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Americo Liberians and the Indigenes

From 1822, when the first settlers arrived on the Liberian coast, until the 1950s, the basic social cleavage in the territory was defined by ethnicity. According to Liberian historians, there were four orders or classes of persons in the country's early history. The first of these was distinguished by its wealth, education, political power, and light skin color from the mass of immigrants and their descendants who constituted the second order. The third order consisted of all the so called Congocs, a name given to people who were landed in Liberia after being freed from slave ships operating in African waters. The fourth order consisted of the indigenous Africans who were living in the area before the other three arrived. Over time the association between high social, economic, and political status and power, on the one hand, and light skin color on the other, diminished in importance. A major step in this process was, taken in 1870 when Edward James Roye, a black man born in the United States, was elected as the fifth president of the republic.

The Congoes were gradually absorbed by the lower strata of the Americo Liberians. The process involved not only the social and political rise of blacks within the settler group but also a breakdown of the barriers to intermarriage within the social orders. As skin color became increasingly irrelevant in defining social status and prestige among Liberians in the twentieth century, the Americo Liberians emphasized the differences between themselves and the tribal peoples.

The Americo Liberians presided over the development of a social system in which they assumed superiority over the tribal peoples. The term kwi first used in the nineteenth century by indigenous Africans to identify the settlers and other foreigners (including Europeans), was adopted by the Americo Liberian community as a synonym for civilized. The state of being kwi was defined by family background, education, church membership (preferably in a mainline Protestant denomination), and certain other social relationships. Kwi status thus became a prerequisite for a favored position within the Americo Liberian social setting.

In general, Americo Liberians constituted a circumscribed set of people, and the social boundaries were permeable only on the initiative of members of the set. If tribal Africans entered the privileged preserve, they normally did so when individual Americo Liberians acted as their sponsors by means of formal or informal adoption. The tribal people accepted through adoption or intermarriage became kwi by taking American or European names, by acquiring a Western education, and by adopting Americo Liberian customs and patterns of behavior.

The social, political, and economic distinctions between these two segments of the population were associated with major differences in values and ways of life. The settlers from the New World and their descendants possessed a completely different culture one rooted in American customs and values from those of the tribal African peoples. Until the change in economic structures and official attitudes highlighted by Tubman's Unification Policy in 1944, the settler element of the population had not achieved a sustained interest in developing relationships with the indigenous inhabitants beyond what was necessary to obtain needed domestic labor and to maintain public order. For their part the tribal Africans were largely concerned with preserving the autonomy of their own social structures. These attitudes were reinforced by an inadequate transportation and communications system that limited even superfcial acquaintance and social interaction between the Americo Liberians living in the coastal region and the peoples of the Hinterland. Moreover, there were few enterprises of any kind that entailed direct, permanent relations between the two factions. Some tribal people worked as agricultural laborers or domestic servants for Americo Liberians, and some engaged in a limited amount of trade with them. But the great mass of tribal people were cut off from any contact with the settlers and their descendants in the coastal area of the country.

Governmental processes such as tax collection and adjudication were colonial in character in that they were administered by those considered to be outsiders by members of Liberia's tribal societies. In effect, most of the country's inhabited areas in the interior consisted of largely autonomous tribal units whose tenuous political and economic ties with the Americo Liberian authorities were mainly of a coercive nature the hut tax, compulsory labor, and restrictions on movement. In addition to the tribal people who were recruited to work in the Americo Liberian community, there were tribesmen, especially on the coast (Bassa, Kru, Grebo, Dey), who lived in settlements close to or surrounded by those of Americo Liberians. Some of them were thoroughly dependent on relationships with the Americo Liberians for their livelihood. Nevertheless, local tribal people in Monrovia and other centers of Americo Liberian population lived largely in their own neighborhoods and in terms of their own somewhat modified cultures.

Economic differences between Arnerico Liberians and tribal people lay not so much in occupational and income disparities within the same system as in a diversity of systems. Americo-Liberians were involved in a market economy and had access to the lifestyle associated with it. Yet most of the tribal people were active primarily in a subsistence economy. Some participated in the market economy to the limited extent possible before the 1960s, but the little wealth they acquired in that way was often pumped into their local systerns of exchange, e.g., as payments for wives.

