5922 Woodland Lane
Clinton, MD 20735
May 13, 1992
Dr. Dayle E. Spencer
The Carter Center
Copenhill, Atlanta, GA 30307
Dear Dr. Spencer:
Thank you for allowing me to speak to the conference. When I was asked to promise–as a condition to speak–that I would not exceed two minutes, I thought about it and decided that rather than risk making a false promise, I would let you worry about the time and I would concentrate on what I had to say. Of course I was counting on your grace and hospitality. Again, thank you.
Believe me, I went to the conference with an open mind. Sure, I was skeptical when Victoria Reffel, a Taylor operative, called me to request my presence as representative of ULIMO. But in the end, it was the name “Carter” which gave me hope. And once at the conference, I learned something–from you.
I had never stopped to ponder any difference between the words behavior and attitude, let alone how a change in one could affect the other. Now thanks to you I have a useful, new perspective in which to view the historical division in Liberia, which generated so much passion over the years. That passion still boils in me, as you’ve probably noticed.
Isn’t it amazing that Americo-Liberians still have not understood that African Liberians can get only more ambitious after the 1980 coup, which ended the Americo-Liberian dynasty? I don’t even need to delve into the history of Liberia in order to turn this letter into a 10-page dissertation. Easily. But there is no need to dredge old issues and to tax your trust that I am rendering them accurately.
So let’s stick with your conference. You were there when Lafayette Diggs attacked me as being dangerously, yet insufficiently educated. He would have me back in school for a rinse (since brain-washing would give me more credit than intended).
That same program that would have me re-educated would also rid Diggs’ telephobic aunt of her apparent African tendencies—among them, refusal to undress before a TV set. (You can never be too careful with TV audience!) But I thought we had bigger problems than that. At any rate, nephews shouldn’t be around when aunts undress.
Unfortunately, Diggs’ attitude is quite typical of most Americos toward African Liberians. In their estimation, an African Liberian can never be educated or sophisticated enough; and that a three-piece suit can’t earn us respect they are unwilling to confer.
But some smart Americos have recognized the danger of not taking people like me seriously.
So while his attitude fits the hate profile of most Americos, Diggs suffers from a rare condition of lacking the ability to assess the relative strength of those he chooses to take on. But such is prejudice. It concedes nothing. Having fought many a good fight, I’ve reached the conclusion that challenging me should take at least some preparation. So I don’t spare anyone who fails to take this basic precaution.
Diggs had never met me before, but he was determined–bare headed–to confront this officious little African Liberian who is all guts and no brains. Everything he knew about me was what he deduced from an article I wrote in the Christian Science Monitor in 1990, which was also the source of his rage. I think Diggs broke new grounds in defining incompetence.
Mrs. Marshall (first lady from your right) couldn’t get over being called a “Congo woman,” the street version of the once dignified “Americo-Liberian,” which, at this point in the history of our country, would still carry the same alarm for the once privileged class. But she seemed so preoccupied with her own new status as a member of a now vulnerable minority that she filed to connect her apparent enemies’ rage with its historical antecedent. Instead, she indicted the parents of those who confronted her as instilling hate for the Americos in their children.
Sitting diagonally in back of me Francis Afonso Dennis, former Liberian Ambassador to the United States. I worked under the man. This will fall under the category of “Believe it or not.” I was research assistant at the Liberian Information Center, a branch of the Ministry of Information in Washington, D.C., which fell under the supervision of the Ambassador. One day my boss sent me to the Ambassador’s residence to retrieve a 16mm motion-picture film belonging to the Zambian embassy.
Ambassador Dennis’ wife had hosted some diplomatic wives for lunch where the film had been shown. When I arrived at the front door of the Liberian Ambassador’s residence, Ambassador Dennis’ daughter named Beryl told me I could not enter the house form the front door. She said I had to use the back door.
When I asked why, she said it was her father’s instruction that anyone visiting “the boys” had to use the back door. (“The boys” were the African Liberian fellows imported directly from Liberia who served as the Ambassador’s domestic servants.)
