Why Liberia?: the legacy of slavery in the ‘other’ America

In 1822 the American Colonization Society (ACS), launched ships from New York bound for the west coast of Africa. Their cargo: 88 freed slaves headed to establish a new colony. Over the next 20 years thousands of African-Americans would be transported either willingly or not-so-willingly to the new colony. Today we know that colony as the country of Liberia.

The purpose of the ACS was to found a colony for freed blacks, partly to provide them a more hospitable home away from an intolerant society, and to remove what was seen as a threatening and potentially destabilizing minority population. By 1847 the country declared its independence and the Liberian government was established.

Despite its independence, Liberia retained its strong American cultural and political ties. Under the guidance of the ACS, and the support of the United States, Liberia erected a political system closely modeled after the United States government complete with three branches, including a legislative branch comprised of both a senate and a house of representatives. More importantly, the transplanted slaves also began to set up a society that closely modeled the antebellum southern culture from which many had emerged.

The freed slaves either took the indigenous people on as servants or slaves, who were subsequently barred from voting. The result of all this was much the same as it had been in America, a society deeply divided between two groups of people, one who held the power, and another who went disenfranchised. This social and political division finally came to a head in the devastating civil wars of the late 20th and early 21st century.

Despite the colonial role the U.S. played in forming the social and political strife that ended in the upheaval of the country’s infrastructure, the people of Liberia still look to the United States with the admiration of a younger sibling. “They love the U.S., and everything American,” Karen Mathot, president and founder of Lifting Liberia observes. Yet such affection seems almost tragic in light of the fact that many Americans were unaware of a country called Liberia before the outbreak of Ebola, much less of its historical ties to America.

This lack of recognition has not gone totally unrecognized by the people of Liberia, however, especially when the U.S. has been slow to respond to Liberia’s troubles. “They dumped bodies at the door of the US embassy during the [civil] war, out of frustration” Karen Mathot notes, and today the people of Liberia continue to look to the U.S. for support. Aside from the devastation of Ebola, the country still faces major problems, many of which were brought about as a direct result of the civil war: safe roads, access to drinking water, teenage pregnancy, and of course access to education (with many schools having been destroyed during the war).

The after effects of American slavery are still felt today centuries later, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Liberia. Why Liberia? To forget Liberia is to ignore the great impact our country’s legacy, good and bad, has had on the world. “They don’t know Europe, they don’t know Mexico,” Karen observes of Liberians, “they know the U.S.” Now in the aftermath of the worst Ebola epidemic in history, perhaps the time has come for us to remember Liberia.


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