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Americo-Liberian people or Congo people or Congau people in Liberian English, are a Liberian ethnic group of African-American, Afro-Caribbean, and Liberated African descent. The sister ethnic group of Americo-Liberians are the Sierra Leone Creole people, who share similar ancestry and related culture. Americo-Liberians trace their ancestry to free-born and formerly enslaved African Americans who emigrated in the 19th century to become the founders of the state of Liberia. They identified there as Americo-Liberians. Some African Americans following resettlement in Canada also participated as founding settlers in Sierra Leone and other Recaptive repatriates settled in present-day Côte d'Ivoire.
Although the terms "Americo-Liberian" and "Congo" had distinct definitions in the nineteenth century, they are currently interchangeable and refer to an ethnic group composed of the descendants of the various free and ex-slave African-American, Caribbean, Recaptive and Sierra Leone Creoles who settled in Liberia from 1822.
The designation 'Congo' for the Americo-Liberian population came into common usage when these African Americans integrated 5,000 liberated Africans called Congos (former slaves from the Congo Basin, who were freed by British and Americans from slave ships after the prohibition of the African slave trade) and 500 Barbadian immigrants into the Americo-Liberian hegemony. Americo-Liberians rarely intermarried with indigenous West Africans.
Although Western literature and discourse in the United States and United Kingdom use the term "Americo-Liberians", this term is outdated and in common parlance the majority of Liberians (including the Americo-Liberian people themselves) and neighbouring West Africans such as Sierra Leoneans refer to the Americo-Liberian people as "Congo" or "Congau" people.
In addition to indigenous Liberian chiefs and royal families, upper-class Americo-Liberians and their descendants led the political, social, cultural and economic sectors of the country; alongside indigenous Liberian elites, upper-class Americo-Liberians ruled the new nation from 19th century until 1980 as a small but dominant minority. From 1878 to 1980, the Republic of Liberia was a de facto one-party state, ruled by elites of both the indigenous and Americo-Liberian-dominated True Whig Party and Masonic Order of Liberia.
History and settlement
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The early African-American settlers practiced their Christian faith, sometimes in combination with traditional African religious beliefs. They spoke an African-American Vernacular English, and some ventured into the interior and mingled with local African peoples.
The early African-American settlers who arrived in the region that was established as Liberia between 1820 and 1843 were mainly free blacks from Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia and smaller numbers from Northern states such as New Jersey, New York, Delaware, and Connecticut. Subsequent African-American settlers to Liberia between 1843 and 1900 also included emigrants from Mississippi, Kentucky, and Florida.
The colony-born or children born in the Liberian Republic to Black American parents were designated as Americo-Liberians and the term originally only referred to African Americans in Liberia and their descendants, but eventually became synonymous with the term Congo which also had a specific meaning before its interchangeability with the term Americo-Liberian.
Although the number of Afro-Caribbean immigrants to Liberia were relatively small in comparison to colonial Sierra Leone, at least 300 Afro-Barbadians settled in Liberia in 1865 and smaller numbers of Afro-Caribbean immigrants settled in Liberia between 1865 and 1930 from Caribbean islands such as Trinidad, Jamaica, and Grenada.
The American Navy was responsible for the recapture of illegal slave vessels seeking to transport enslaved Africans to the Americas following the American abolition of the slave trade in 1808. These enslaved Africans called Liberated Africans or Recaptives, many of whom were from the Congo Basin were designated as 'Congoes' and all Recaptives, including those from modern-day Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana were all described as 'Congoes.'
Between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, these various groups of transatlantic settlers and Recaptives or Liberated Africans intermarried and merged to form the Americo-Liberian or Congo ethnic group, which became synonymous terms for this creolized ethnic group which incorporated African-American, Afro-Caribbean, and African elements.
Development of society
They developed an Americo-Liberian society, culture and political organization that was strongly influenced by their roots in the United States, particularly the country's Southeast but was also influenced by Afro-Caribbean culture and the West African cultures of the multi-ethnic Recaptives.
Americo-Liberians were credited for Liberia's largest and longest economic expansion in the early to late twentieth century, especially William V. S. Tubman, who did much to promote foreign investment and to bridge the economic, social, and political gaps between the descendants of the original settlers and the inhabitants of the interior. Most of the powerful old Americo-Liberian families fled to the United States in the 1980s after President William Tolbert was assassinated in a military coup.