Well, I wasn’t there to visit the boys, and even if that had been my mission, I didn’t think it was enough to consign me to the back door. But for now, my mission was to get the film; and if going through the back door was the only guaranteed means of retrieving it, I would do it. I did.
When I got back to my office I called Ambassador Dennis to ask him if in fact there was a rule–people visiting the boys use the back door. He said there was such a rule, “But I am not sure it applies to you.” If the Ambassador wasn’t sure then who was? The incident became a part of my written complaint to the Minster of Foreign Affairs, then C. Cecil Dennis, against Ambassador Dennis.
Foreign Minister Dennis instituted an investigation into this and other charges I made against Ambassador Dennis. I thought the Ambassador should have been fired, but instead he was transferred to the United Kingdom. Americos still looked out for one another. Foreign Minister Dennis knew me better. I guess that was the best he could do under the circumstances. Needless to say Ambassador Dennis knows me.
I talked about living for nine years across the street from Mr. and Mrs. J. Rudolph Grimes. Mr. Grimes was Secretary of State for President William Tubman for more than a quarter century. Of course I didn’t expect Mr. Grimes to know my name when Edith George who sat in class with me for two years never called my name.
It was socially unacceptable among the Americos to be seen acknowledging the existence of African Liberians who seemed unwilling to hide their African tendencies. Edith was the daughter of Peter Amos George, Commission of Immigration for Liberia. Commission George had six cars. Edith was driven to school in one.
I lived two blocks from Edith, and walked to school every day. Edith never stopped for me even when it was raining. Edith and Grimes were prevented by the same social divide from recognizing me. After my reference to our neighborhood and the fact that the only contact we had with the Grimes was during Christmas season when they at times sent soldiers in our yard to tell us to stop the noise (i.e., African drumming and singing), Grimes must have though, “Gee, I didn’t know this thing could talk!”
I hope you realize that my attack on Mr. and Mrs. Grimes was not scripted. It is interesting that among some of those who congratulated me for my speech was someone who added, “…but you exaggerated a bit” about Grimes sending soldiers into our yard urging us to cool down the “noise.” Such callousness is hard to charge, even if it is true. I was only trying to be modest, believing that understatement is a better oratorical device than hyperbole. Yet, there I was, drawing skepticism even from a sympathizer. That was the very reason for which I had left out a more surrealistic incident.
One of the few times I had a need speak with any of Grimes was the day their two dogs went over to our yard and pulled down my shirt from the clothesline to toy with. The shirt got torn–not to speak of dirty–from the game of tug-of-war between the two royal dogs. It was my only shirt for school. I washed it every day after school since I mostly worked to and from school–generating lots of sweat.
When I saw the dogs playing with my shirt, I was devastated; but my brother told me that I could legally hold Grimes responsible for the damage to my shirt. My brother said that Grimes at least owed me a new shirt. I was barely out of my teens and not as confidents as I am now.
And so when I approached Doris, my voice shook with fear and self-pity as I reported that her dogs had destroyed my shirt. But she barely lifted her eyes from whatever she was doing before she dismissed with something we Liberians call “Sucking the teeth at.” It is the American equivalent of “Get lost!” only she said it without acknowledging that I was even there.
It seemed that if you were not a member of the privileged class, even their dogs had an attitude toward you. I doubt if the Grimes would have ordered the dogs back into the fence even if they had seen them messing with my clothes.
Just imaging how incredulous the audience would have been if I had told them that the Grimes were that cold-hearted. So, some truths are better left unspoken.
Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf came to me just after the conference adjourned to tell me that her reference to President Doe’s three-piece suit had been–you’ve guessed it–taken out of context. I asked her if that was all she cared to say and she said there was more. I listened then reminded her that the quotation was taken from a speech she had delivered to a Congressional committee and printed as submitted.
Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf said she had something in common with me. One of her grandparents was from an African village. Wow! But she did have a German grandfather, “hence my color,” and inherent super intellect, I thought.
Did I hear a lawyer (our rapporteur, Ms. Brumskine, first lady from your left) say that there should be a statute allowing the unloved to seek redress? I can do without their love; disrespect is something else. Besides, the Liberian Constitution, current and past, is one of the most nearly complete instruments for guaranteeing the rights of citizens, if we can agree on who is a citizen. We don’t need any more legislation.
