Americo-Liberians, or Congo people or Congau people in Liberian English, are a Liberian ethnic group of African American, Afro-Caribbean and Liberated African descent. The sister ethnic group of Americo-Liberians are the Sierra Leone Creole people, who shared similar ancestry and related culture. Americo-Liberians trace their ancestry to free-born and formerly enslaved African Americans who emigrated in the 19th century to become the founders of the state of Liberia. They identified there as Americo-Liberians. Some African Americans – in the more common sense of the term – following resettlement in Canada also participated as founding settlers in Sierra Leone and present-day Côte d'Ivoire. Although the terms "Americo-Liberian" and "Congo" had distinct definitions in the nineteenth century, they are currently interchangeable and refer to an ethnic group composed of the descendants of the various free and ex-slave African American, Caribbean, Recaptive, and Sierra Leone Creoles who settled in Liberia from 1822.
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Later in Liberia, these African Americans integrated 5,000 liberated Africans called Congos (former slaves from the Congo Basin, who were freed by British and Americans from slave ships after the prohibition of the African slave trade) and 500 Barbadian immigrants into the hegemony. Americo-Liberians rarely intermarried with indigenous West Africans.
Although Western literature and discourse in the United States and United Kingdom use the term "Americo-Liberians", this term is outdated and in common parlance the majority of Liberians (including the Americo-Liberian people themselves) and neighbouring West Africans such as Sierra Leoneans refer to the Americo-Liberian people as "Congo" or "Congau" people.
The colonists and their descendants led the political, social, cultural and economic sectors of the country; they ruled the new nation from 19th century until 1980 as a dominant minority. From 1878 to 1980, the Republic of Liberia was a de facto one-party state ruled by both the indigenous and Americo-Liberian-dominated True Whig Party and Masonic Order of Liberia.
History and settlement
"The love of liberty brought us here" was the motto of some 13,000 persons who crossed the Atlantic to create new settlements on the Grain Coast of West Africa between 1817 and 1867. Americo-Liberians joined the Kingdom of Koya royal armed forces with the aid of the American Colonization Society. The early settlers practiced their Christian faith, sometimes in combination with traditional African religious beliefs. They spoke an African American Vernacular English, and few ventured into the interior or mingled with local African peoples.
Development of society
They developed an Americo-Liberian society, culture and political organization that was strongly influenced by their roots in the United States, particularly the country's Southeast. Americo-Liberians were credited for Liberia's largest and longest economic expansion, especially William V. S. Tubman, who did much to promote foreign investment and to bridge the economic, social, and political gaps between the descendants of the original settlers and the inhabitants of the interior. Most of the powerful old Americo-Liberian families fled to the United States in the 1980s after President William Tolbert was assassinated in a military coup.
The Americo-Liberians established several settlements along the St Paul River such as Monrovia, Crozerville or Crozierville, Careysburg, Clay-Ashland, Buchanan, Maryland, Mississippi-in-Africa, and Greenville. Several of the Americo-Liberians also settled in Cape Mount and the Barbadian settlers, who were incorporated into the Americo-Liberian or Congo ethnicity, settled in Crozierville and included prominent families such as the Barclays, Morgans, Bests, Thorpes, Weeks, and Portemans. The original Congo people or Liberated Africans or Recaptives were settled in New Georgia, and were incorporated into the Americo-Liberian ethnic group. Immigrants from Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast settled in Monrovia or in other Americo-Liberian settlements, and were incorporated into Americo-Liberian society. There was a distinction between the rural 'up-river' Americo-Liberians and the political and mercantile oriented Americo-Liberians in Monrovia.
Political developments in Liberia
As founders of the nation, and taking up about five percent of the Liberian population, Americo-Liberians had a leading role national politics from the founding of the colony until Samuel Doe led a military coup in 1980. There was debate about how Americo-Liberians held on to power for so long. Some attribute it to the fact that divisions were based on "colorism", particularly because the first president was of mixed race, as were numerous immigrants, reflecting the nature of African-American society in the Upper South. Scholars have noted, however, that during the Americo-Liberian reign, the leaders had an array of skin colors from very dark skin to light skin African-European admixture, meaning that theory is unlikely. It is more likely they built their power on their familiarity with American culture and economics, shared lineage, and ability to create a network of shared interests. Others believe their long reign was in part due to the Masonic Order of Liberia, a fraternal organization. A marble Masonic Lodge was built in 1867 as one of Monrovia's most impressive buildings. It was considered a bastion of Americo-Liberian power, and was strong enough to survive the civil war. After years of neglect after the war the Masonic order has repaired the lodge.
In 1980, a violent military coup was led by Samuel Doe. Doe's tenure as leader of Liberia led to a period of civil wars, resulting in destruction of the country's economy. In the early 21st century, Liberia has been reduced to one of the most impoverished nations in the world, in which most of the population lives below the international poverty line.
Americo-Liberian culture is a blend of the African American and Caribbean culture brought to Liberia by the various American, Recaptive, and West Indian settlers and is exhibited by the cuisine, language, and architectural style of the Americo-Liberians. The Americo-Liberians introduced various aspects of African American culture in Liberia including Liberian Settler English and a unique form of antebellum architecture. Furthermore, Americo-Liberians contributed to the culinary cuisine of the region by introducing American baking techniques.
The Americo-Liberians arrived with varying degrees of formal and informal education. Americo-Liberians established schools and also established the University of Liberia, formerly Liberia College, in addition to other higher learning institutions such as Cuttington College. The Americo-Liberians were among the first black Africans to qualify as medical doctors and lawyers in the United States and prominent Americo-Liberian pioneers include Dr Solomon Carter Fuller, a distinguished Harvard-educated Liberian psychiatrist and physician. Several Americo-Liberians worked as teachers and taught both Americo-Liberian and Liberians from other ethnic groups. Americo-Liberians made a concerted effort to educate Liberians from other ethnic groups, including through the use of the ward system.
