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William Tubman: Modernizer of Liberia

Evelyn Kpadeh Seagbeh
April 20, 2020

Liberia, the nation of freed slaves, was built on the oppression of natives when William Tubman was elected president. Besides uniting his people, he prepared the country for a prosperous future – that was not to be.

DW African Roots | William Tubman

William Tubman: Modernizer of Liberia

How was William Tubman brought up?

William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman was born on November 29, 1895. He hailed from Southeastern Liberia, from a town called Harper in Maryland County. It is not by coincidence that most names of places alluded to people and places in the USA: The Republic of Liberia was proclaimed in 1847 by freed slaves, who had returned from the United States in various batches over the first half of the century. Tubman's father's parents were part of a group of 69 freed slaves brought back to Liberia in 1844. His mother was born in Atlanta, Georgia.

Tubman grew up in the very tough and strict home of his father, a stonemason, army general and Methodist preacher who required William and his siblings to attend daily family prayer services and sleep on the floor because he thought "beds were too soft and degrading to character development".

What was William Tubman renowned for?

Tubman, who served as Liberia's 19th president from 1944 until his death in 1971, is often referred to as for the father of modern Liberia. Through foreign investment, he built much of Liberia's roads and railways and refurbished Monrovia's port, creating the infrastructure for rubber and iron ore export. At the time of his death, Liberia had the largest mercantile fleet in the world. Many representative buildings like the Capitol Building, the Monrovia City Hall or the National Cultural Center now known as Kendeja go back to Tubman's times. He also constructed Monrovia's famous Ducor International Hotel, West Africa's first five-star hotel.

Did William Tubman manage to guarantee a better living for the population?

During Tubman's tenure, Liberia experienced a period of prosperity. His administration also invested in health and education. The country adopted a literacy program following an approach known as "Each one teach one". Perhaps most importantly, William Tubman endeavored to unite Liberia's population. After a century or so, the indigenous population was oppressed by the Americo-Liberian elite, Tubman's government made equal rights mandatory.

William Tubman - MP3-Stereo

However, William Tubman's 27-year rule has also been subject to harsh criticism. A civil war that erupted in the 1980s put into question the foundations laid by Tubman. He has often been criticized for being authoritarian and waging an expensive lifestyle. His close ties to the USA have been considered by some as impeaching Liberia's independence.

In order to honor his achievements, Tubman's birthday is celebrated in Liberia as a national holiday.

What are some memorable quotes by William Tubman?

"Liberia never received the benefits of colonization."

"We wage no war against socialism if it is kept within the territories and among people that are so inclined, but we shall fight till death any attempt to impose and force upon us what we consider a mystical illusion".

Scientific advice on this article was provided by historians Professor Doulaye Konaté, Lily Mafela, Ph.D., and Professor Christopher Ogbogbo. African Roots is supported by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.