From Mississippi to Liberia: The Living Legacy of America’s West African Colony | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

From Mississippi to Liberia: The Living Legacy of America’s West African Colony

Sianneh Beyan, 32, and her 11-month-old son, Charles Allen, walk down a winding dirt road in Liberia to finish laundry.

Sianneh Beyan, 32, and her 11-month-old son, Charles Allen, walk down a winding dirt road in Liberia to finish laundry. Photo by Ko Bragg

Twelve-year-old Harry Ross, his younger brothers and their father, Samuel, were on the move in 1990. The Rosses had been living in the Bong Mine Community in Liberia, where Harry's dad worked as an electrical engineer for a German-based mining company until the outbreak of the Liberian Civil War stunted the company's efforts.

Boys in tow, Samuel headed for the only exit out of the town at the time.

A line of about 200 people formed at a rebel-held checkpoint. Harry noticed that not everyone made it to the other side. The soldiers pulled some out of line, behind a house at the checkpoint. Harry heard gunshots, but only saw the soldiers return from behind the house.

A soldier with bloodshot eyes signaled for the Rosses to step forward. One question would determine if they lived or died: What is your tribe? The rebels withheld their weapons if they got responses in an indigenous Liberian dialect.

Otherwise, they escorted you to your final destination behind the house.

Sixteen tribes with their own unique dialects compose the ethnic makeup of most of Liberia, a country on the western coast of Africa, 5,700 miles across the Atlantic Ocean from the United States. They long predate the freed African American slaves who are credited with founding the country in 1847 with help from the American Colonization Society.

Many say the legacy of those black Americans, or Americo-Liberians, living and ruling over Liberia for more than 150 years ignited two Liberian civil wars that spanned 14 years off and on, claiming at least 250,000 lives. The wars displaced at least 1.5 million Liberians and discouraged many from ever coming back.

The Rosses descend from the Kru tribe, but didn't speak the language. Assuming they were all Americos, the soldiers prepared to execute Samuel and his sons at the checkpoint, until another rebel intervened.

"This man is not one of those—I know him," Harry recalls a soldier saying of his father. "He's a good man." The young man used to work for Harry's dad.

Their brief reunion saved the Ross family but stuck with Harry as the war waged on in Liberia until 2003.

Now 40, with a salt-and-pepper beard lining a still-youthful face, Harry fidgets as waves of painful memories crash over his brow while we sit in the altar of United Christian Assembly Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. His church home is a warehouse-turned-worship hall where a congregation of Liberians just finished Sunday service.

The Kru tribe is native to the area surrounding Sinoe County in Liberia, where Mississippi slave owners began sending emancipated slaves in 1835.

The largest group to ever emigrate to Liberia came from the Prospect Hill Plantation in Lorman, Miss. Harry is 80-percent sure he descends from the black Americans who toiled the cotton fields for Prospect Hill's owner, Isaac Ross.

Like many of the freed slaves who went to Liberia, Harry's dad also learned only English. Harry was even further removed, as he has still never even been to Sinoe County. On a dark night in 1990, this cultural dissonance almost got them killed.

"Liberians' whole cultural system is messed up," Harry said. "We don't know whether we're Americans or whether we're Liberians. It's just messed up."

Harry now works as a youth counselor in New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and kids. He has intentionally been on a path for answers and healing that took him all the way to Prospect Hill last year. He hopes to find answers for himself, but also for a generation of ailing Liberians still getting over the trauma of war.

"I think Liberia still needs healing, reconciliation," he said. "Just telling the story of the Mississippians that left Prospect Hill, I think that's a good platform that we can start the conversation of how do we heal ourselves?"

'Back' to Liberia

Prospect Hill sits off a gravelly dirt road just past The Old Country Store, a buffet renowned for some of the finest chicken ever seasoned and fried to a golden crisp. The towering witness trees, likely older than the state itself, almost form a tunnel leading up to a dark green gate that appears out of nowhere.

The clicks of Cicadas communicating echoed throughout the woods, and wasps sought refuge from the scorching Mississippi July sun in the hole where a doorbell should be.

The home on a hill showed years of neglect from peeling wallpaper to rickety stairs from the original house—the first one had burned in 1845 allegedly from a slave revolt that resulted in the death of a 6-year-old girl, Martha Richardson, who is buried in the cemetery on the grounds.

