The Greatest Liberians in History

Emile Hoffman



Liberia is located on the West Coast of Africa.  Liberia is bordered on the West by Sierra Leone, on the North by Guinea, the Ivory Coast on the East and the Atlantic Ocean on the South. The modern nation of Liberia was established in 1822 as a home of refuge for the descendents of Africans who were taken to the United States as slaves.  Liberia gained her independence from the American Colonization Society in 1847 and became Africa’s oldest republic.  She is 43,000 square miles and has a population of approximately 3.5 million.  Liberia during the nineteenth century was much larger than it is today.  In the late 1800s, France took some of Liberia’s land for the Ivory Coast on the east and Guinea on the West, and England took a portion of Liberia’s land on the West for Sierra Leone. 

It was no easy task for the settlers to fight the slave trade while building a new nation.  However, Liberia with no powerful army to defend her borders, no great navy to defend her coastline, but with an abiding faith in the ability of her citizens to labor and fight the battles of life; with trust in God and in the righteousness of her cause, was declared a free sovereign and independent nation on July 26, 1847.  When Liberia gained her independence on that day, it opened another chapter in the book of the African people who had been chained under the yoke of suppression, repression, slavery and colonization. 

During the reading of the Declaration of Independence, the guns at Fort Hill and Fort Norris could be heard booming the national salute.  The Liberian Flag is patterned after the American Flag.  However, it has eleven stripes alternately red and white with a blue field and a single white star.  The flag was not completed an unfurled until one month after independence.  On August 24th 1847, this symbol of liberty was unfurled. The Liberian Government is also patterned after that of the United States.  There are three branches of government:  The Legislative, Executive and the Judicial.

Despite the size and population of Liberia with her present struggles after the civil war, she is a well-known country among African States and member states of the United Nations.  In addition to this, Liberia has participated in activities as a nation among the richest and most powerful nations of the world. 


Prominent Liberian Leaders of Post 1847 Liberia


Joseph Jenkins Robert


Joseph Jenkins Roberts


Joseph Jenkins Roberts is Liberia’s first and greatest President.  Joseph Jenkins Roberts was a statesman, soldier, administrator, and educator. Roberts served in leadership capacities, as governor of the Colony of Liberia from 1842 to 1848, and then as President of the Republic of Liberia from 1848 to 1855 and from 1871 to 1876. During his tenure, Liberia grew from a small enclave on Cape Monsterrado to a nation that stretched along the African Coast from the Sherbro River to the Pedro River, a distance of nearly six hundred miles.

Joseph Jenkins Roberts was born March 15, 1809, in Norfolk, Virginia.  His parents later moved to Petersburg, Virginia and took up residency at Pocahontas Island, near Petersburg, Virginia. When Roberts was a teenager, he was influenced by William N. Colson, a barber and a business owner in Petersburg, who had a profound impact on his intellectual development.
Colson became his mentor, and allowed the young Roberts access to his private library from which Roberts acquired much of his early education.

During his early teenage years, Roberts worked in his father’s business. However, the elder Roberts died before Joseph Roberts attained adolescence.  Roberts took over his father’s business, and with Colson’s help, he continued his success in the riverboat transport business. Although both Norfolk and Petersburg free Blacks were among the most successful Blacks in the United States, many still felt that they did not belong in American society, this was due to the prevalence of slavery all around them. 

Colson impressed upon the young Roberts the importance of establishing a transatlantic trading company that would bring African products to American ports, and carry American goods and Black emigrants to the new colony of Liberia.  He instilled in Roberts that doing business in Liberia was more important than just immigrating to Liberia. Colson must have been aware of the trade that the British and French were fostering in Africa, and thought that their enterprise could become a bridge between the state of Virginia and Africa.

Following the death of her husband in the early 1820’s, Mrs. Amelia Roberts fell under the influence friend from her days in Norfolk, Reverend Abraham Cheeseman.  Cheeseman conducted firebrand sermons in Norfolk and Petersburg concerning immigration to Liberia. He argued that all Blacks should immigrate to Liberia where they could live with dignity and most of all, spread Christianity. Cheeseman convinced Mrs. Roberts along with many other Blacks who were skeptical of the American colonization society’s motives for sending Blacks to Liberia. In 1829, the Roberts, the Cheesemans, the Paynes, and many other influential free Black families from Virginia migrated to Liberia on a ship called Harriet.  


