Beyond Ebola: Interwoven Histories of Liberia and the United States

Posted by on Aug 26th, 2014 | 3 Comments
<President John F. Kennedy meets with William R.  Tolbert, Jr., Vice President of Liberia, Photograph by Abbie Rowe, 26 June 1961 (courtesy JFK Library and Archives)

I went to Liberia looking for quilts. Admittedly, it was an unusual search in a country built nearly on the equator in West Africa. Nestled in between Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ivory Coast, Liberia’s landscape ranges from beach to mountainous rainforests. The climate is similar in temperature and humidity to a hot, steamy bath with the occasional glorious sea breeze. But I was chasing histories—the stories and hand-worked objects of women who left the United States in the nineteenth century and settled along the west coast of Africa, helping establish a new nation that today is called Liberia. Deep within the diaries, letters, and newspapers of nineteenth-century Liberia, I found the quilts. An artistic practice carried across the ocean by American settlers, they connected women in the United States and Liberia from 1820 through today.

After spending two years immersed in collections of Liberian work in museums and in Liberian letters and speeches from the nineteenth century, I went to Monrovia in May 2014 to see today’s Liberia. As in my home state of Virginia (from which many African American immigrants to Liberia hailed), layers of Liberian history are written in the ever-changing landscape, architecture, and movement of people. Contemporary life filters, resists, and uses history. I went to hear Liberian voices and stories, to walk the streets that I observed on maps and through photography and memoirs, to hear the song of the pepperbird, and taste the heat in palm butter chop.

See the Library of Congress teacher’s guide to the Liberian map collection

The news about Liberia today concentrates on the recent Ebola epidemic, with a disappointing accompaniment of comments online questioning why we care about people in other countries, fear of Ebola spreading to our own country, and generally rehashing ideas about Africa as a continent characterized by disease and poverty. ((For one example, see: http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/husband-us-ebola-patient-surprised-critics-24890727)) While the Ebola epidemic is incredibly serious, dominating the images, news, and social media about Liberia today, it is not Liberia.

It is important to place our discussions about Ebola and Liberia in a historical context, especially since the United States and Liberia have maintained a “special relationship” for nearly two centuries.

Liberian stories, and the work that Liberians are doing to rebuild their country in the wake of years of civil war, are buried under the weight of preconceptions about the continent, often bound up in the commentary about Ebola. Too many comments ask why “we” should care about a country (or countries) separated from the U.S. by an ocean when history reveals that Americans and Liberians are connected—not separated—by the Atlantic.

From the U.S. to Liberia

map 1 liberia

The Elizabeth, carrying nearly ninety black Americans, set sail from New York City on February 6, 1820 ((Dunn, D. Elwood, Amos J. Beyan, and Carl Patrick Burrowes, Historical Dictionary of Liberia, 2nd ed. (Lanham and London:The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2001): 124)). They sought a new home away from an America conflicted about how to deal with a multiracial population as southern plantation owners began to manumit slaves and the free black population grew in northern cities. The American Colonization Society offered one opportunity: sail to Africa, a continent none of the settlers had ever seen, and found a new republic (with an accompanying evangelical mission—the settlers were also to bring the light of Christianity to Africa). The proposition divided white American abolitionists, as well as the black population, with vocal community members against immigration. Nevertheless, the ACS and Daniel Coker (son of a black slave and Irish indentured servant born in Frederick, Maryland) found some support, and led the first group of emigrants to the western coast of Africa in search of a new home.

Liberia’s national history is fraught with tension. A problematic but accepted historical narrative was built primarily through the documents of American settlers and their descendants. ((For a thorough bibliographic guide to researching Liberia, see the Indiana University Guide by Jeremy Kenyon)) Upon landing at the British colony at Sierra Leone, the American settlers found no land to purchase for a new settlement, and British and Sierra Leonean leaders urged them to move down the coast. The settlers negotiated (acrimoniously) for the land at Cape Mesurado, land belonging to Dey people. Conflict characterized the first years of settlement, as the Americans moved onto land already inhabited and set up a capitol (today’s Monrovia—named for the American president James Monroe) built towns, and began to farm the land and establish businesses.

