Archives Online at Indiana University

Bookmark and Share

William V.S. Tubman Papers, 1904-1992

Biographical Note

William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman (1895-1971), nineteenth president of Liberia, was born November 29, 1895 in Harper City, Maryland County, Liberia to Alexander Tubman and Elizabeth Rebecca Barnes Tubman. His paternal grandparents, manumitted slaves, were repatriates who in 1837 had immigrated from Georgia (USA) to the Maryland Colony in Africa. Tubman received his education at Government Elementary School in Harper City and the Cape Palmas Methodist Seminary. He began his political career in 1912 as an assistant in Probate Court, going on to serve in Harper City as a Councilman and teacher from 1914-1917. During this period Tubman also read law under the tutelage of Senator Monroe Cummings. He was admitted into the Maryland County bar in 1917 and appointed County Attorney. He became Inspector of Internal Revenue in 1919. He was elected to the Liberian Senate from Maryland County in 1923, serving until 1937 at which time President Edwin J. Barclay appointed him to be Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia. Tubman left the Supreme Court in 1943 to run for the presidency. His campaign was successful and he succeeded Edwin J. Barclay as president in January 1944. Clarence L. Simpson, Sr. served as his first vice president.

As Liberia’s longest serving president, Tubman’s presidency was marked by great changes in the economy, politics and social environment of Liberia and the African continent. Scholars divide the Tubman presidency into three periods. During the first period (1944-1955), he made successful efforts to bring loyal personal and political supporters into the government. As a Monrovia outsider he created a new political base of indigenous Liberians and disaffected members of the political elite. He also began to implement the policies that would characterize his presidency: the pursuit of national unification through accelerated assimilation of indigenous Liberians into the mainstream of an essentially repatriate-created society; advocacy of his Open Door Policy for foreign economic involvement in development; and diplomatically aligning with the Western countries in their East/West power conflicts.

During the second period (1955-1968), Tubman attempted to modernize the country’s economic and social institutions. The right to vote had been extended earlier to indigenous citizens, although a restrictive property clause was maintained. By 1964 a series of administrative reforms included the transformation of the former hinterland provinces to county status, dividing Liberia into nine counties—the original five coastal counties, plus four new interior counties: Lofa, Bong, Nimba and Grand Gedeh. The coastal and interior regions had been separated by lack of roads, disparities in education, means of communication and even by different laws. This reorganization was designed to remove distinctions between the coast and interior and to advance the goal of greater national integration of the indigenous peoples.

Although the legacy of the past still reflected differences in education, lifestyle and worldview between inhabitants of the coast and the interior, educational and political opportunities began to make inroads into the interior during the 1960s. These major internal political reforms brought representational parity between approximately 30,000 repatriates and one million indigenes, but the historic economic ascendancy of the repatriates and the absolute political power by the presidency still remained.

Through his Open Door policy Tubman continued to facilitate and encourage foreign businesses to locate and invest in Liberia, including major companies such as the Liberian Mining Company (LMC), the Liberian American Swedish Mineral Company (LAMCO), Bong Mining Company and the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company (already established in the late 1920s). Concession agreements were signed with over sixty companies, including agricultural and forestry concerns. Within a period of 25 years, Liberia attracted foreign investments exceeding one billion U.S. dollars. Although Liberia seemed to benefit from its phenomenal economic growth during the 1950s and 1960s, this prosperity was not accompanied with commensurate human development and equity. The Liberian economy depended on foreign investors who usually exported their unprocessed extracted products to processing industries in more economically developed countries, depriving Liberia of jobs and revenues that could have supported a better educational, medical and economic infrastructure. Instead, Liberia’s national economy developed into a dual system in which the concession sector had little connection with the rest of the economy.

During the decolonization era President Tubman enjoyed great international stature as one of Africa’s leading statesmen and. His presidency coincided with Africa’s dramatic transition from a continent of colonies to a continent of independent states. In 1944 as Tubman began his first term as President, only four independent states existed in Africa: Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa and Liberia. By the time of his death in 1971, there were forty independent African states.

When the British colony of Gold Coast became the independent country of Ghana in 1957, it set in motion African attempts to establish the political direction for a re-emerging Africa. Tubman believed in a future determined through consultations among Africa’s leaders and he favored an organization that featured African political cooperation and consultation among its leaders, rather than the continental government model favored by Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah. A series of conferences, including the 1959 Sanniquellie Conference in Liberia, the Casablanca Conference in 1961 and a number of smaller meetings and behind-the-scenes talks ensued. On May 25, 1963, thirty-three independent African countries signed the Charter for the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Liberian President Tubman and his Secretary of State, J. Rudolph Grimes, played key roles in drafting and negotiating the final document.

Tubman’s foreign policy usually aligned Liberia with the Western countries in Cold War politics, opposing countries and movements perceived to be leaning towards socialism or communism. Tubman would sometimes, however, associate Liberia’s foreign policy with the non-aligned states, notably on issues of decolonization.

During the third period of the Tubman era, the final years of his presidency (1968-1971), the country struggled with economic recession and fiscal stringency. The Tubman administration faced growing opposition resulting in the intensification of political paternalism.

Tubman died on July 23, 1971 in a London clinic following a prostate operation. He was succeeded by his Vice President, William R. Tolbert, Jr. Tubman was survived by his wife, Antoinette Louise Padmore Tubman and his children, including Wilhelmina Tubman-Tucker, William V. S. Tubman, Jr., William Eli Tubman (deceased) and John Hilary Tubman.

Accessibility Help