which Cary compares his group to “the Jews, who in rebuilding their City, ‘grasped a weapon in one hand, while they labored with the other.’”  

Cary established Providence Baptist Church—the first church in Liberia—and became its pastor. Providence Baptist is still standing, and it remains the “mother” church to many Baptist congregations in Monrovia today. (The research varies and is imprecise, but about 40 percent of Liberia’s people are said to be Christian, while another 40 percent follow traditional rituals based on family, community, ancestors and other beliefs. The remaining 20 percent are Muslim.)

Virginia was sending its best and brightest blacks to form the colony, and they were joined by former slaves from North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Maryland and Georgia. The settlers did yeoman’s work in a strange land, trying to farm as they had in America. But their methods and crop choices did not take in a tropical climate, where spring, summer, fall and winter were now two seasons: dry and rainy. Unsurprisingly, the African cotton tree did better than the American cotton bush. Thousands died before the settlements became relatively stable and secure. In 1824, the principal settlement at the mouth of the Mersado River was christened Monrovia, named after President James Monroe.

In 1829, Petersburg native Joseph Jenkins Roberts set sail from Norfolk, bound for Monrovia, with most of his family members aboard. Until then, he had been a moderately successful businessman. But he could see, hanging above him, the concrete racial ceiling. After the move to Monrovia, he quickly established a trading company using contacts he had made while working in Petersburg for his stepfather, who operated trading barges.

A Methodist minister, Roberts was bright, economically astute and politically savvy. His export venture turned a profit, and he soon became involved in running the settlement—one of the few blacks allowed in the administration of a colony still run by white officials of the ACS. According to Schwarz, Roberts was a man who, “having [improved] his status, was determined to hang onto it.”

By 1846, with prodding from the indebted ACS, the settlers fixed their eyes on becoming an independent nation. The U.S. government was aware of threats on the sovereignty of the enclave from France and England. In an echo of America’s own founding, the time for the colonists to break free was at hand.

Liberia’s Declaration of Independence, Constitution and flag all were modeled after those of the United States. At Independence, in 1847, Roberts was elected the first president of Liberia. He and other members of the American elite set the tone for the emerging nation, taking their cues from their American experience. All things American were best—names, currency, dress, architecture, religion and the organization of land around plantations.

Roberts and other early Liberian leaders wanted their country to look like a modern state. The President’s mansion was a two-story stone structure featuring handsome, full-length arched windows on the first floor. An arched and colonnaded porch commanded the front of the second floor—architecture right out of Virginia. Photographs from the time show women picnicking in hats and white dresses with long sleeves, skirts below the ankles and high collars. Men are attired in shirts with starched white collars and ties, suits and vests.

Many houses in Monrovia would not have been out of place in Virginia, especially Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood, with its mid-1800s Greek Revival style. There were pitched roofs and dormers and two-story porches. The Providence Baptist Church sanctuary, built in the late 1890s, was designed in the Gothic Revival style.

Roberts and others also established an order of Freemasons. The Grand Lodge Temple became the city’s towering symbol of prestige. The elite spent a lot of time there, making political and other important decisions. The building itself—a huge Greek temple-style structure of marble, grand staircases and dozens of Ionic columns—was built sometime in the late 1800s. The temple was sacked during the Doe coup, and during Liberia’s civil wars it was the home to over 8,500 displaced persons, but its shell still hunches on a hill overlooking the capital.

Liberia’s plantation economy worked, for a while. The land was bountiful, and there were export markets for sugar and coffee. There was a modest shipbuilding industry, and import tariffs helped bolster the economy.

But much changed around the turn of the 20th century as Liberia expanded its boundaries. More funds were needed to manage the large interior. The government borrowed from the United States. Though rich in resources, the interior was untapped and unproductive without links to the outside world. In 1926, Liberia granted a 99-year lease to Firestone Tire and Rubber Company to build a rubber plantation. Firestone also received the mining and other mineral rights to the land. In 1930, the League of Nations sanctioned Liberia for using forced labor—a practice akin to slavery.

There was always a deliberate social ranking among Liberia’s diverse peoples, and classism was prevalent among immigrants from different states. Three social strata evolved: Americo-Liberians were the elite, then came freed slaves, or “recaptures,” who’d been taken off of slave ships bound for the West Indies; and, at the bottom of the pecking order, indigenous peoples such as the Mandinka, Bassa, Kru, and Vai. Bell Wiley, in his 1980 book, Slaves No More: Letters from Liberia 1833-1869, quotes an American physician traveling in Liberia in 1858: “Some of the colonists complain of caste and say that the Virginians are too high-headed, and are all the time claiming that they are the quality of Liberia.” Rights of citizenship were granted only to immigrant males of African lineage who were 21 and owned real estate. In 1862, the Liberian Supreme Court granted civil rights to native people, but not the right to vote.

As time passed, settler families would take in and “adopt” children of natives to give them an education and their name. The name would entitle them to opportunities in business and government. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, quoted in a recent Virginian-Pilot article, revealed that her father was the son of a Gola chief. He was placed with a settler family, which enabled him to go to school. He took the name of his new family, the Johnsons, as his own and later became one of the first natives to serve in the Liberian legislature. Ida Ma-Musu, age 53, talks of “native children” who were taken in by her grandmother when she was a young girl in Liberia. They were given English names and some schooling. They did most of the housework and ate in a separate part of the house.