This is the scene Harry Ross saw in June 2017 when two documentarians from Blue Magnolia Films flew him down to visit as part of a project about the space. Harry got into the network of Mississippians invested in Prospect Hill's history when he read Alan Huffman's opus "Mississippi in Africa" soon after he won a green card lottery and moved to the New York area in 2007.

Huffman's book, and Harry's subsequent conversations with the author, helped assuage his long-stemmed curiosity about his American-sounding name.

Samuel Alfred Ross was once the vice president of Liberia like his father before him. He was born in the capital of Sinoe County, Greenville, named after Jefferson County Judge James Green, who sent some of the first freed Mississippi slaves to Liberia in 1835. Samuel Ross was also the name of Harry's great-great-great grandfather.

These Rosses are said to have come from Georgia, but it is hard for even historians like Huffman to know for sure.

"That's what I have for now," Harry told me in October.


Harry Ross, a Liberian who believes he descends from Mississippi, stands in front of his church in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Oct. 7, 2018.

As Huffman details, Isaac came to Mississippi when he was in his 40s after fighting in the Revolutionary War army as a captain. In 1808, near present-day Alcorn State University, he started a slave-fueled cotton plantation.

By 1836, Isaac probated his will stipulating that when his daughter Margaret Reed died, Prospect Hill would go up for sale, and that money would fund the voyage for slaves who chose to emigrate to the Mississippi in Africa colony in Liberia. Others would be sold in family units. Isaac also wanted to use proceeds to build an institution of learning in Liberia, and if the colony didn't work out, then it would be erected in Mississippi. He died in 1838.

However, Huffman writes that Isaac's grandson and namesake, Isaac Ross Wade, was slated to only get a secretary desk and case of books as part of the will. In 1838, at age 20, Wade moved into the Prospect Hill mansion. He and his mother, Jane—Isaac's last surviving child—took to court to keep control of Isaac's property.

Their legal argument was that Isaac's will violated state code prohibiting manumitting (freeing) slaves. After a decade of court battles that exhausted most of Isaac's estate, Wade was out of options to appeal the will's conditions. Around 140 Prospect Hill workers set sail for Liberia on Jan. 22, 1849, and Wade continued contesting the will in court until the U.S. Civil War began in 1861.

'A Nobler Cause?'

The American Colonization Society stepped in and helped litigate the proceedings around Issac's will.

As James Ciment writes in his book "Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It," on the evening of winter solstice in 1816, a group of men met to establish the American Colonization Society in Washington, D.C. Present were U.S. Rep. John Randolph of Virginia; Rep. Robert Wright of Maryland; Robert E. Lee; Francis Scott Key; Sen. Daniel Webster, and speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Henry Clay, who led the meeting.

"Can there be a nobler cause than that which, whilst it proposed to rid our country of a useless and pernicious, if not dangerous portion of its population, contemplates the spreading of the arts of civilized life, and the possible redemption from ignorance and barbarism of a benighted quarter of the globe?" Clay said then.

The reason for manumitting slaves on the condition that they expatriate was that white men feared black insurrection. This was especially true after the Haitian Revolution of 1791, Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831 and other lesser-known slave revolts throughout the nation.

Banishing them to Africa under the guise of freedom and missionary work mitigated those fears. Many states, Mississippi included, then chartered their own colonization societies to continue this tradition until money, and interest, ran dry.

Seeing that many freed slaves took the surname of their owners, last names like Harry's are one of the long-lasting determining factors of heritage and ancestry in Liberia.

However, some native Liberians have adopted "American" last names over the years, sometimes while working essentially as indentured servants for well-off Americo-Liberians.

But now, as the political climate shifts under a new president, George Manneh Weah, who ran a campaign that touted his roots as a native Liberian, some are hopeful that his symbolic leadership will heal the country. Others, like Harry, who have lasting memories of the violent war that divided the country along tribal lines, too, are skeptics at best.

"There are still traces of that bad blood between the natives and the descendants of the free slaves," Harry said. "Even the Weah government, I think that's one of the challenges."

'It's Pro-Poor Times!'

On a welcome hot day in July, which falls during the monsoon-like rainy season, the Sinkor neighborhood of Monrovia, Liberia, teemed with shoppers and salesmen alike. In front of an ATM adjacent to the Royal Grand Hotel, security guards with sing-song Liberian accents cracked jokes.