Before the 1980 coup, political power, social status, and economic affluence were clearly linked and clustered in about a dozen Arnerico Liberian families. Many of these families were interrelated by marriage, and by the mid twentieth century intermarriage with tribal Liberians was common. Tolbert's mother, for example, was a Vai, and his wife was the daughter of the presidentof neighboring Ivory Coast. It was thought that of the 20, 000 or so descendants of nineteenth century settlers, fewer than 2,000 constituted the political, social, and economic elite and nearelite. Genealogical considerations were important, but they were not the sole determinants of status. Education and political adeptness apparently permitted some families to gain degrees of social and political standing but caused others to lose status. Although economic opportunities were provided in good part by social and political status, some families took better advantage of them than others did.

It has been observed that virtually all members of the upper class knew each other, whether they were kin or not. This was partly because the elite were few in number and concentrated in Monrovia and the coastal counties. But their familiarity could also be attributed to their shared membership in the churches, clubs, and fraternal orders that dominated their lives. Americo Liberians both men and women were usually members of at least one, and often several, of these organizations.

The most important of the fraternal orders was the Ancient, Free, and Accepted Masonic Lodge of Liberia. Founded in 1867, it encompassed 17 subordinate lodges in the mid 1970s. Before the 1980 coup almost all important social leaders and True Whig Party officials were Masons; many of them held high office in the Grand Lodge, as the chapter in Monrovia was known. It was generally believed that important decisions regarding national affairs were made in the confines of the Masonic lodges, a situation that contributed to resentment on the part of nonmembers, most of then of tribal background. In the 1970s the Masons were a dominant force, but their role was reportedly called into question by some younger members of the Americo Liberian elite and by persons of tribal origin who had attained membership in the Masonic Order by virtue of their education and upbringing as wards of Americo Liberian families.

Other large social and fraternal organizations included the Order of the Eastern Star of Africa (the women's auxiliary of the Masons), the United Brothers of Friendship (and its female counterpart, the Sisters of the Mysterious Ten), the Odd Fellows, and the International Order of Good Templars. In addition, there were other groups and social clubs of more limited range. These included the so called crowds Crowd 12, Crowd 13, Crowd 15, and Crowd 18 which were an outgrowth of groups that had attended secondary school or university at about the same time and whose members maintained their friendships in semiformal "old boy networks" throughout their adult lives.

The social order dominanted by Americo Liberians was shaken by the military takeover in 1980. The young enlisted soldiers of tribal background who assassinated Tolbert and other high officials of the True Whig Party regarded themselves as "redeemers" who were claiming their country from the control of a "minority clique." The government was taken over by uneducated soldiers of tribal background and by educated civilians, most of whom had made their reputations as radical critics of the Americo Liberian dominated socioeconomic system. Hundreds of prominent Americo Liberian were arrested, and unknown numbers of others fled into exile. Property belonging to the elite faction was looted or confiscated. The imposing Grand Lodge that overlooked the capital city of Monrovia a symbol of AmericoLiberian chauvinism was sacked and partially burned; squatters soon made it their home. Masonic meetings were banned by decree of the military government, and all but one of the lodges were reportedly destroyed in the wake, of the coup.

At the time of the 1980 tumult, it appeared that being kwi and connected to the Liberian elite once a prerequisite to high social status had suddenly become a social liability. Instead, for a time it seemed that the highest social status was conferred upon the members of the People's Redemption Council who had carried out the coup, on soldiers in general, and on Liberians who had long been vocally opposed to the rule of the True Whig Party.

Within less than two years, however, it was clear that Americo Liberians many of whom had been considered part of the elite through their positions in the Tolbert or Tubman administrations, the True Whig Party, the churches, and the Masonswere again playing a prominent role in the government (see Transitional Politics, 1981 82, ch. 4). It was generally thought that the reemergence of Americo Liberians and the renewed social status accorded many of them was a reflection of the technical training, managerial competence, and experience of those appointed to high office. In other words, it appeared that the Americo Liberians and others who constituted a technocraticbureaucratic elite had achieved their prominence not because of their ethnic background or membership in the Masons but because facets of their kwi condition made them valuable members of Liberia's modernizing society.

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