In the preamble of the Constitution that was in force for 133 years before 1980 was this sentence: “We the people of Liberia were formerly citizens of the United States of North American.” In 1847 blacks were no more citizens of the United States than I was citizen of Liberia under the condition just quoted.
Henry Boima Fahnbulleh, father of George Fahnbulleh–the young man who said Americos still deny that they did anything wrong, and that therefore we must move on with force if necessary–wrote a poem title “Awake, Captain!” President William Tubman, not know for his literary scholarship, interpreted the poem as suggesting that Liberia belonged to the African Liberians “to the exclusion of everyone else.”
Of course the poem was not enough to accommodate the treason charge, which was levied against Fahnbulleh, so the prosecution, led by a man named C. Wellington Campbell, went fishing. They found, among other things, that there was no desktop Liberian flag in Ambassador Fahnbulleh’s office in Nairobi, Kenya.
But President Tubman could barely hide his thirst for Fahnbulleh’s blood, turning what was designed to look like a purely judicial pursuit into a crusade to end any hope of Fahnbulleh’s survival, let alone inspiring other Africans to harbor political ambition. Fahnbulleh was convicted of treason and sentenced to prison for 20 years “with hard labor,” and all his property confiscated.
President Tolbert was, in my opinion, a more fair-minded person than most. Tubman’s vicious pursuit of Fahnbulleh may have turned off even his own ruling True Whig Party co-conspirators in their joint desire to render the man politically impotent. Tolbert made his displeasure with Fahnbulleh trial known at the earliest, safe opportunity he got.
He pardoned Fahnbulleh in 1971 almost immediately after he was sworn in as president following President Tubman’s death in office. George Fahnbulleh, the young man who sat directly opposite you in the back row, was eight years old (I was 22_ when his father was tried. Imagine! (Incidentally, Lafayette Diggs, then first secretary at the Liberian embassy in Kenya, was a state witness against Ambassador Fahnbulleh in the famous Fahnbulleh Trial in the late 60s. The trial was seen by African Liberians as an Americo-Liberian attempt to purge any Africans harboring ambition beyond the usual crumbs. (You had the recipe for combustion in Room 501!)
Did I say I wasn’t going to turn this letter into a 10-pager? If that is the case, I have just one more thing to add. There were more than a dozen cabinet officers from the last three Liberian administrations at the conference. Two of the presidents–Tolbert and Doe–made a less-than-gracious exit.
You would think that at least one former cabinet officer would vouch that, despite his other weaknesses, one or the other president had done enough good deeds (if not for the simple fact of being president) to deserve a decent final resting place. Would you work with anyone you believed wasn’t good enough to have his own grave?
I don’t think there was anyone at the conference who thought that neither Tolbert nor Doe deserved a grave of his own. But the question is Why isn’t anyone saying anything about the indecency of the manner in which their remains were disposed of?
Those are some of the things we have to fix before we can find a common enough ground to change all the things that need changing.
Again, I thank you for the opportunity you gave me. I am truly grateful for that. I will be glad to help you in any way possible in your endeavor to resolve the conflict in Liberia.
The above copy was sent to me along with the letter provided below.
5922 Woodland Lane
Clinton, MD 20735
May 15, 1992
I am sending you a copy of my letter to D. Spencer (from the Carter Center) as a means of summarizing the May 2, 1992, conference from my standpoint. I have made no attempt to cover all the views that were expressed, only to highlight those that relate to the code of Liberia’s social cast system that was instituted by the Americos.
The very first thing I demand from the Americos is a confession. Only their admission will change from the argument. Of course I am speaking as a country man; but I do not expect every African Liberian to share my views. And that is okay, too. If I were interested in popular views, I would be conducting polls rather than expressing an opinion.
No matter how we differ in our views, I hope that we work toward the same goal–bringing pride to our people by not dropping to our knees in such for peace. We all have a lot to contribute.
If there is anything you’d like to share with me, please feel free to contact me.
Handwritten note: Share the attached letter with whomever you like.
1992: From Siahyonkron Nyanseor’s Archive