November 29 – Birthday of W.V.S. Tubman

Posted on November 29, 2016
In Harriet Tubman, the U.S. has a true hero. 

Well, the African country of Liberia has a Tubman as a hero, too! William Vacanarat ShadrachTubman, born on this date in 1895, has been called the “father of modern Liberia.”

(Actually, the last name Tubman is more common in Liberia than one might guess, because, in the mid-1800s, a slave owner in Georgia named Emily Tubman tried to free her slaves and to pay for them to travel to Liberia where they could live in freedom. It was actually quite hard to do – Emily Tubman had to appeal to the Georgian legislature for permission to free each slave, and when permission was denied, she had to work to get a special ruling to free them! When the group of 69 freedmen finally traveled to Africa to seek new lives, they took the last name “Tubman” to honor their former mistress.)

William Tubman grew up to be a lay pastor, a lawyer, a court recorder, a tax collector, a teacher, and a colonel in the militia – and all that before he was 28! In 1923 he was elected as the youngest senator in the history of Liberia. He also served as a spokesperson on behalf of his nation to the League of Nations and as a justice in the Liberian Supreme Court. In 1943, at the age of 48, Tubman was elected president.

Right away he had a difficult decision to make. You see, Germany was at the time being run by Hitler and the Nazi Party, and it had plunged the world into a horrific war. But Germany and Germans were deeply involved in Liberia's economy. Liberia relied on German merchants, on trade with Germany, and on German doctors – most of the doctors in the entire country were from Germany!

Even though it was the harder thing to do, Tubman ruled that Liberia sided with the United States and the other Allies fighting against Germany, and he expelled all Germans living in his nation. Eventually Liberia declared war on Germany and Japan.

After the war, Tubman worked to create friendly relations among all the new nations emerging in Africa; in 1961, these efforts resulted in the founding of the African Union.

Tubman is a hero for Liberians partly because he worked hard to reduce the problems between Americo-Liberians (former slaves transported to Africa from the U.S.) and indigenous Liberians (native peoples). He is a hero partly because he instituted policies that brought in investments from other nations, leading to vastly increased prosperity for Liberians. And he is a hero because he he invested government monies into developing roads, railway systems, sanitation systems, hospitals, and literacy programs. Instead of relying on just one product, rubber, Tubman made sure that multiple kinds of industries developed the nation's resources, including making Liberia #1 in Africa for iron production.

National heroes often appear on stamps and money!
Here's the not-so-heroic part:

Liberia had no term limits for the presidency. Here in the U.S., George Washington set a precedent of stepping down after two 4-year terms; in 1947, after having Franklin Delano Roosevelt elected president a record-breaking four times, an amendment was added to the Constitution mandating a maximum of two terms. But not so in Liberia.

As I said, Tubman became president in 1943, and he stayed in office until his death in 1971. That's 28 years with just one president – a period of time in which the U.S. would have from four to seven different presidents. Tubman controlled the majority party and did not volunteer to let go of his power, and probably acting in fear after an assassination attempt, he repressed those who opposed him.

So even though Tubman did a lot of good things for his country, he became more and more authoritarian. Definitely not a good thing!

After Tubman died, his Vice President took over, but there was political dissent, an overthrow, two civil wars. Most of Tubman's good works were undone by all of that – a lot of people died, a lot of people displaced, a devastated economy! Even though there was a peace agreement in 2003 and democratic elections in 2005, still, more than a decade later, 85% of Liberians lived below the poverty line.

Here, a Liberian boy walks down a street
littered with shell casings from bullets! Yikes!

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