- Trans-Atlantic Sojourners: The Story of an Americo-Liberian Family by M. Neely Young
Americo-Liberians historically have not received much respect. The former slaves who sought to establish a strong new nation in West Africa remained instead beleaguered colonizers perennially at odds with their indigenous neighbors. As M. Neely Young observes, the term Americo-Liberian itself came "to imply superiority, exclusivity, and insensitivity" (p. 2). For Young, that characterization represents an overgeneralization that fails to distinguish the capital Monrovia from the rest of the country. In the Richards and Coleman family, he has found a more sympathetic leadership extending across generations.
Young has done admirable research to trace the family's origins. He is most successful with Othello Richards, whose background seems fairly typical of early Liberian settlers. A household servant, probably of mixed race, Richards was owned by influential Virginia slaveholders active in the African colonization movement. He was also the first in a line of Methodist ministers, and, after he was freed in 1848, he was able to purchase the freedom of his family and move them to Liberia in 1850 with Methodist support.
Once settled in Liberia, the Richards family became closely tied to the Colemans. William D. Coleman lost his father around the time they arrived in Liberia, but he became a self-made leader and served as president of Liberia from 1896 to 1900. Politically and economically, the rise of the Richards and Coleman family was tied to Clay-Ashland, an interior town on the St. Paul River that flourished during the late nineteenth century. In contrast to Monrovia, with its mercantile economy and "'mulatto aristocracy,'" the farmers around Clay-Ashland were seen as more virtuous and committed to improving relations with the natives (p. 52). That spirit found political expression in the early years of the True Whig Party and in "Black Republicanism," an ideology associated with Edward Wilmot Blyden and generally embraced by members of the Richards and Coleman family (p. 99).
Unfortunately, Clay-Ashland' s importance faded during the twentieth century with the decline of coffee production, and the family was increasingly drawn to Monrovia. As the government became autocratic and exploitative, the Richards and Coleman family often found itself in the opposition. For the most part, family members continued to embody "the traits of their patriarchs … perseverance, courage, Christian faith and service, educational achievement, and a strong sense of justice" (p. 101). Although most of the family fled Liberia after the 1980 coup led by Samuel Doe, its connection to Liberia remains strong, and Young' s admiration shines in recounting his attendance at Richards and Coleman family reunions. [End Page 164]
As Young traces the history of several generations, the reader is likely to become lost in a growing cast of characters, but Young provides a useful biographical appendix. Most important, he succeeds in using the family history to frame a more balanced and sympathetic perspective on the history of Liberia.