The Americo-Liberians introduced Protestant Christianity on a wider scale in the modern-day region of Liberia. Several Americo-Liberians served as missionaries to other ethnic groups in Liberia and were among the first Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopal missionaries of black African descent in Liberia.
Americo-Liberians introduced traditional African-American baking techniques into the modern-day nation of Liberia. Liberia remains unique for its baking traditions that are derived from the African-American immigrants to Liberia.
Americo-Liberians, similar to other Liberians, wear both African and Western-style dress. Ethnic groups in Liberia had been accustomed to European dress prior to the arrival of the Americo-Liberians, as a consequence of extensive trade with Europeans dating to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. However, the Americo-Liberians popularised Western-style dress including the top hat, tailcoat, and frock coat. In the modern era, Liberians, irrespective of ethnicity, wear both African and Western-style dress.
The Americo-Liberians introduced a form of African American Vernacular English that influenced the existing pidgin English or patois that existed in the region of Liberia from the precolonial era.
Americo-Liberian architecture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a unique fusion of antebellum architecture from the United States blended into the African environment of Liberia. Americo-Liberian houses were built of weather-board or stone frame and had both verandahs with wealthier Americo-Liberians incorporating the neo Greco-Roman of the antebellum southern plantation great houses.
While globalization has carried African-American culture around the world, Americo-Liberians reproduced their own cultural American continuity in Liberia. Its name means "land of the free", and it is considered the most American of African countries in terms of its political institutions. The Liberian constitution, structure of government, and flag resemble those of the United States. The former residences of Americo-Liberian families were built in the style of antebellum plantation homes they may have admired in the American South. Their language continued to carry elements of African American Vernacular English. By many accounts, Liberians easily integrate into African-American communities. Liberian immigrants to the United States have the highest passport acceptance rates and the longest extension rates of any citizens of African nations.
Although many of the Americo-Liberian class left or were killed during the civil wars, and their houses and monuments crumbling, ordinary Liberians look to the United States for aid. In 2007, BET founder Robert Johnson called for "African Americans to support Liberia like Jewish Americans support Israel".
The Americo-Liberian or Congau ethnic group has produced several notable politicians, businessman, and professionals including:
- Nathaniel Barnes, Liberian businessman and politician
- Edward Wilmot Blyden, Liberian intellectual scholar and Pan-Africanist pioneer
- Mary Antoinette Brown-Sherman, Liberian educator and first African woman to serve as president of a university
- Helene Cooper, journalist for the New York Times
- Charles Cecil Dennis, Liberian diplomat and politician
- Solomon Carter Fuller, Liberian pioneer and African American psychiatrist and physician
- C. Cyvette M. Gibson, Mayor of Paynesville, Liberia
- Louis Arthur Grimes, Liberian jurist
- Kat Graham, Swiss-born American actor of Liberian descent
- Romeo A. Horton, a founder of the Africa Development Bank
- John Payne Jackson, influential journalist in the Lagos Colony and founder of the Lagos Weekly Record
- Elijah Johnson, Liberian pioneer and founding father of Liberia
- James A.A. Pierre, Liberian politician
- Charles Taylor, Liberian President and convicted war criminal
- Hilary Teague, Liberian pioneer and author of the Liberian Declaration of Independence
- Frank E. Tolbert, Liberian politician and businessman
- Winston Tubman, Liberian lawyer and politician
- Benoni Urey, Liberian businessman and the wealthiest Liberian
- Kimmie Weeks, Liberian human rights activist
- Rhoda Weeks-Brown, General counsel to the IMF
American-born presidents of Liberia
- Joseph Jenkins Roberts, first and seventh president. Born in Norfolk, Virginia
- Stephen Allen Benson, second president. Born in Cambridge, Dorchester County, Maryland
- Daniel Bashiel Warner, third president. Born in Baltimore County, Maryland
- James Spriggs-Payne, fourth and eighth president. Born in Richmond, Virginia
- Edward James Roye, fifth president. Born in Newark, Licking County, Ohio.
- James Skivring Smith, sixth president. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Charleston County, South Carolina
- Anthony W. Gardiner, ninth president. Born in Southampton County, Virginia
- Alfred F. Russell, tenth president. Born in Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky
- William D. Coleman, thirteenth president. Born in Fayette County, Kentucky
- Garretson W. Gibson, fourteenth president. Born in Baltimore, Maryland
Also one president of Liberia was born in the British West Indies:
All subsequent presidents were born in Liberia, though only one (except acting heads of state), Samuel Doe, is believed to be of exclusive indigenous heritage.
- "Americo-Liberians". BlackPast.org. Retrieved October 7, 2018.
- Cooper, Helene, The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood (United States: Simon and Schuster, 2008), p. 6
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- "Settlement of Liberia and Americo-Liberian Rule". PeacebuildingData.org at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Retrieved October 7, 2018.
- President William V. S. Tubman, 1944–1971
- "For Liberians, old ties to US linger", Christian Science Monitor, 8 August 2003.
- Wegmann, Andrew N. "Christian Community and the Development of an Americo-Liberian Identity, 1822-1878," (M.A. Thesis: Louisiana State University, 2010) Archived 2010-06-30 at the Wayback Machine
- Robert L. Johnson, "Liberia's Moment of Opportunity", Washington Post, 13 May 2007
- "'Goldfinger' and the presidency". The Economist. 2014-01-17. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 2019-10-23.
- "25 years after his demise, Samuel Doe continues to cast a long shadow across Liberian politics". African Arguments. 9 September 2015. Retrieved 30 November 2015.