"It's Pro-Poor times, so it's on you," one said, referencing Weah's platform.

Weah, now 52, took the oath of office in January 2018 as an unabashed native Liberian. Weah follows Africa's first duly elected woman president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who came into office after three years of a post-war transitional government. Sirleaf led for 12 years, or two terms, keeping the country relatively calm. She won the Nobel Peace Prize jointly in 2011 with Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman for "their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work."

Women-led protests resulted in ousting warlord Charles Taylor. But Johnson-Sirleaf also drew criticism for supporting Taylor financially in his early days.

Liberia's new president did not garner public attention as a politician, but rather as an internationally acclaimed soccer star from the 1980s into the early 2000s. Weah campaigned on "Pro-Poor" sentiments, which Liberians find both inspirational and hilarious.

"It just has become a cliche—it's not anything in action anymore," said Liberian journalist Siatta Scott-Johnson. "It's just become a joke: I'm in my Pro-Poor dress, or I'm eating my Pro-Poor food. To mean slang, it can mean you're broke."

Two administrations and nearly two decades after the end of civil war that defined life for a generation of Liberians that still grapple with its aftermath, child soldiers mull over whether they should have fought at all. Students wonder if this celebrity president will make lasting change. Women wonder how they will feed their families. Some, not convinced that Weah's identity politics will build bridges, see a teetering country with potential to backslide.

"The majority of those that voted for Weah voted for him on the platform that he identifies with the natives," Harry said.

"If we still have that mindset, I wouldn't be surprised to see Liberia going back to the last 20 years. It just needs something to trigger us."

For the Love of Liberty...

Throughout the days leading up to July 26, 2018—Liberia's Independence Day—teenage boys weaved in and out of traffic on foot to sell assorted goods and Liberian flags on Tubman Boulevard, the main thoroughfare in Liberia's capital of Monrovia.

The city takes its name from James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States and supporter of the American Colonization Society. The main strip takes its name from President William Tubman, who led Liberia from 1944 to his death in 1971 as a member of the True Whig Party.

The harsh midday sun bounced off the hundreds of white lonestars in the blue canton of the Liberian flag. The design, from the color scheme to the star and stripes, is a nod to the country's status as the first western republic in Africa. The 11 red and white stripes represent each of the signatories, all former American slaves, who officiated the country's Declaration of Independence, constitution and motto—"For the Love of Liberty Brought Us Here.

"From the get-go, when Liberia was first founded, the settlers came in with that individualistic mindset," Harry told me. "[T]oday we still argue, who do we refer to as the 'us.' Does it exclude the group that we met here?"

Former American slaves migrated to Liberia as an early Back-to-Africa movement, colonized the land, formed the governmental structure and ruled the country under the True Whig Party from 1847 to 1980. Despite making up just around 5 percent of the population, black Americans in Liberia implemented a rule similar to the oppression they left behind.

Americo settlers depended on the native population in Liberia to help them survive the transition into their new home. The U.S. government only backed the effort with $100,000, and within three weeks of the first voyage in 1820, one-fourth of the immigrants had died of various illnesses. Survivors often wrote letters to their former owners asking for more money.

Once they got their footing and bullied their way into getting land from the natives, many Americo-Liberians built grand homes and all but enslaved native Liberians to do chores and labor for them.

Their rule came to a head when President William Tolbert, former vice president under Tubman, was assassinated in a coup in 1980 in Monrovia.

Samuel Doe, who led the Krahn-tribe-fronted Armed Forces of Liberia, ordered Tolbert's murder. Doe had control for nearly 10 years.

Meanwhile, Charles Taylor plotted his own rise through the National Patriotic Front of Liberia with help from Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. Around the same time, however, Taylor's former ally, Prince Johnson of the Gio tribe, actually captured Monrovia with a rival faction that tortured Doe on video, which is allegedly still circulating on YouTube. Johnson sipped an American beer while men sliced Doe's ear before killing him. Johnson later fled, and in his absence, Taylor ushered in a civil war along ethnic lines.

Liberia under Taylor was unabashedly violent. During a pause between wars in 1997, Taylor ran for president and won on the campaign slogan: "He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him." The election was democratic, but fear-laden.

Fighting resumed in 1999 and continued until 2003, with the formation of two native-led rebel groups fighting to get Taylor out of office. Following women-led protests and negotiations that went all the way to Ghana, Taylor was arrested and ultimately convicted of 11 counts of "aiding and abetting" war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to 50 years at The Hague in 2013.

