I recently returned from Liberia, where I worked with a new university called the William V. S. Tubman University, once called the W. V. S. Tubman Technical College, which was destroyed 25 years ago due to the civil war.
The new university, which is in Maryland County in the southeast region, is establishing a program in aquaculture and fisheries, which is where I came in. But it was my first time in the African country which has the closest historical ties to the U.S.
It is believed that most of the ethnic groups in Liberia settled in that area in the 1300s to escape the rule of the expanding empires of the Sahel. European traders arrived in the 15th century, followed in the 1820s by free African Americans and former slaves from the U.S. seeking liberty, sponsored by various colonization societies. They bartered for land with the force of arms backing them up and initially were ruled by governors appointed by the parent societies.
The first black governor of the Maryland Colony was John Russwurm, in 1837. He was the first black American to graduate from Bowdoin College in Maine and was co-founder of the first black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, in New York on March 16, 1887, along with Samuel Cornish.
In 1847, Liberia became an independent country and from 1854 to 1857, Maryland County was a separate nation before becoming part of the Liberia state. U.S. Navy vessels patrolling against the illegal slave trade would seize slaves and take them to Liberia.
Conflicts broke out between settlers and natives over ending the slave trade, access to trade with foreign merchant vessels and land rights. The settlers, despite being a small minority, were victorious, at least to the point of forcing treaty negotiations, sometimes with the aid of the U.S. Navy.
In 1862, President Lincoln recognized Liberia as an independent country.
Liberia as a nation expanded its territories inland until it was blocked by France and England. During the early part of the 20th century, issues of forced labor of indigenous persons arose.
From 1944 to 1971, then President William V. S. Tubman did much to modernize the country, including introducing full voting rights for all Liberians and the National Unification Policy.
In 1980, a coup led by an indigenous army sergeant, Samuel Doe, seized the government and his People’s Redemption Council Military Group took over the country. Doe executed Tolbert and installed himself as president.
From then until the election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2005, the nation was wracked by instability and, at times, full blown civil war and more than 250,000 Liberians died. The physical scars, as well as the personal ones, are still deep. United Nations soldiers and civilian personnel are in the country in force.
Despite all this, there is resilience and hope in Liberia. New and rebuilt buildings have sprung up in Monrovia, the capital, and Tubman University is seen as an important part of the future.
The school is located at the far end of the country, where travel to the capital by car can take nearly three days, depending on road conditions, yet students from all backgrounds are coming together to acquire the education needed for a new era of growth in which brought their forbearers who came in search of liberty.
Faculty from all over the world have come to the TU campus to help in this effort. The school is creating a culture of outreach impacting the communities around it. The area is fortunate to have a non-profit organization in the U.S., called Marylanders for Progress, comprising immigrants from Liberia who are committed to helping their home country achieve and sustain the goal of unity and development.
My task was helping the fisheries and aquaculture task force plan for involvement in the industry. This effort will not only train students but also serve as a demonstration for prospective fish farmers nearby. All too often, aid groups come to a village and ponds are made and a crop is raised, yet, shortly after the team departs, the fish are nowhere to be found and there is no crop.
Having an in-country center of excellence would provide both the encouragement and the hands-on help needed to build a real industry. The need is great but the dedication of the people is greater. I look forward to visits back to Liberia as the project grows.
Brad Brown, a retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist, is a consultant on African coastal and marine projects and scientific capacity development. He is also first vice president of the Miami-Dade NAACP. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org