“Early settlers brought their place names and architecture” (PBS)

Nineteenth-century letters reveal the trial and hardship of starting anew, but also the determined entrepreneurial spirit of many settlers. Martha Ricks, the quilter whose work was presented to Queen Victoria, wrote in 1858:

“Liberia is still improving; God moves her forward, and what can stop her? Nothing. She, like other countries, has her scarce seasons,–but these urge many to work. We have plenty of potatoes and cassadas at this time, and presently shall plant rice and cotton…There is no need of hungry times in this country…If people perish here, they perish because they will not work.” ((Mrs. Martha Ricks, letter, in African Repository, volume 34 (May 1858): 136.))

William Burke wrote to ACS officials:

“Persons coming to Africa should expect to go through many hardships, such as are common to the first settlement in any new country. I expected it, and was not disappointed or discouraged at any thing [sic] I met with; and so far from being dissatisfied with the country, I bless the Lord that ever my lot was cast in this part of the earth. The Lord has blessed me abundantly since my residence in Africa, for which I feel that I can never be sufficiently thankful.”((Letter from colonist William Burke, Personal Stories and ACS New Directions, The African American Mosaic, Library of Congress, accessed August 14, 2014. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/african/afam004.html))

However, the above opinions were by no means universal. The letters between former slaves and their former masters in the United States reveal that some settlers found creating a life in the new country incredibly difficult. Peyton Skipwith (formerly a slave of John Cocke in Virginia) wrote to Cocke soon after arriving: “There is Some that hav [sic] come to this place that have got rich and a number that are Sufering…The Sun is So hot that people from American can not stand it in the dry Season and in the west it rains to [sic] much…I want you if you please to write to me by first opportunity and let me no [sic] on what term I can come back for I intend coming back [to the US] as Soon as I can.” ((Letter from Peyton Skipwith to John Hartwell Cocke, February 10, 1834. In Randall M. Miller, ed., dear Master: Letters of a Slave Family, (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978): 58-59.))

Read more letters from Liberia digitized here, or in two books with transcribed letters:

  • Randall Miller, Dear Master: Letters of a Slave Family. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978.
  • Bell I. Wiley, Slaves No More: Letters from Liberia, 1833-1869. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1980.

Power struggles between the settlers and American Colonization Society officials running the colony followed the venture from the departure of the Elizabeth, and were detailed in Daniel Coker’s diary (now in the Library of Congress). Settlers believing that they should be self-governing and the white ACS agents charged with dispersing funds and material goods sent by the society. Liberia declared independence from the ACS in 1847. The United States formally recognized Liberia as an independent republic in 1862.

Read a conversation between historians Elwood Dunn (Professor of Political Science, Sewanee University of the South), Marie Tyler-McGraw, and former ambassador to Liberia Edward Perkins. For an in-depth discussion of Liberia’s founding years, see James Ciment’sAnother America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It. New York: Hill and Wang, 2013. There is also an ongoing effort to write a more nuanced, multicultural national history of Liberia.

Liberian and American women also maintained lively personal correspondence throughout the nineteenth century. Baltimore abolitionist Ann Lettice Murdoch wrote in her diary about receiving packages of citrus and letters from Milly Gooss, a friend who immigrated to Liberia. In a diary entry from January, 1850 she wrote: “Wrote to Liberia, to Amelia Gooss, and sent a box, containing calico, colored muslin, 2 pair stockings, 2 plates, soup ladle, knitting needles and knitting, bundle quilt pieces, tracts, books, paper, and 2 collars from Jane…The end of this month, the ‘Liberia’ sailed.” ((Ann Lettice Murdoch diary, Special Collections Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary)). Exchanges in fashion and farming between Liberian and American women far pre-date the ease of communication today, and their archival materials are tangible manifestations of enduring friendships.