Arrival in the Promised Land

At the age of 19, Roberts immigrated to Liberia with his mother and younger brothers.  Roberts's quickly became one of Liberia’s most successful businessmen, and within ten years of his arrival in Liberia, he was appointed lieutenant governor of Liberia.  After the death of Governor Thomas Buchanan (a cousin of James Buchanan, who later became president of the United States) in 1842, Roberts was appointed the first Black governor of the colony of Liberia.


Liberia becomes an Independent Nation

The main problem that Roberts and the Liberia colony faced was that the British and other Europeans were unwilling to pay customs duties. They used Liberian ports freely and unscrupulously, and did not honor agreements. The attitude espoused by the British was in part due to the fact that they did not consider Liberia as a sovereign nation with right to levy duties on shipping and to regulate foreign trade.

“Issues of custom and trade came to a head, when Little Ben, a British trading boat, was seized. In retaliation, the British seized and sold a Liberian boat called the John Seyes, owned by the Benson family.”[1]British traders being accustomed for over one hundred years of unrestricted trade on the Grain Coast as Liberia was previously called, looked at Liberia as merely an upstart colony, and ignored its regulations.

The Roberts government protested, but in vain. He appealed to the United States and to the American Colonization Society for support. Although the United States made initial inquiries of the British Government, the American government did not vehemently oppose British tactics. The British, however, replied to American inquires stating that she “could not recognize the sovereign powers of Liberia, which she regarded as a mere commercial experiment of a philanthropic society." The colony was in a major crisis and the American Colonization Society could do nothing. The Society advised the Liberian Colonial government that the only way to resolve problems relating to commerce and sovereignty would be to declare independence.

The Liberians settlers assembled a constitutional convention, which began its session on of June 25, 1847, and on July 26, the Declaration of Independence was declared, and a constitution was adopted.  Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the Governor of Liberia, was elected the first President of the Republic. One of his earliest acts by President Roberts was to visit Europe in order to seek the recognition of the new nation by European countries. Great Britain was the first country to recognize Liberia’s independence in 1848 followed by France in 1852. It was not until a decade later in 1862 that the United States recognized Liberia as a sovereign country.



Joseph James Cheeseman – Liberia’s Evangelist President

Joseph James Cheeseman


Joseph James Cheeseman was Liberia’s 11th President.. He was born to Judge John H. Cheeseman and Margaret A. Cheeseman of Edina, Grand Bassa County in 1842.  His father was a Baptist minister, as was his grandfather Abraham Cheeseman, a founding father of Liberia. He attended the Baptist school in Edina where his father managed and his mother taught. Cheeseman became fluent in speaking Bassa and Gola at an early age.

Cheeseman lost his father in a drowning accident on June 8, 1857. At the young age of fifteen, he took on the responsibility of providing for his mother and four siblings. He successfully supported his family and became a leading businessman in Grand Bassa County. 

Cheeseman was a true man of God and his primary focus was converting indigenous Liberians to Christianity and building Christian schools along the coastal areas of Liberia.
Cheeseman was an evangelist in full form. He became the Pastor of the Edina Baptist Church in 1868 and held this position until he was elected President of Liberia in 1891.  During his pastorship, Cheeseman began to study law and eventually became Chief Judge of Grand Bassa County the same position his late father held.

In 1880, Cheeseman became the head of the Liberian Baptist Convention and worked to establish schools in Marshall and Gola lands. Equally, Cheeseman had become one of leading merchants in Liberia. Cheeseman’s motto was: “Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might.” 
In 1876, Cheeseman ran for office unsuccessfully against Anthony W. Gardiner. His progressive policies help to put an end to the Republican Party dominance in Liberian politics. Cheeseman was a friend and follower of Edward Wilmot Blyden’s progressive beliefs. He believed that the survival of Liberia depended on the quick integration of the native people into Liberian society. Most of all, Cheeseman was a fiscally prudent President. His presidency saw Liberia adopt fiscally sound policies regarding commerce.  He abandoned the old currency for the gold standard. Payments of customs duties in gold were vigorously enforced.  He was a fiscal conservative. 

In his second inaugural address Cheeseman said:

“The natives should be made to feel that they are part and parcel of our body politic; and that by the adoption of methods to bring about a closer and friendlier alliance with them was important to a prosperous Liberia. We have learned that methods of past years will fail to accomplish the desired object of bringing the natives into our society”

Joseph James Cheeseman is the great grand father of Selena Horace.