Taylor's ex-wife, Jewel, currently serves as Liberia's vice president alongside Weah.

The flags' stripes blurred in the wind the boys created behind them as they ran up the middle of the highway, hoping to make a sale. As the boys hustled, others prepared for upcoming Independence Day celebrations, cookouts, parades and presidential sightings. But there was also a lot of whispering about how whether people would celebrate at all because of the state of the economy under Weah.

'A Dead Body Woke Up'

Sianneh Beyan, 32, lives down a winding dirt road about an hour outside Monrovia and 8,000 miles from the similarly disrepaired, unmarked gravel streets of Mississippi. Still, many remark how far the streets have come since car-sized craters lined the roads post-war.

Two days after Independence Day, Beyan sat as her son played in the severed half of a plastic white barrel filled with water. The hearty 11-month-old toddler, Charles Allen, soon whimpered in hunger, as he crawled into his mother's lap. Beyan removed her breast from her black T-shirt with a sideways McDonald's arch on it and fed her boy as she continued to chat. They hadn't celebrated the holiday.

"I didn't have nothing to do," she said to me as she nursed her son.

Beyan was almost one of the 4,800 lives the Ebola virus claimed in Liberia between 2014 and 2015. Her fight against the virus began with a headache in August 2014. The pain persisted into the next day, and once she began vomiting and feeling weak, she went to an Ebola treatment unit where she slipped into a coma.

When she finally came to, Beyan remembers seeing a white light and feeling like she could hear her mother's voice. She felt like she was bouncing, so she started to wiggle, and as the motion continued, she punched the air until she hit the ground.

Beyan woke up in a white body bag as workers in hazmat suits carried her on a stretcher, likely headed to the incinerator. Doctors sent early cadavers infected with Ebola to be burned to limit spread of the virus while the government decided on a burial plan. No one wanted to go near Beyan in the bag because she had seemingly risen from the dead.

"They said a dead body woke up," she recalled.

She remembers people, including medical staff, running from her and screaming. Finally, someone got the courage to cut Beyan out of the bag.

As Beyan recovered at a treatment center, the nurses would not come near her—some would get just close enough to toss food at her.

Other times, Beyan just went to get food and drink herself.

"That woman, she died," Beyan recalled people saying of her.

Now, a single mother after losing her husband to Ebola, Beyan said she suffers from the lasting Ebola stigma that catalyzed a suicide attempt in April. She and her kids sleep at a red-roofed house across a pasture because her home, a single-room lined with dirt floors underneath a tin-scrap structure, floods with water whenever it rains. She worries the woman will find out she had Ebola and force Beyan and her kids to sleep in what she calls "the leaking house."

Beyan blames her suffering, in part, on President Weah.

"We're suffering under the new president because the people say the new president, no money," she said with a thick Liberian accent. She explained how tough it is to afford rice. She said a half bag of rice costs 2,250 LRD, or $12.

Rice became a political commodity in 1979 when President Tolbert implemented a rice tax to encourage in-country production, rather than depending on imports. It is a staple of most Liberian dishes, and also a point of comparison for price surges.

"We're suffering more than before; everything is high," she added.

Beyan sees the way out of her circumstances through a better leader in the executive mansion.

"I pray for Liberia to get a good, good president," she said just before recalling the good old days in the country—ones her children have not seen.

"The president will make the nation to look good. But with no good leader, the nation will always be down. Yeah."

'Liberia Is Very Peaceful'

In July in Paynesville, a suburb of Monrovia, Joseph Duo, now 40, had just returned from playing soccer. He sat on a lawn chair in his yard off a nondescript road that seemed to exist only on a need-to-know basis. On the road up to his house from Monrovia to Paynesville, women hand-washed clothes and hung linen out to dry. The Independence Day spirit seemed to miss this side of town.

"What party when 95 percent of the citizens are suffering, ain't got food to eat?" Duo said.


Joseph Duo, who was captured in one of the most iconic photos from the Liberian civil war, sits in his yard in Paynesville, Liberia, on July 26, 2018.

One of the most iconic images of the Liberian civil wars is of Duo in his 20s mid-air, rifle in hand, twisted hair affray on a bridge leading into Monrovia, as he and other child soldiers he commanded aimed their weapons. The late Chris Hondros snapped it for Getty. Duo had left school in 10th grade to join Charles Taylor's army.