For the next century, the republic negotiated and managed relationships with the sixteen indigenous groups in the geographic boundaries of today’s Liberia, to different degrees of success over time. Rich in cultural and natural resources, the infrastructure along the coast and into the interior steadily grew over the twentieth century. Nineteenth-century merchants traded camwood, palm butter, and the malagueta pepper (in addition to slaves). In the twentieth century, Akron, Ohio’s Firestone Tire and Rubber Company planted rubber trees, and the rubber produced on those plantations proved critical to the American military during World War II, and was Liberia’s chief export in the first half of the twentieth century (Dunn, et. al.: 284-85).

Watch FDR’s visit to Liberia during World War II

News items about Liberia as a place of natural resources (failing) to be mined, or constant national debt to British or American lenders constituted the primary international representations of Liberia in the press ((“The Future of Liberia,” African Times XXXIII, No, 372., September 1, 1892.: 132-133)). A Google image search for “Liberia” first returns a folder of images of “Civil War,” followed by “Flag,” “Landscape,” and “Poverty,” confirming that the rhetoric surrounding the country remains focused on its land and economic problems.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, leadership of the republic remained in the hands of American settlers and their descendants. In the second half of the twentieth century, Liberian President William R. Tolbert attempted reform. He established multicultural institutions like the National Cultural Center at Kendeja and the opening of the National Museum in Monrovia, and tried to incorporate a broader spectrum of Liberian society into the government. Alongside reform movements of the 1970s, frustrations with the status quo mounted, resulting in a 1980 coup d’etat by General Samuel Doe, who assassinated President William R. Tolbert and demanded that Liberia’s diverse cultural groups all have a voice in governing the country.

Watch President Tolbert promote openness in society/Tolbert became a tragic figure

Doe retained control of country until he was overthrown in 1989 by politician Charles Taylor. Civil war ensued between 1990 and 2003, resulting in a UN peacekeeping force being deployed to Liberia. The survival of the nation, reconciliation and rebuilding of the multicultural population has been the central task for Africa’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, first elected in 2006 and currently serving her second presidential term.

Monrovia Today

The civil wars (1990-2003) dramatically changed the demographics in Liberia. The population in Monrovia, the capital city, swelled from 500,000 residents in 1988 to one million in 2003 as people fled violence and burned towns ((Pinera, Jean-Francois and Robert A. Reed, “A Tale of two cities: Restoring water services in Kabul and Monrovia,” in Water and Post-conflict Peacebuilding, eds. Erika Weinthal, Jessica J. Troell,Mikiyasu Nakayama. (New York: Routledge, 2013): 50.)). The city’s landscape is completely different now, with settlement towns housing Liberians who fled homes in the countryside. Much of the infrastructure of the city, never built to accommodate such an influx in population, was destroyed during the war. It is a place of disjunctive images and experiences.

Community

Liberia today is not the Liberia of the nineteenth century, but the emphasis on tightly knit communities—always an integral part of life for both settlers and indigenous peoples—remains.  The oldest settlers’ towns still adjoin villages, the two coexisting in the landscape. However, the civil wars of the 1990s and early 2000s left a scarred swath of burned homes and a generation of people who did not have the educational opportunities and infrastructure of their predecessors. But, as there has always been in Liberia’s 194-year history, there is always new growth amidst challenge.

When the junctions surrounding Monrovia are left behind, the landscape is a lush, thick bush cradling villages and towns just beyond eyesight. Alice Bracewell, artist and president of the National Quilters’ Association, took me to visit Bensonville, the town where she grew up and home to a quilt guild that trains young women in textiles production and cooking. Alice narrated the drive, helping my mind fill in the gaps in landscape that used to hold people and industry, but is now mostly vegetal. The car passed the satellite campus of the University of Liberia, with its mid-twentieth century buildings in disrepair standing as empty, ghostly shadows behind newly constructed, Chinese-built dormitories and class buildings. My mind transposed years of graduation photographs from the archives onto the scene. A toilet-paper factory that used to be one of the primary employers stood empty and roofless, just off the road. The historical hometown of the Tolbert family, Bensonville was razed in the final years of the war, causing most families to flee. Few have returned.

