I Married my Anthropology Professor, a Liberian Chief
During the 1960’s, as a white college student, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary chief of the Mende tribe in Liberia, West Africa. He opened a whole new world when he took me to visit his country.
During the course of our marriage, we wrote a book together on the effect of racism in Liberia. Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia was published shortly before he died.
“Light, Bright, & Damn Near White”
Study Abroad trip to Liberia. Below is an excerpt from our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief, that I wrote after he died:
In the presidential waiting room of the Executive Mansion, I was sitting with my husband and the Summer Study Abroad students to meet President Tolbert. I glanced at the row of oil portraits depicting Liberia’s leaders and asked our guide to explain them to me.
He said, “Of course!” As we stood beneath the first portrait, he announced, “This is Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the first president of Liberia.”
In my usual naiveté, I blurted out, “Why he looks like a white man!”
He replied, “We say he was, ‘light, bright, and damn near white.’ ”
Skin Color Distinction in Liberia – The Effect of America’s Racism
Liberia was founded in the 1800s before the Civil War by light-skinned Free Negroes and dark-skinned freed slaves who took over land on Africa’s west coast from the sixteen indigenous tribes living there. The light-skinned Free Negroes, as descendants of white slave masters, had more advantage in America and were somewhat educated. Subsequently, they became Liberia’s first leaders. E.J. Roye, Liberia’s fifth president, was the first dark-skinned black to be elected in 1870, twenty-three years after Liberia declared its freedom from the American Colonization Society in 1847.
During the 1930s, certain Americo-Liberian families were known to be light-skinned with greater advantage. Light skin was prized and desired. The Americo-Liberians said of a mulatto, “Oh, he’s better than a pure Negro.” To marry a light-skinned woman, a dark-skinned man had to have some means of distinction such as a farm.
The Negroes from America that arrived on Africa’s shores had slavery’s racism embedded in their hearts and souls. They didn’t want to be identified as Africans, calling themselves “Americo-Liberians” after the country that convinced them to leave under the guise of philanthropy. In fact, during the 1970s, Americo-Liberian households in Monrovia retained the heritage and ways of the antebellum South. The Americo-Liberians subsequently became Liberia’s rulers and during the 1970s. They comprised 5% of the population with 95% of the wealth.
The Dennis Brothers
My husband – my anthropology college professor and hereditary Mende chief – had close ties to the Americo-Liberians in addition to his Mende and Gbandi tribes. When I asked him why his last name was Dennis, he said, “As a child I was told that the two enslaved Dennis brothers in Richmond, Virginia, earned their freedom and went to Liberia. One brother settled in Monrovia as an Americo-Liberian. The other traveled upcountry and settled among the Mende people and was adopted by them.”
From the 1800s on, tribal children were taken in as servants by Americo-Liberian families in the capital, Monrovia. Some were educated. Some were exploited. Regardless of indigenous achievements, the Americo-Liberians made sure they always “knew their place.”
Liberia’s Coup of 1980 was a rebellion against the way the Americo-Liberians treated the tribes. The Americo-Liberian president, William R. Tolbert Jr., was assassinated by Krahn Master Sargeant Samuel Doe. And Liberia has never been the same since.
Any Liberians who’d like to discuss this with me? I’d love to hear from you!