"Nobody knew what they were fighting for," Duo said. That included him.

Duo said every day was his worst day, but he recalled one in particular in 2000 when a rocket-propelled grenade burned his face and scarred his legs. Bad days continued after the war ended. From 2004 to 2005, he said he didn't associate with people much and felt like he heard mosquitoes buzzing when others spoke to him.

With the war's end soon after the iconic photo, Taylor fled into exile in August 2003. The photographer later returned and found Duo living in a shack. He offered to pay the young man's way through night school. Duo later studied criminal justice at a Monrovia university, and got work as an actor and then training police officers in Paynesville.

Now, he struggles with feeling both disappointed about fighting in the war but also like a hero who contributed to a revolution that gives indigenous Liberians the permission to speak their minds and complain even about the government.

Duo has since traded in twists for a closely shaven haircut and guns for politics. He ran unsuccessfully for a legislative position last year during the campaign of now-President Weah. Duo wanted to tackle the country's economic and corruption faults, as an example of transformation. He believes the wealthy oppress the poor in an "economic war." "Liberia is very peaceful," he told me on July 26. "Only economic crisis we got now."

Duo said he will run again in 2022, and in the meantime supports the president, whom the former soldier believes is "doing his best." Seven months in office wasn't enough for Duo to pass judgment—President Weah needs two to three years, he added, perhaps diplomatically.

'Happy 26 on You'

This economically dark year marked President George Weah's first Independence Day in office. Morning light on July 26 danced atop the military barracks at the Barclay Training Center in Monrovia. Armed forces lined up to salute the president upon his arrival in a fleet of all-black, mid-sized SUVs topped with flashing police lights.

Weah stepped onto a red carpet that led to a raised platform, also lined with red carpeting. He placed his hand over his heart as "Hail to the Chief" blared over the speakers. Drones buzzed overhead.

Without saying a word, the president got back into his black car to head over to the Centennial Memorial Pavilion to deliver a speech in one of the oldest parts of Monrovia. For hours, barefoot dancers and drummers in patriotic colors sang and tossed their hips as they circled around another red carpet that would soon host the president.

"Happy 26 on you," people in red, white and blue scarves, diplomats and women in traditional garb uttered to each other as they processed into the pavilion to hear Weah.

"No matter who you are and where you are, opposition or not, in the rural parts of the country or in the Diaspora, in the towns or villages or in the city; so as long as you are a Liberian, it is your patriotic and nationalistic duty to put your hands on deck to help us build our country," Weah said in his remarks.


The Student Unification Party, led by Butu Levi and Martin Kollie (center), protest the president on July 26, 2018, Liberian Independence Day. Photo courtesy Images Africa

About an hour before the president arrived to salute the troops, Martin Kollie, a student-protester with the Student Unification Party, texted me to say about 200 students had gathered to protest Independence Day, and that police pepper-sprayed them. They regrouped in front of the U.S. embassy—about a half-mile away from the pavilion where Weah spoke.

Police showed up near the embassy four minutes after I did. Residents of the shanty town directly across the street walked up the slippery rocks to get a better look at the commotion, some smiling, some laughing.

Students in khaki combat outfits that constitute the Student Unification Party uniforms, held signs that condemned the president and made demands. "Instead of Pro-Poor it is Pro-Rich," one read. "Declare your Assets Now!" another said. "Weah has lost the fight against corruption," read a third handwritten sign.

"We are sending a message to the international community that George Weah is becoming a dictator, say!" Butu Levi, another leader in the Student Unification Party, cried out, almost singing.

More Police Attacks

Kollie and Levi, both 29, are leaders of SUP, the university-based activist group that formed in 1970. Kollie invited me to meet him at a house across from a funeral home in Sinkor—the wealthiest area in Monrovia. But this home did not reflect the luxury of the compounds on the other side of the main Tubman Boulevard.

In a damp house beyond a gate, women prepared chicken in a dark kitchen. The young men watched soccer on a mounted plasma-screen TV, listened to the radio and planned their protest.

Their action stemmed from a student event on July 23 where city police arrested organizers who apparently interrupted an official Independence Day youth forum. Some students were apparently flogged and beaten, as well.

This added to a growing tension among university students about life under Weah. The Liberian Observer reports that in Weah's first six months in office, Liberian National Police invaded the University of Liberia more than eight times, flogging, harassing, injuring and arresting students.