Although Liberianist scholars have neglected internal stratifications such as class and geography among the Americo-Liberian society, regional and local socio-economic differences among the Americo-Liberians resulted in slight cultural differences between rural 'upriver' Americo-Liberians such as those based in Clay-Ashland and city-based Americo-Liberians, particularly those based in Monrovia who were sometimes referred to 'Monrovia Americo-Liberians.' Americo-Liberians based in Monrovia were portrayed as more urbane than their rural counterparts and were perceived by some Americo-Liberians as wielding too great an influence on national political affairs.
The Americo-Liberians established several settlements along the St Paul River such as Monrovia, Crozerville or Crozierville, Careysburg, Clay-Ashland, Buchanan, Maryland, Mississippi-in-Africa, and Greenville. Several of the Americo-Liberians also settled in Cape Mount and the Barbadian settlers, who were incorporated into the Americo-Liberian or Congo ethnicity, settled in Crozierville and included prominent families such as the Barclays, Morgans, Bests, Thorpes, Weeks, and Portemans.
The original Congo people or Liberated Africans or Recaptives were settled in New Georgia, and were incorporated into the Americo-Liberian ethnic group. Immigrants from Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast settled in Monrovia or in other Americo-Liberian settlements, and were incorporated into Americo-Liberian society. There was a distinction between the rural 'up-river' Americo-Liberians and the political and mercantile oriented Americo-Liberians in Monrovia.
Political developments in Liberia
As founders of the nation, and taking up about five percent of the Liberian population, upper-class Americo-Liberians had a leading role national politics from the founding of the colony until Samuel Doe led a military coup in 1980. There is a debate among academics about how upper-class Americo-Liberians were able exert a political power and influence greater than their population.
Some academics attribute the influence of the Americo-Liberians to the consolidation of economic and social interests across the various facets of Americo-Liberian society despite the fact that some initial divisions in early Americo-Liberian society were based on state of origin in the United States, educational levels, socio-economic class, free or freedmen status, and perhaps "colorism", particularly because the first president was of mixed race, as were numerous immigrants, reflecting the nature of African-American society in the Upper South.
However, some scholars argue against the importance of colorism in early Americo-Liberian society and have noted, that during the early Republic, the Americo-Liberian political leaders had an array of skin colors and tones from very dark skin to light skinned phenotypes reflecting African-European admixture, indicating that the theory on the importance of colorism in Americo-Liberian society is unlikely to be accurate.
It is more likely that upper-class Americo-Liberians built their power on their familiarity with American culture and economics, shared lineage, and ability to create a network of shared interests. Others believe their extensive political influence was in part due to the Masonic Order of Liberia, a fraternal organization. A marble Masonic Lodge was built in 1867 as one of Monrovia's most impressive buildings. It was considered a bastion of Americo-Liberian power, and was strong enough to survive the civil war. After years of neglect after the war the Masonic order has repaired the lodge.
In 1980, a violent military coup was led by Samuel Doe. Doe's tenure as leader of Liberia led to a period of civil wars, resulting in destruction of the country's economy. In the early 21st century, Liberia has been reduced to one of the most impoverished nations in the world, in which most of the population lives below the international poverty line.
Americo-Liberian culture is a blend of the African-American and Caribbean culture brought to Liberia by the various American, Recaptive, and West Indian settlers and is exhibited by the cuisine, language, and architectural style of the Americo-Liberians.
The Americo-Liberians introduced various aspects of African-American culture in Liberia including Liberian Settler English and a unique form of antebellum architecture. Furthermore, Americo-Liberians contributed to the culinary cuisine of the region by introducing American baking techniques.
Americo-Liberian weddings follow the traditional African-American or Afro-Caribbean style weddings in which the bridegroom appears in a lounge suit and the bride in a white wedding dress.
The Americo-Liberians arrived with varying degrees of formal and informal education. Americo-Liberians established schools and also established the University of Liberia, formerly Liberia College, in addition to other higher learning institutions such as Cuttington College.
