Saturday, November 12, 2011


 The Centennial Memorial Monument celebrates the unity of the indigenous, recaptive, and American/Caribbean immigrant peoples of Liberia. The Centennial Memorial Pavilion was constructed in 1947.

What motivated Tubman is often attributed to political expediency, a desire to consolidate power for himself by cultivating an interior base of influence, the close scrutiny of Britain, France and the United States in the wake of the 1930s labor scandal, and the growing decolonization and independence movement on the African continent. There were also however, personal reasons, chief among them being where Tubman came from, which also might account for why he succeeded where all his predecessors failed.

Tubman was born and raised in Harper, Maryland County, which had a large "civilized Grebo" population very active in government, legal, academic and civic affairs. Cape Palmas was very different from Monrovia or Grand Bassa, from where all other presidents came, in that despite the frequent wars with traditional Grebo leadership over trade and land, there was much more cultural interaction on an equal basis, between the immigrant and indigenous populations. Where most other presidents had grown up in an environment more or less insulated from indigenous cultural influences, Tubman was raised in a cross-cultural matrix where his childhood friends and schoolmates were Grebo. He described himself as "the convivial cannibal from the downcoast hinterlands," in essence proclaiming his difference from presidents before him.

During the 1875 Grebo war, Tubman's father, Rev. Alexander Tubman, was in the Liberian force defeated at the battle of Wrukehn by the combined forces of Rocktown, Middletown, Garaway, Cavalla and the Grebo Reunited Kingdom. His life was saved by a Grebo warrior who was a friend of his before the war, Dyne Weah. Weah directed the elder Tubman to safety as other members of his retreating force were slaughtered, including his brother, William S. Tubman II, and another brother, John Hilary Tubman, was seriously wounded. The future president made a promise to his father that he would work to end the constant wars between the immigrant and Grebo people, and to bring them closer together. In fact, the endless battles between Grebo kingdoms and the Liberian government belied a closeness of the two peoples on a personal level that was far more intimate than in any other region of the country. Tubman's cousin, future Vice President Allen Yancy, was married to Judge Seton's daughter, Gertrude Seton, spoke fluent Grebo, and declared neutrality in the 1910 Grebo war. Other Grebo families like the Brownells, Nebos, Bryants, Wesleys, Badios, and Wolos, were also intermarried or closely allied politically with American settler families. The Cape Palmas man, exemplified by William V. S. Tubman, Nete-Sie Brownell, Henry Too Wesley, A. Dash Wilson and P. Gbe Wolo, was in many ways the embodiment of the national unity that was so elusive, so seemingly unobtainable.

Tubman was at seventeen, the leader of the True Whig Party Youth Wing which often challenged the ultraconservative TWP elements, and after legal apprenticeship, was admitted to the Maryland County Bar at twenty-two years old. He was elected Maryland County Senator at twenty-eight, the youngest in Liberian history, and immediately established a record as a fighter for the rights of the unassimilated indigenous masses. He lost his senate seat in the wake of the Fernando Po labor scandal, as he was the attorney of record for his cousin Allen Yancy's Maryland County Recruiting Company, one of the firms charged with exporting forced labor to the Spanish islands. He was serving as Associate Justice when he was nominated by the True Whig Party to succeed Edwin J. Barclay as president in 1942. In a speech before the Liberian Senate, the candidate hinted at the monumental changes he would initiate if elected when he said:

"We therefore recognize, and would stand for the demonstration of the indivisibility and coherent strength of the nation as the Supreme issue of these days in which the whole world faces the cries of manifold and radical changes...We would engage therefore, to strive with all our might to agglutinate and unify our populations and political adherents composing the body politic; and with election over, Liberia would be a place for all Liberians alike who would respond to this sentiment."
New circumstances were demanding an end to the isolationism and conservatism that maintained two separate societies, one westernized and enfranchised, the other decidedly not. Labor needs were transforming the landscape as Firestone hired thousands from the provinces for work on its plantations, and the United States Army recruited hundreds more for the construction of airfields, roads, and the 25th Station Hospital in anticipation of wounded soldiers from the North African theater of operations. Besides workers from the provinces, Firestone attracted people from neighboring countries. No longer could the "uncivilized" be confined to the bush. Circumstances were forcing the people to come together. Sorely needed then was a plan of action to serve as a guiding hand for this forced integration.
In his inaugural address in January, 1944, the new president declared:

"Americo-Liberianism must be obliterated and forgotten, and that rather all of us must register a new era of a philosophy of justice, fair and equal opportunities for all alike throughout the country, regardless of tribe, clan, element, creed, or economic status...Let us resolve henceforth, for ourselves here present as well as for our constituents and our posterity, to make our country a united nation with liberty and justice for all under God's command."
Tubman revealed a two-prong plan of action in his first Annual Message to the Legislature on November 1, 1944. His primary focus as president would be on (1) Education and economic development, and (2) The attraction to and participation in government of the unassimilated indigenous masses.

In order to effect the second part, he proposed sweeping changes including compulsory education, closer study of African cultural institutions, provincial representation in the Legislature, allocation of a percentage of hut taxes to the areas where they were collected, freedom of travel throughout the hinterland, stricter control of the Frontier Force and clearly defined limits of its authority, a "special grade of men " as provincial and district commissioners, and suffrage for all males above twenty-one who paid hut tax. The latter proposal would be put to a national referendum after passage in the House and Senate.

"These national policies," the President said, "cannot remain mere national intent, but must be given effectual demonstration. This necessarily will involve skill, labor and finance. It will obviously require time to put into practical operation, but we must begin at once with the means and resources at our disposal...We cannot build a powerful and progressive nation if we are divided in our efforts of national reconstruction."
The act granting suffrage to male tax-paying residents of the provinces and representation in the Legislature was passed in 1945 and ratified by the majority of the people in a national referendum, despite opposition from conservative TWP elements who protested that the time was not yet ripe for such representation. The President felt vindicated by the overwhelming approval of the people, and of international leaders including US President Harry Truman who termed it a "broadening of the basis of Liberian democracy." In welcoming the new representatives to the House Chambers, Tubman said:

"I for my part have always felt that taxation without representation was oppressive and tyrannical. It is therefore with the maximum degree of pleasure and gratification that I extend to these honorable gentlemen congratulations, and express the belief that their presence in the Council of State is the dawn of a new unification and agglutination of the different elements that make up the body politic."
When the TWP news organ the Liberian Age subtly criticized the seating of "unlettered, uncivilized and gowned men" in the House of Representatives, Tubman responded by donning a traditional gown and cap at major official functions. Other officials followed suit, and traditional ceremonial garb soon became standard attire at official functions alongside the more formal top hat, frock coat and white tie. If these dramatic changes provoked discomfort and unease from some in Monrovia and other cities, the newly enfranchised people of the provinces greeted them with great enthusiasm, optimism and overwhelming support for the President.

Tubman toured the Central and Western Provinces from May to July, and convened Executive Councils with the chiefs, headmen, commissioners, superintendents and the people. The first Executive Council was held in Saniquellie, capital of the Central Province and lasted a little over two weeks. The next one was in Zorzor, seat of the Western Province, lasted about the same duration, and the third was in Kakata-Salala District. Paramount chiefs from other parts of the country accompanied the President, for the benefit of contact, he said, and in furtherance of the government's policy of unification.
Tubman heard complaints and grievances directly from the chiefs and their people, addressed them on the spot or directed the appropriate government agency to do so. The chiefs unanimously expressed satisfaction with the councils and pledged renewed loyalty to the state.

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