Steven Allen Benson


                                                Steven Allen Benson
Steven Allen Benson was the second President of Liberia. He was born in Cambridge, Maryland on March 1816. He traveled to Liberia as a child with his parents. His family arrived in Liberia on August 1822.
During an attack on the colony of Liberia by natives, his brother, Joseph Benson, was shot dead and his father James Benson was severely wounded through the shoulder. Benson and his relatives were held captive for four months. His interaction with the natives during his captivity had a profound influence on his vision for Liberia.
For four years, Stephen Benson was a military shopkeeper. He was also a private secretary to Thomas Buchanan, the last of Liberia's white governors. Benson later became a successful businessman. He joined the militia in 1835, and in 1842 became a major in the army and delegate to the Colonial Council.  He was also a military tactician who protected the settlers in Grand Bassa County from ruthless attacks by a Bassa slave trading chief named Grando.  Benson and his military mentor, Colonel William Weaver, protected a few settlements in Grand Bassa County against tremendous attacks by thousands of native warriors. It was under Benson’s leadership in the field that Grando and his belligerents were finally defeated militarily.

Benson was very concerned about Liberia’s Indigenous people. Although Benson supported the settler group, he revered Bassa customs. He loved the native way of life, and mastered the Bassa Language. It is believed that he fathered of many children by Bassa women.
Steven Allen Benson was elected president of Liberia in 1852. President Benson was a man ahead of his time. He wanted to integrate the native people into the Americo -Liberian society. President Benson was very interested in education; therefore, he founded the Liberia College. He preferred to establish the college in the Liberian hinterland, but it drew tremendous opposition from former President Roberts and the mulatto elites in Monrovia. President Steven Allen Benson died on January 24, 1865 after a brief illness.


                                                 John Brown Russwurm

John Brown Russwurm was the first Governor of Maryland in Africa. Maryland was a colony located a few hundred miles down the coast from the colony of Liberia. Russwurm was born on Oct. 1, 1799, in Jamaica. His mother was a Creole woman and his father a white American. His father returned to the United States in 1807, and sent young Russwurm for schooling in Canada. His step mother Susan Blanchard decided to bring John to their Maine home to have him educated. He attended Hebron Academy.

After completing his secondary school education, Russwurm attended Bowdoin College and graduated in 1826.He was one of the first two Black Americans to graduate from college in the United States.  After graduating, Russwurm moved to New York. [ 2]
While in New York, Russwurm became interested in journalism. He believed that through journalism he could reach the free Black audience that mainsteam newspapers could not reach. In fact, Russwurm first declined a position in Liberia.  Instead, he joined Samuel Cornish to edit Freedom's Journal, the first newspaper in America published by Black Americans. Following Cornish's lead and in line with the opinions of most articulate free Blacks, the paper opposed the American Colonization Society (ACS) policy to send Blacks to Liberia.
When Cornish left the paper, Russwurm began to shift the editorial policy concerning immigration. Paradoxically, Russwurn began to favor a view that most in the free Black community opposed: immigration to Liberia. This began to affect his readership. He was looked upon as betraying the cause by supporting the American Colonization Society that the free Black community saw as a tool of slave owners. The newspaper came to an end in 1829 when Russwurm announced he was quitting and migrating to Liberia.

Arrival in Liberia

Upon arriving in Liberia, Russwurm started working as the colonial secretary for the American Colonization Society between 1830 and 1834. In 1833, he married Sarah McGill, the daughter of the affluent Lieutenant-Governor of Liberia George R. McGill. The same year Russwurm became superintendent of schools, and the editor of the Liberian Herald.

In 1834, Russwurm resigned his post with the American Colonization Society protesting the society’s policies that he felt stymied black leadership. Russwurm felt that the ACS was practicing racism by refusing to let blacks govern themselves. He left Monrovia for Maryland, a few hundred miles down the coast from Monrovia. This colony was sponsored by the Maryland Colonization Society.

After arriving in Maryland, Russwurm quickly learned Grebo with proficiency. In 1836, he became the first black governor of the Maryland in Africa, a post he held until his death, encouraging the immigration of African-Americans to Maryland and supporting agriculture and trade.

Shortly before his death in 1850, Russwurm returned to Maine for a visit. He brought two of his sons with him and enrolled them at North Yarmouth Academy between 1850 and 1852 where they lived with their step-grandmother, Susan Hawes.  Russwurm died in 1851. A monument was erected to his memory near his burial site in Harper, Cape Palmas, Liberia.  His beloved Maryland in Africa was annexed to Liberia in 1857. 



Excerpts from Book: Greatest Liberians in History.

References included in the book.