Student Unification Party Protest July 26, 2018

Student Unification Party Protest July 26, 2018

"Every time we raise an issue, they send police to attack us," Kollie said.

Amid the calls for police brutality to come to an end, the students had also been rallying for the president to declare his assets—not unlike the process that many U.S. presidents before Donald Trump had done.

"(Weah) does not know the difference between a sports stadium and the executive office," Levi said.

A Prince in Shackles

Artemus Gaye, 44, in no mistaken terms, does not like President Weah.

"George Weah is a disaster," he told me over the phone in October. He says that his Liberian friends and family think he is being too harsh, but he does not think Weah can unify the country.

A U.S. resident since 1999, Gaye graduated high school in Liberia in 1994 and went to Zimbabwe on a scholarship after rebels under Taylor had burned and mutilated five Catholic nuns from the U.S. in 1992—one of whom Gaye says was the principal of his school.

After university in Zimbabwe, Gaye went to the U.S. for a graduate fellowship and stayed in Chicago. Gaye traced his roots back to Prince Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori, a West African prince who was captured in 1788 during the slave trade. The prince ended up at Foster Mound, a plantation near Natchez, Miss., where he spent the next 40 years in slavery.

No one believed he really had royal roots until 1807, when John Coates Cox, an Irish surgeon, recognized him. The prince's father had saved Cox's life when he got lost in West Africa in 1781.

The nation stirred as newspapers got involved and the story made it to then-President John Quincy Adams and American Colonization Society founder and Secretary of State Henry Clay. In 1828, Clay freed Ibrahima on the condition that he go to Liberia. The Sultan of Morocco also stepped in. Only his wife could join him, leaving behind their children. He died there five months after arriving in 1829.

Gaye grew up with tales from his grandmother about this distant, royal relative. So, when he finished his master's in 2003 in Evanston, Ill., he and his cousin bought a $500 car that kept sputtering out to make the drive down to Mississippi.

"It was worth more than money," Gaye said. "I almost felt that all our ancestors, those that suffered, were taking that journey along with me. I cannot forget about it. I cannot at all."

Gaye and his cousin made it down to Natchez and visited the plantation where Ibrahima worked for almost a half-century. Now, Gaye makes the journey to Mississippi every year because he has found healing in chasing history.

"We have to understand a shared history helps us to understand the power of narrative, and it is really through our story and our narrative that we are not just an isolated people," he said.

Populism Crisis

In 2011, Gaye got his Ph.D. from Loyola University in Chicago, and he is working on a book that explores comparisons between the U.S. and Liberia, including Presidents Trump and Weah.

"I found it so intriguing that we are going through the same crisis of qualified populism at its best," he said. "(P)eople think that George Weah should be a unifier or Donald Trump should be unifying the country because he was an outsider. Our countries are so divided right now."

In a nod from one celebrity president to another—Trump sent a presidential delegation to witness Weah's inauguration in January. In a June letter, Trump promised to continue supporting Weah.

"The United States is deeply committed to our long-standing relationship with Liberia. We will continue to support Liberia's historic democratic transition and to support peace and prosperity in Liberia," Trump's letter reads. "Please accept my sincere wishes for the success of your administration and for the personal well-being of you, your family and the people of Liberia."


Liberian President George Weah arrives at Barclay Training Center in Monrovia to salute the troops on Independence Day, July 26, 2018. Photo courtesy Images Africa

Harry Ross does not like to get into the politics of Trump, but he harped on the United States' role in setting a tone in Liberia.

"Most African countries look to the U.S. as the superpower of the world," he said, walking down a tree-lined Brooklyn block. "The United States sets the imagination of what happens for the world. ... But, seeing the way things are now, it kind of makes us rethink, that maybe what we have is better than what we were getting."

Many Liberians will soon be swept up in the Trump administration's anti-immigration and refugee policies. Since 1991, the U.S. provided Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, for Liberians during the civil wars. In 1999, President Bill Clinton authorized Deferred Enforced Departure for Liberians on a one-year term during a pause between civil wars, but he soon reauthorized it when tensions ramped up again.

Both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama renewed this program. Obama's most recent renewal expired in March 2018. That month, Trump announced he would finally end the program in March 2019, forcing Liberians who have been here legally for two decades to leave or risk deportation.