The wars broke up deeply rooted communities. Liberian society is tightly knit and communal. The Bensonville Mothers’ Club, situated next door to the town’s school, is an after-school program training young women and men in practical skills: tailoring and quilting, baking, and hairdressing. Quilters teach the art of their ancestors to a new generation, and young women gain both practical skills and the cultural history in the iconography, styles, and techniques of the arts. They are also steeped in oral history, stories about the women who came before them deployed in conversation around the quilt frame, while diligently and adeptly moving needles in and out of fabric layers. During their six-month program, the club also runs seminars related to health and civil rights. The Ministry of Health provides programming related to hygiene, the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia (with the Ministry of Gender) provides seminars addressing domestic violence and personal rights, and the students take courses on personal finance. Every training cohort is provided with a bank account and a mentor who monitors how the groups save and spend money on materials and divide the profits from selling their work. While the children are in school during the morning, young mothers practice under the supervision of their elders.

Young women quilting and laying out patterns in Bensonville, Liberia. Photos by Stephanie Beck Cohen, 2014.

Young women quilting and laying out patterns in Bensonville, Liberia. Photos by Stephanie Beck Cohen, 2014.

Young women quilting and laying out patterns in Bensonville, Liberia. Photos by Stephanie Beck Cohen, 2014.

Young women quilting and laying out patterns in Bensonville, Liberia. Photos by Stephanie Beck Cohen, 2014.

Bensonville is typical of Liberian towns after the war—its community separated, living in different towns in and around Monrovia. I recorded stories with quilters who today worked in guilds in different cities and towns, but all of the older women were taught to quilt by their mothers growing up in Bensonville. The women, now grandmothers and great grandmothers, live in Barnesville, Gardnerville and Congotown (suburbs of Monrovia and beyond), the most prevalent topic of conversation was community—how much the women missed each other—cost of transportation to see one another is prohibitive. The women grew up together, worked together, and supported one another. The fabric of community was torn apart, and these networks are crucial to stability and growth.

Living in Close Quarters

It takes time, financial and political stability to rebuild communities and social networks. Trusting your neighbors, and trust in your governing institutions are not a given part of everyday life for Liberians still working to rebuild in the wake of a massively destructive war. The dissemination of information on a wide scale is difficult. While internet cafes and data coverage are available in Monrovia and other towns, it is expensive. In the rainy season, roads become impassable. Transportation, even in Monrovia, is almost all public—a shared morning taxi might have four or five people in the backseat. The city is dense—vendors three-deep at Waterside market (or the packed miles of vendors at Red Light—the Monrovia metro area’s largest market) make for the close physical proximity of people in general. Liberians greet each other with a handshake that finishes with a snap. Extended families live together. As a result of war, families hold each other close.

As quilters recounted their experiences during the war, they focused on naming those they lost, recounting especially how they kept their families together even as they lost the tangible things that they owned.

The most lamented lost items are photographs—the tangible, visual remnants of family. One friend explained to me that all she wanted was one—just one—picture of herself as a child. “I have them up here,” she told me, tapping her temple, “but oh, to have just one—and there’s a particular one—in my hands. I’ll have to ask around and see if my relatives have any.”

It is not so difficult to imagine how Ebola is spreading faster than information about Ebola and medical resources. Hospital and doctors’ visits are expensive, and unless the situation is desperate, families take care of ill members at home. It is not routine to go to the doctor when you feel sick. Doctors and nurses often have to treat patients without the benefit of imaging or diagnostic tests at staff hospitals. Common illnesses western doctors are trained for manifest differently in the tropical environment. ((Information about the medical system come through conversations with an American surgeon at a hospital in Monrovia.)) The early symptoms of Ebola mirror other common diseases in the region, like malaria or dengue fever (especially common during the rainy season).