The Americo-Liberians were among the first black Africans to qualify as medical doctors and lawyers in the United States and prominent Americo-Liberian pioneers include Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, a distinguished Harvard-educated Liberian psychiatrist and physician.
Several Americo-Liberians worked as teachers and taught both Americo-Liberian and Liberians from other ethnic groups. Americo-Liberians made a concerted effort to educate Liberians from other ethnic groups, including through the use of the ward system.
The Americo-Liberians are predominantly Protestant Christians and mainly belong to the Baptist, Methodist denominations although some Americo-Liberians are Episcopalians and perhaps a smaller minority adhere to the Catholic faith. Americo-Liberians introduced Protestant Christianity on a wider scale in the modern-day region of Liberia. Several Americo-Liberians served as missionaries to other ethnic groups in Liberia and were among the first Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopal missionaries of black African descent in Liberia.
Americo-Liberian cuisine includes a variety of dishes and is a blend of African-American, Afro-Caribbean and local indigenous Liberian rice and foofoo dishes. Americo-Liberians introduced traditional African-American baking techniques into the modern-day nation of Liberia. Liberia remains unique for its baking traditions that are derived from the African-American immigrants to Liberia. Traditional Americo-Liberian cuisine includes African-American soul food such as cornbread, fried chicken, collard greens but also incorporated local African traditional dishes such as palm butter soup and rice.
Present-day Americo-Liberians, similar to other Liberians, wear both African and Western-style dress. Ethnic groups in Liberia had been accustomed to seeing European dress prior to the arrival of the Americo-Liberians, as a consequence of extensive trade with Europeans dating to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
However, the ethnic groups who inhabited Liberia did not customarily wear Western-style dress, and it was the Americo-Liberians who popularized Western-style dress including the top hat, tailcoat, lounge suit and frock coat. Americo-Liberian women between the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries wore elaborate Victorian and Edwardian style American dresses that were fashionable among both the African-American and white American communities in the southern United States. Americo-Liberian men wore top hats, frock coats, and lounge suits in addition to spats.
Although Americo-Liberians would continue to wear elaborate style dress for special occasions such as weddings, parades, and the inauguration of presidents, they adapted their styles of dress to incorporate newer Western-style fashion and elaborate African-style dresses between the early to late twentieth centuries. In the modern era, although pioneered by the Americo-Liberians, Liberians, irrespective of ethnicity, wear both African and Western-style dress.
Americo-Liberians speak Liberian English and its varieties such Merico and Liberian Settler English, all of which have been influenced by African-American Vernacular English, Gullah, and Barbadian Creole. The Americo-Liberians introduced a form of African-American Vernacular English that influenced the existing pidgin English or patois that existed in the region of Liberia from the precolonial era. This form, called Standard Liberian English or Liberian Settler English, continues to be spoken by descendants of the original settlers today.
Americo-Liberian architecture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a unique fusion of antebellum architecture from the United States blended into the African environment of Liberia. Americo-Liberian houses were a variation of different architectural styles from the American South and were built of weather-board or stone frame and had both verandahs.
Wealthier Americo-Liberians incorporated antebellum southern architecture that included neoclassical and the neo-Greco-Roman architecture of the antebellum southern plantation great houses into the houses that they built in Liberia. Antebellum southern architecture incorporated Georgian, Neoclassical, and Greek Revival styles that are also reflected in Americo-Liberian architecture of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Diaspora and Legacy
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Following the 1980 coup and the Liberian Civil Wars, thousands of Americo-Liberians have settled permanently in the United States in places such as Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania and in places such as London in the United Kingdom. Although the Americo-Liberian diaspora is extensive in the United States and United Kingdom, there remain thousands of Americo-Liberians in Liberia in cities and towns such as Monrovia, Crozerville, and Careysburg.
Americo-Liberian cultural legacy
While globalization has carried African-American culture around the world, Americo-Liberians reproduced their own cultural American continuity in Liberia. Its name means "land of the free", and it is considered the most American of African countries in terms of its political institutions.
The Liberian constitution, structure of government, and flag resemble those of the United States. The former residences of Americo-Liberian families were built in the style of antebellum plantation homes they may have admired in the American South. Their language continued to carry elements of African-American Vernacular English. By many accounts, Liberians easily integrate into African-American communities. Liberian immigrants to the United States have the highest passport acceptance rates and the longest extension rates of any citizens of African nations.