"I have been informed that conditions in Liberia have improved," Trump wrote in March. "Liberia is no longer experiencing armed conflict and has made significant progress in restoring stability and democratic governance. Liberia has also concluded reconstruction from prior conflicts, which has contributed significantly to an environment that is able to handle adequately the return of its nationals."

'If He Fails ...'

George Bull, 39, is pleased about Trump. In July, he sat sipping a Pepsi at a seafood restaurant in Monrovia after a slight mishap when the waiter initially brought him a Coke.

"I told you Pepsi," he said, straight-faced and cold, as the server placed the incorrect drink on the table.

A television mounted to the wall overhead grasped Bull's attention as Trump appeared on the screen. "I love Donald Trump's policies" Bull said. "You know, sometimes people will be against you for what you say. But he said he wants to build a wall..." Bull trailed off but later added that he wants to see the wall built.

He has a brother living in the U.S., who sent a car for him to use to make money as a taxi driver. Bull is also pleased Trump will end TPS in Liberia soon, and the people who went to "hustle" in America will have to return. He said he loves the U.S. because we have policies, and no matter who they impact, "there is order," he said.

Bull fled his home in Nimba County on the eastern side of the country during the 1990s. He took a day off from selling used clothes in Monrovia only to get arrested as he came out of a movie theater and recruited into fighting.

"I suffered too much," Bull said after showing me scars."I saw some things some people don't see. There are no good things in war. People were raped. People were killed. There were a lot of things."

Bull mulled over the differences between "Congo people," a colloquial term sometimes used to describe descendants of Americo-Liberians, or at least those who give that appearance.

"Like you," he told me when I asked about the term. "Congo people are extra because they have money, and they appear different, they speak different—they speak like Americans." Bull further described them as upper-class people who don't want people to pass by their yards, so they live in gated compounds.

Bull's mother is of the Mano tribe, and his father is Gio. Bull got his last name when his dad lived with "Congo people" and adopted their surname in the 1960s. As what he calls a "pure native," Bull sees himself in Weah's rise.

"Native people wanted typical Liberians to become president," he said. "Nobody could stop George Weah because we would do everything for him to win. All the natives are behind him ... for now."

Still, Bull said he and other former soldiers live with many of the same difficulties he has experienced since turning in his arms after the war—a lack of jobs for his friends who did not take up a trade, and the mental illness exacerbated by memories of war. He wants the international community, including the U.S., to help out.

In the meantime, Bull hopes Weah will do a good job, or he knows there will be lasting consequences.

"If he fails the Liberian people..." Bull pauses and shakes his head. It will take a long time for a "pure native" to be president again, he says.

Americo or Native?

Harry Ross harbors a lot of grief. In 1994, his dad was walking home after shopping at the Waterside Market in Monrovia. Samuel Ross was 6'5", maybe 155 pounds and fair-skinned for a black person.

"Maybe like your complexion," Harry said pointing to my arm.

His dad had a large bag with him on the walk. A man approached and hit Samuel, who then fell and fractured his skull. He bled internally for two weeks, as a medical system deeply ruptured by war could not save him. Harry says the perpetrator was arrested and then escaped from jail. Harry blames the war for his dad's death.

"It was the aftermath of the war. At the time, there was no formal law-and-order—anyone could do anything," he told me after a church service in October. "It was not in the direct war situation, but because of the war, the justice system was not working at the time. My dad came from work, and he was robbed in the process, and he got killed. I do attribute it to the war."

Harry, about 15 at the time, said his father's passing made his life much harder. He remembers fighting for food and taking odd jobs thereafter, while family members took in his younger siblings. Harry has been to counseling since moving to the United States, and he said he does not harbor resentment against anyone. But he thinks he is only at peace because he moved away from Liberia, and could be retriggered if he put himself back in that environment.

There is another layer of trauma many like Harry are trying to unravel—one of the existential realm.

During a brief stint when Harry was back in school during a lull in fighting, he remembers learning about the island of Fernando Po, host of a government operation trafficking indigenous tribes for labor on coffee plantations on the small, Spanish-held island. Huffman wrote in his book that many of the perpetrators were high-ranking Americo officials. Harry's relative, Samuel Alfred Ross, for whom the port in Greenville, Liberia, is still named, played a major role in the humanitarian crisis.