Creating and distributing health information is a monumental task. One of the ministries provided flyers with text and images dispersing information about Ebola in the early spring—the pictures equally important as the text in order to communicate with both literate and illiterate populations. Ministries must agree upon information coming in (at unexpected and unreliable rates), create unified messages, and find the funding and manpower to disperse the information through the radio, television broadcasts, and on an individual basis. Sierra Leone’s government is dealing with similar challenges.

Music and the radio are important communication vehicles in Liberia. Former star footballer George Weah and American-based Liberian musician Romeo Mulbah (known as 2C) both released songs about Ebola, cataloging the experience and ramifications of the disease as well as instructions on avoiding transmission. Their work is important cultural evidence of the experience and response of Liberians to the crisis.

Representation and rebuilding

Right now, images of Liberia are bodies in the streets and heavily uniformed medical personnel. With border closings, travel advisories, and critical NGOs like the Peace Corps pulling out of the country, Liberia’s fragile growth and rebuilding period takes an incredible blow. Ebola images will become stock photos, part of a long history of  “othering” imagery of Africa. Without the ability to move between cities and counties, Liberians who left home to find work are once again separated from their families and communities. As commerce grinds to a halt in an effort to isolate disease cases and keep the epidemic from spreading (albeit necessary actions), there are costs to development and rebuilding.

The way that the Ebola epidemic is strangling Liberia is reminiscent of a period of the civil war that Liberians called “Octopus”—its tentacles touch every part of the nation, and the impact resonates. The fear and devastation of the epidemic is similar to Operation Octopus, the early 1990s attacks on Monrovia and the surrounding areas by Charles Taylors’ forces, ((Stephen Ellis, “Liberia 1989-1994: A Study of Ethnic and Spiritual Violence,” African Affairs, volume 94, no 375 (April 1995): 170-171)).

As Alice and I walked the length of Bensonville, we spoke about the families in town and the rolling hills, so reminiscent of my own home in Virginia. We approached a small hill, with the shell of a structure partially hidden behind tall grass. A tree grew taller than the house’s walls, and brush poked through the windows.

“Whose home is that?” I asked, because even though it was clear that no one lived inside, it was still someone’s home.

“Mrs. Aletha.”

Aletha Dewalt, a grandmotherly quilter with a sweet-yet-mischievous smile, had welcomed me into her house in Gardnersville, a settlement town outside of Monrovia. The impact of seeing the home of a person you know, a person who has opened their current house to you, with a full-grown tree inside of it, hits hard and deep. The fear that drove people from their homes during the war, and the courage it takes to rebuild everything in a new location, is impossible to understand completely. But being in the landscape conveys some of that. It is why Alice and I walked through Bensonville, stepping through the reality of the war, over, but ever-present.

Mrs. Aletha Dewalt and granddaughter with Stephanie Beck Cohen. Photograph by Kenya Kamara, 2014.

Mrs. Aletha Dewalt and granddaughter with Stephanie Beck Cohen. Photograph by Kenya Kamara, 2014.

 Photo(4) The Dewalt home in Bensonville, Liberia. Photograph by Stephanie Beck Cohen, 2014.

The Dewalt home in Bensonville, Liberia. Photograph by Stephanie Beck Cohen, 2014.

While images of Ebola cloud the representation of Liberia today just as images of child soldiers did a decade ago, they belong alongside a broader perspective of the nation. New growth, creative problem-solving, and energy characterize the Liberian historical landscape alongside the stories that dominate recent press. The historical exchange between the US and Liberia—commercial, political, and cultural—demands that Americans consider our deeply intermingled histories as we engage Liberia and the Liberian people during times of crisis, because we have written our stories together.


About the author: Stephanie Beck Cohen is a PhD candidate in art history at Indiana University. She is currently an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation/Council on Library and Information Resources dissertation research fellow writing a dissertation on Liberian quilting and diplomatic gifting. Her primary research interests are the arts of Africa and women’s transatlantic networks in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She lives and works in Singapore.

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