After Independence, Christian mission churches and schools spread. Baptists, Methodists, African Methodist Episcopal and Episcopalian congregations in Liberia all had one or more sister churches in the United States, and that tradition continues, particularly in Virginia. Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria established relations with Monrovia’s Providence Baptist Church in 1984, and that bond continues today.

Carl Patrick Burrowes, an associate professor at Penn State University–Harrisburg, and a Liberian, agrees that the American-born leaders discriminated against indigenous people. But he also argues that elitism alone cannot be blamed for Liberia’s late-20th-century upheaval. “It has been exaggerated,” he asserts. “It’s a stretch to ascribe the crisis of 1980 and after to [attitudes and policies] from the 1820s. There were ethnic distinctions, but [elitism] is a simplistic argument. There is no society without hierarchy or a certain degree of elitism. Those things will fuel resentments, yes, but by themselves, I’m not sure they explain the massive violence.”

Burrowes, a teacher at the University of Liberia in 1980 when the country’s breakdown began, says that there was intermarriage between American-born transplants and the indigenous people, and that indigenous people held government office in Liberia dating back to the 1920s. He also notes that Africa has a sad tradition of opportunists exploiting ethnic differences and resentments—some real, some imagined—for political purposes. Liberia’s cultural standards derived from America and Europe. You had to hold land to vote. But, suggests Burrowes, what was perceived as elitism was really “individualism, the basis of the modern state.”

Unfortunately, Liberia, like most of Africa, is a long way from “modern.” The country was extremely poor before the crisis, and, after two decades of violence and turmoil, its government and people are in the most basic recovery phase. The country’s unemployment rate is 85 percent and its literacy rate, 55 percent. Life expectancy is low.

Though some churches halted aid during the civil wars, mission work is back in full swing. St. David’s Episcopal Church in Ashburn, Virginia, has connected with Liberia’s Bromley Mission School as part of its outreach following a visit by a St. David’s parishioner, Kingsley Obeji, in 2004. Obeji’s wife is from Liberia. The Bromley Mission had reopened in 2003 after being closed for 14 years during the civil wars. Started in 1905 as a girls’ school, Bromley now offers an education, and the semblance of a normal childhood, to day students from Internally Displaced Persons camps and to 60 boarding girls (ranging in age from 6 to 14) who lost their parents and families during the bloodletting.

“Liberia’s challenges are complex and will require generations to overcome,” says St. David’s rector Kevin Phillips. “Our interest in the Bromley Mission School involves a hope for a long-term investment in Liberia through the development of the children of Liberia. Last year, we rebuilt the roof of the school’s dormitory. This year, we hope to raise enough money—$60,000—to build staff quarters that will help provide stable leadership at the school.” If the funds are raised, Phillips adds, St. David’s wil make a mission trip next year. Such faith-based aid just may be the backbone that slowly rebuilds Liberia’s shattered infrastructure.

Eulalee Wong Price, Director of Strategic Planning for The Saint Paul’s Baptist Church in Richmond, and founder and head of Faith Walk International Children’s Ministries Inc., returned last winter from a fact-finding trip to Liberia. She has been working not just to forge missions and assistance, but also to aid in the strategy of rebuilding self-sustaining institutions and establishing long-term commitments. She reports, “It was amazing to see an entire country and people devastated by war; the current presence of UN peacekeepers, including road blocks and patrols; the efforts of locals to reopen schools within destroyed buildings, and with untrained teachers; the mass graves where entire families lay; the overcrowding in the capital Monrovia. There are approximately 40,000 child soldiers unaccounted for.” Price says that 80 percent of the country is under age 30, and she points out that whereas a school principal’s monthly income is $17, the 100-pound bag of rice he needs to feed his family each month is $35.

If the current government can attract investment, curtail corruption and promote equanimity among the people, Liberia may well be on a path to economic stability. It cannot be said anymore that the United States and Liberia have a special relationship—but there is aid. For example, the U.S. is funding the rebuilding of the Liberian Army, which is actually being carried out by a Reston-based company, DynCorp.

Asked if he is optimistic about Liberia’s future, Burrowes responds, “Intellectually, I’m pessimistic—there are so many problems to be resolved, and so many risks; anything could trigger a backward slide. But there is an optimism of the spirit. The recent elections gave people who are battered and uneducated an opportunity, and they took advantage, voting in a government that wants to make life better. With creativity and determination, much is possible.”

Ida Ma-Musu agrees. Her restaurant in Richmond, Africanne on Main, serves traditional dishes inspired by her grandmother. Diners will recognize delicately spiced versions of southern U.S. cooking—collard greens, steamed spinach, Hoppin’ John rice (sans fatback). Asked what it was like coming to Richmond 20 years ago, Ma-Musu throws up her hands jubilantly and responds, “It was like déjà vu! There is nowhere else in the United States so connected to Liberia as Virginia, and people are unaware of the ties. When they do find out, they get frightened—no one wants to open up that Pandora’s box. But it is so rich. We need to spread the word, discuss the relationship.”

She’s writing a play called “The Return to the Motherland.” In the story, she invites her audience into her grandmother’s house and pulls out the history of Liberia. It’s a history in which Lott Cary and other Americans played great roles, in 1821, on a ship bound for Africa.

(Originally published in the October 2006 issue.)

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