Classmates turned to Harry in disgust, blaming him by way of his ancestors for supporting slavery. While Harry had been acutely aware of his privileges—a new bike every year and three square meals a day—his classmates made him feel like less of a Liberian that day.

"That was the first time it ever occurred to me there was some kind of division between the slaves (and the natives)," Harry said.

That ostracization stuck with him. He could no longer ignore the fact that Liberia had never been able to truly mesh as one people, and he didn't know where he, or his country, stood.

"At one point, I actually questioned myself: Am I more of an Americo-Liberian, or am I more of a native Liberian?" Harry wondered aloud. "That dual historical culture, I think it kind of interfered with our own nationalistic ideology because we didn't know who we were."

Harry is not alone. Duo said he thinks people love themselves more than they love the country. Gaye thinks Liberia could use something like Alex Haley's "Roots" to grapple with everything.

But Harry has a charge for Mississippians, and Americans, too.

"I think we haven't gotten to that place where white Americans acknowledge race was orchestrated by the white man," he said. "I never had any experience with racism. I experienced class culture, but when I came to the U.S. and seeing the police interacting with minorities, black and Latinos, hearing about the history of the whole race culture in America, I was like, wow. So, I think we still need healing as a culture, as a people."

'A Good Case for Healing'

Jessica Fleming Crawford, the southeast regional director of the Archaeological Conservancy, toured my cousin and me through Prospect Hill on a sweltering day in July. Her brother, my oldest cousin, had recently married a woman of Liberian descent whom we all love, so she jumped at the opportunity to accompany me. I ended up staying with my cousin-by-marriage's family in Monrovia to report this story.


A July 6, 2018, image of Prospect Hill Plantation in Lorman, Miss., the home of slaves later sent to Liberia.

To get to Crawford, my cousin and I drove through Utica, Miss., the place where a white mob hung our grandmother's great-uncle from a tree next to the courthouse after church in 1888. He and his friends had allegedly not yielded the sidewalk to some white people that morning, brushing a white girl in the process.

Wasps greeted us at the door of my station wagon like valets once we pulled up behind Crawford's pick-up truck. The conservancy bought the land in 2011 at Crawford's plea.

"This is the house," she said, laughing.

Crawford has put in a lot of sweat equity at Prospect Hill. Before raising money for a new roof, she came out on weekends and holidays to set up kiddy pools to catch leak water. She has read Alan Huffman's book, too, and they organized a reunion there in 2017 for descendants of both the Ross slaves and those who owned them. She hopes for a massive donation to fix the house and use it as a reconciliation tool.

As Crawford let us roam the home, the history spilled out of her.

"People like to say that he was a good slave owner, he was benevolent," she said of Isaac Ross. "Well, you know, shit. I don't really buy that. Why didn't he free his slaves when he was alive?"

She takes us to the cemetery just yards from the house. A huge tower sits in the middle of the cemetery. It is a dedication to Isaac Ross that cost $25,000 in 1838. Some of the slaves who could have gotten their freedom in Liberia were sold to meet the bill. Isaac's grandson, Isaac Ross Wade, who fought the will, is buried there, too. His tombstone faces the opposite way from the others, but Crawford does not think it was done on purpose. His tombstone is also rusty, but this is intentional.

"My cleaner is expensive, and I'm not going to waste it on his grave," Crawford told me, as butterflies fluttered through the cemetery, one landing on her shirt. "I kind of like his grave to be a little bit dirty."

She was at Prospect Hill when Harry took his pilgrimage to Mississippi.

"The attitude that he brought here, it wasn't bitterness—I would feel some bitterness," Crawford said. "It would give me an appreciation, also, but he was just really cool about it."

Harry has a mixed bag of emotions about Prospect Hill and Isaac Ross, but dreams one day of bringing his vision of an educational center to life in Sinoe County. With the war having destroyed a lot of things—his childhood, his family structure and even his country's sense of self—today, he focuses on what he can build.

"My goal one day is to bring to reality the vision of Isaac Ross, which sounds dumb. Why would you want to bring the vision of a slave master?" he said as we sat in his car in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, in October.

After church, he drove me back to the place I was staying. We had long arrived, but he seemed to have a lot on his heart.

"I speak a whole lot about healing; I don't know how that story would be told. But it's a good case for reconciliation," he said. "It's a good case for healing."

A Bringing Home the World fellowship from the International Center for Journalists made the Liberia reporting possible.

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