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Nontribal Peoples: Americo-Liberians and Others

The core of the country's nontribal population is constituted by the descendants of the early settlers and augmented by those indigenous Liberians who have been biologically and culturally assimilated by them. Until the mid?1950s the term Americo-Liberians was commonly used for these people, but it came into disfavor with the Americo? Liberian elite in part because it implied that the elite lacked real roots in the country. No term acceptable to the members of this group and to others has emerged;the older name therefore may be used to distinguish a historically important ethnic category.

A second element in the nontribal population is made up of descendants of Africans who had been brought to Liberia in the nineteenth century from captured slave ships. These people, called Congoes, originally had a separate identity, but over the years most have been absorbed into the Americo-Liberian group. Observers writing in the latter half of the twentieth century seemed unable to agree on whether a Congo remnant still existed, but even those who thought that a few were left assumed that they would disappear as a distinguishable entity before the end of the twentieth century. In the 1980s all Liberians of settler descent were frequently referred to as Congoes, a term that had pejorative connotations for Americo-Liberians.

The Americo-Liberians were able to maintain their numbers and even to increase them slightly by assimilating most of the Congoes and children of indigenous or part?indigenous origin. It was not uncommon for Americo?Liberian males, despite the official monogamy demanded by their Christian faith, to take "country wives" whose children were then treated as legitimate members of the father's family and educated as Americo-Liberians. Another less important source of recruitment to the Americo-Liberian core were youngsters of tribal origin brought into Americo-Liberian households as wards. Some were no more than servants. Others who were considered more promising often held higher status in the household and acquired more than a rudimentary education. Sometimes they became integral members of the family and, therefore, of the Americo-Liberian ethnic group. Some wards, however, especially those who were of chiefly families, retained primary connections with the indigenous group from which they stemmed.

Despite their common heritage, Americo-Liberians did not constitute a homogeneous group. No more than 1,500 to 2,000 people?about 10 percent of the Americo-Liberian population formed the bulk of the political, social, and economic elite and subelite in the Tubman and Tolbert eras. It has been asserted that the others ranged from those who were quite poor to a heterogeneous clerical and professional stratum. But the observations and analyses of social scientists have focused largely on the elite and the near elite, and in 1984 little was known of descendants of the settlers at the lower end of the social and economic scale.

With few exceptions Americo-Liberians of whatever stratum resided in coastal towns or their immediate hinterlands. Most members of the small elite maintained a residence in or near Monrovia, although a number had roots and homes as far away as Harper in Maryland County and in other coastal counties.

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