Sunset Beach, Buchanan, Bassa County, Liberia, Photo by Dexter Saydee (IG: @capturedbydex)
Sunset Beach, Buchanan, Bassa County, Liberia, Photo by Dexter Saydee (IG: @capturedbydex)

Founded by US settlers in the 19th Century, Liberia began as the first and only African colony founded by African-Americans. After Haiti, Liberia is the second oldest Black republic in the world and has captivated the imagination of Pan-Africanists for generations. Freed American slaves and their descendants, called Afro-Liberians at the time, lived in a forty-mile wide strip along the coast; indigenous tribes lived further in the interior of the country. The relations between the indigenous African population and the Americo-Liberian elites were strained, to put it mildly. And while Liberia has much in common traditionally with America – like Thanksgiving, for example – it is also very different as well as having a complex relationship with its African neighbors.

The histories of the United States and Liberia intertwine in such a way that even their flags are inverse-analogously related. The Liberian flag contains alternating red and white horizontal stripes (above) and, in the upper left-hand corner, a dark blue square. Against the blue background square is a star representing Liberty. By 1847, the colony had declared itself independent and went by the name Liberia, or “Land of Freedom.”

The Flag of Liberia, Photo Courtesy of the Government of Liberia

But the twin struggles for liberty in Liberia and in the United States of America diverge there. America was essentially founded by wealthy lawyers (35 of the 55 delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were attorneys) tired of British taxation without representation. Liberia has always aspired to be a homeland and republic for the African diaspora. Free African Americans settled in the region two hundred years ago this year, sent by the controversial American Colonization Society. In 1816, the American Colonization Society — previously known as the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America — encouraged freed slaves to migrate back to the continent of Africa, but not entirely for benevolent reasons. It should be noted here that the American Colonization Society (ACS) was largely made up of Quakers and slaveholders (Thomas Jefferson was an early supporter) who believed that displaced members of the African diaspora would do best and be best in their own homeland, away from whites. The relationship between the United States and Liberia has always been rather interesting.

Harper Cape, Maryland Liberia; one of the first settlements of Americo-Liberians reminiscent of New Orleans, Photo by Rami Ramitto (IG: @theramiramitto)

This past August, leading Liberian historian C. Patrick Burrowes unearthed a handwritten document of the original Monrovia land sale. Curiously, the document had been missing for over a century. One of the more interesting revelations from the document is that the initial purchase was for just 140 acres, also that the tract of West African real estate was more expensive than land in the new United States at the time. Liberia became an independent republic in 1848, and remains one of the stronger economies on the continent.

The improbable pair of Marcus Garvey and Harvey Firestone, Sr., played outsized roles in early 20th Century Liberia. In the 1920s optimism was on the rise as Marcus Garvey flirted with the possibility of connecting Liberia with foreign capital in the form of donations from his own Universal Negro Improvement Society. But Garvey became overstretched with his own projects in America and Europe and missed his opportunity.  By the mid to late 1920s, Liberia’s optimism had reached its limit in the person of Harvey S. Firestone Sr., founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., one of the top industrialists of the gilded age. In search of land for a giant rubber tree plantation along the equator, Firestone “negotiated” one of the most lopsided land deals in the history of the world – the right to lease up to one million acres, or 10 percent of the county’s arable land – for six cents an acre. By the 1930s, the League of Nations investigated slave-like conditions at the plants. It is deeply ironic that a nation founded by freed African slaves and their allies fostered slavery within its borders only one hundred years after its founding.

Rubber trees and workers in Liberia, Firestone World’s Fair Exhibition, Photo Courtesy of the Newberry

The Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., thereafter dealt with every Liberian President, cutting them into the company, no matter how they had actually achieved power. And by 1960, Liberia – the so-called “Empire of Rubber” — had the second highest economic growth rate in the world. But how much of that wealth was actually felt by the people of Liberia and not just the Americo-Liberian elites and rubber barons? As Bronwen Everill, a lecturer in history and fellow at Cambridge, put it in Foreign Policy in June:

Without Liberia, founded by U.S. settlers in the 19th century, the Allies would not have been able to produce enough rubber to win World War II. In 1944, Firestone Rubber was the largest employer in all of Liberia. And without the investment of Firestone, Liberia’s independence and its status as the only Black sovereign state in Africa would have been threatened by Britain, France, and Germany. How did a Black republic and Firestone, a manufacturing firm from Akron, Ohio, find their fates so intertwined?

The Steamline Moderne Firestone Tire Building (built 1937) on Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, Photo by J Jakobson
The Steamline Moderne Firestone Tire Building (built 1937) on Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, Archived Photo by J Jakobson

Liberia is an important part of American history as well as the African diaspora in America. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2019 there were 120,000 Liberians living in the United States. And 2021 is a year of important anniversaries for Liberia. December 15 will mark the 200th anniversary of its capital city, and thus the whole Liberian project. Although the 43.000 square mile nation has had a history of mixed reviews from Pan-African scholars (for slavery and slavery-like conditions up until the 1940s), it is generally regarded as one of the continent’s success stories. Ethiopia and the Republic of Liberia are the only two African countries that were never colonized, and that is a point of pride brought up by Pan-Africanists even to this day. 2021 is also the 200th anniversary of The American Colonization Society, which, with $300 worth of weapons, rum and other merchandise, purchased the land that would ultimately become Monrovia.

Boeing 707, Archived Photo by Colin Cooke
Boeing 707, Archived Photo by Colin Cooke

The government of Liberia has declared 2021 the Year of the Diaspora (above), calling for Reunion 2021-2022, in collaboration with their Bicentennial Commemoration. The idea of a diaspora tourism destination celebration in Liberia, an African nation founded by freed slaves two centuries ago, would be a brilliant idea in any other era but this one. Unfortunately, COVID has had other plans, with the omicron variant. As Liberians celebrates the country’s bicentennial, so do cases of the omicron variant on the continent. But then Liberians are a determined and strong people that have fought against the odds again and again, improbably rising from 140 acres to a fairly prosperous nation on the brink of its 200th birthday. As rough as it will be on the bicentennial celebrations, COVID will not deter Liberia’s progress as one of the oldest Black republics in the world from rising higher.

Happy birthday, Liberia.

Paynesville, Liberia, Photo by Dexter Saydee (IG: @capturedbydex)

Ron Mwangaguhunga is a Brooklyn based writer on media, culture and politics. His work has appeared within Huffington Post, IFC and Tribeca Film Festival, Kenneth Cole AWEARNESS, NY Magazine, Paper Magazine, CBS News.com and National Review online to name a few. He is currently the editor of the Corsair

(twitter: @RonMwangaguhung)

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