Although many of the upper-class Americo-Liberians left the country or were killed during the civil wars, and their houses and monuments crumbling, ordinary Liberians look to the United States for aid. In 2007, BET founder Robert Johnson called for "African Americans to support Liberia like Jewish Americans support Israel".
The Americo-Liberian or Congau ethnic group has produced several notable politicians, businessman, and professionals including:
- Nathaniel Barnes, Liberian businessman and politician
- Edward Wilmot Blyden, Liberian intellectual scholar and Pan-Africanist pioneer
- Mary Antoinette Brown-Sherman, Liberian educator and first African woman to serve as president of a university
- Anna E. Cooper, educator, dean of the University of Liberia
- Helene Cooper, journalist for The New York Times
- Charles Cecil Dennis, Liberian diplomat and politician
- Solomon Carter Fuller, Liberian pioneer and African-American psychiatrist and physician
- C. Cyvette M. Gibson, Mayor of Paynesville, Liberia
- Louis Arthur Grimes, Liberian jurist
- Kat Graham, Swiss-born American actor of Liberian descent
- Romeo A. Horton, a founder of the Africa Development Bank
- John Payne Jackson, influential journalist in the Lagos Colony and founder of the Lagos Weekly Record
- Elijah Johnson, Liberian pioneer and founding father of Liberia
- James A. A. Pierre, Liberian politician
- Charles Taylor, Liberian President and convicted war criminal
- Hilary Teague, Liberian pioneer and author of the Liberian Declaration of Independence
- Frank E. Tolbert, Liberian politician and businessman
- Winston Tubman, Liberian lawyer and politician
- Benoni Urey, Liberian businessman and the wealthiest Liberian
- Kimmie Weeks, Liberian human rights activist
- Rhoda Weeks-Brown, General counsel to the IMF
American-born presidents of Liberia
- Joseph Jenkins Roberts, first and seventh president. Born in Norfolk, Virginia
- Stephen Allen Benson, second president. Born in Cambridge, Dorchester County, Maryland
- Daniel Bashiel Warner, third president. Born in Baltimore County, Maryland
- James Spriggs-Payne, fourth and eighth president. Born in Richmond, Virginia
- Edward James Roye, fifth president. Born in Newark, Licking County, Ohio.
- James Skivring Smith, sixth president. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Charleston County, South Carolina
- Anthony W. Gardiner, ninth president. Born in Southampton County, Virginia
- Alfred F. Russell, tenth president. Born in Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky
- William D. Coleman, thirteenth president. Born in Fayette County, Kentucky
- Garretson W. Gibson, fourteenth president. Born in Baltimore, Maryland
All subsequent presidents were born in Liberia.
- Liberian nationality law
- History of Liberia
- Martin Delany
- McGill family (Monrovia)
- Sierra Leone Creole people
- Gold Coast Euro-Africans
- Atlantic Creole
- "Americo-Liberians". BlackPast.org. Retrieved 16 June 2009.
They are an estimated population of 150,000 [Americo-Liberians] out of the 3.5 million people in the nation.
- Cooper, Helene, The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood (United States: Simon and Schuster, 2008), p. 6
- Liberia: History, Geography, Government, and Culture, Infoplease.com
- "About this Collection - Maps of Liberia, 1830-1870". The Library of Congress. Retrieved 1 February 2016.
- "Settlement of Liberia and Americo-Liberian Rule". PeacebuildingData.org. Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Retrieved 7 October 2018.
- President William V. S. Tubman, 1944–1971
- "For Liberians, old ties to US linger", The Christian Science Monitor, 8 August 2003.
- Wegmann, Andrew N. "Christian Community and the Development of an Americo-Liberian Identity, 1822-1878," (M.A. Thesis: Louisiana State University, 2010) Archived 30 June 2010 at the Wayback Machine
- Robert L. Johnson, "Liberia's Moment of Opportunity", The Washington Post, 13 May 2007
- "'Goldfinger' and the presidency". The Economist. 17 January 2014. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 23 October 2019.
- "25 years after his demise, Samuel Doe continues to cast a long shadow across Liberian politics". African Arguments. 9 September 2015. Retrieved 30 November 2015.