In 1990, when Leo Mulbah and his family arrived in the United States to escape the first of two bloody civil wars in Liberia, he was unlike the typical, wide-eyed immigrant.
He had grown up on Michael Jackson, Rambo and the Cosby Show. He knew American sports and politics just as well as he knew Liberia’s.
“For most Liberians, assimilation has never been a problem,” said Mulbah, 41, who was a teenager when his parents moved to Baton Rouge, La. “The culture is the same. We know more about America than most Americans do.”
Most Americans, on the other hand, likely know little about the tiny West African nation of Liberia apart from it being front-page news as ground zero in the Ebola crisis.
Yet America’s relationship with Liberia is deep and tangled, dating back nearly 200 years to American slavery — or at least an attempt to remedy it.
“People just think Liberia is a country in Africa that is in the news because of Ebola,” said Alan Huffman, author of “Mississippi in Africa.” “But we are basically responsible for creating it, which is why I have always been bewildered that the U.S. has had little interest in Liberia.”
The first group of free blacks and former slaves from America began arriving in Liberia in 1822 in an effort to be repatriated back to Africa.
When Liberia became Africa’s first independent nation in 1847, it modeled its political structure after the United States. The capital city is Monrovia, named after James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States. Liberia’s flag is a near replica of Old Glory, as is its constitution and Pledge of Allegiance.
Even today, American culture saturates Liberia in everything from the clothes to the music to the official language, which is English.
And there are as many as 20,000 Liberians living in Georgia, said Mulbah, who is president of the Liberian Association of Metro Atlanta.
Emory University historian Pam Scully, who has visited the country a half-dozen times, said Liberia’s “complicated founding is an intrinsic part of American history.”
“Liberians see America as a kind of home. But most Americans had never even heard of Liberia until Sirleaf (President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf) won the Nobel Peace Prize (in 2011), and now with Ebola,” said Scully, who authored a biography about Sirleaf. “The U.S. forgot about Liberia.”
BACK TO AFRICA
In the early 1800s a group called the American Colonization Society began plotting ways to repatriate free blacks to Africa, where they would have a better life than existed for them in America. The ACS was a mixture of abolitionist evangelicals and Quakers, who abhorred slavery, and Southern slave owners who wanted to completely remove free blacks from the society.
“There was … this feeling that emancipation was more likely to come if you could remove what Southern whites saw as a threat, being outnumbered by free blacks,” Huffman said.
Scully called the endeavor “a combination of philanthropy, racism and nostalgia in free blacks who wanted to go back to Africa.”
“This was a period where people were thinking, ‘If we can’t make things work here, what do we do?’” Scully said.
In 1822, with the support of President Monroe, who was a member of the American Colonization Society, the first 86 volunteer emigrants sailed to the West African Pepper Coast to a spot bordering Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire that would become Liberia — meaning liberty.
Scully wrote that the ACS bought a “36 mile long and 3 mile wide” strip of coastal land for trade goods, supplies, weapons, and rum worth approximately $300 from the indigenous people to begin the colony. Thousands of black emigrants followed, setting up colonial settlements along the coast. Between 1822 and 1892, an estimated 16,000 American blacks had relocated to Liberia.
But the Americo-Liberians, as they would be called, had a difficult time settling in a “place they knew nothing about,” Huffman said.
They brought with them American attitudes, speech and ways of dressing, fostering resentment among the indigenous people, who greatly outnumbered them.
“The Americans became the ruling class. They ran the show and the indigenous people were the underclass,” Huffman said. “When the ACS came over, there were negotiations, but the indigenous people didn’t realize what they were giving up. There was tension from the start.”
Some of that tension eventually led to civil wars and laid the foundation for Liberia’s current problems.
After Liberia gained independence in 1847, Virginia-born Joseph J. Roberts was elected its first president. For the next 133 years, although former slaves made up about just 5 percent of the population, they dominated national politics. Every Liberian president — until a 1980 coup — was a descendent of freed American slaves.
NOT A TERRITORY
After the initial influx of settlers to Liberia — about 3,000 between 1822 and 1847 — emigration slowed as America inched toward the Civil War and Emancipation. But the United States was always looming in the background.
In Abraham Lincoln’s “Peoria Speech,” delivered Oct. 16, 1854, he attacked the hypocrisy of slavery, but remained unclear on how to end it, confessing that neither colonization nor the thought of equality were practical.
“My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia — to their own native land,” Lincoln said.
But aside from America’s initial involvement in creating the settlement, the United States has since had little to do with Liberia. Unlike Guam or Puerto Rico, it was never an American territory. Nor was it ever a colony in the vein of, say, the Congo, which was brutally colonized by the Belgians.
“They were trying to get rid of people,” Scully said, adding that the United States was mimicking a model created by Great Britain, which had shipped its free blacks to neighboring Sierra Leone. “They were not interested in ruling them.”
Still, the U.S. has maintained some political and business interests in Liberia, one of the latter being Firestone, which has a major presence in the country.
“The U.S. has always been a reluctant empire,” Huffman said.
Between 1986 and 2003, two civil wars ripped apart Liberia, claiming the lives of 250,000 people and destroying the country’s economy and infrastructure.
The country is still trying to recover as more than 85 percent of the population is living below the international poverty line, making Liberia one of the poorest nations in the world.
The literacy rate is about 61 percent and millions of dollars in aid that came in after the wars have done nothing to improve the country’s infrastructure. Medical facilities are virtually nonexistent, as there is only one doctor for every 100,000 people.
“Sirleaf was trying, but people are asking where are all those millions that were poured in when you have no roads,” Scully said. “Now you have Ebola and a health care system that can’t cope.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ebola has ravished Liberia since March, killing 2,705 of the 4,665 reported cases in the country of 4 million people.
But the United States is paying closer attention now because of the Ebola crisis, and the Obama administration has committed troops and resources to help build medical facilities.
At the Liberian Association of Metro Atlanta headquarters, Mulbah and his relatives, who identify themselves as indigenous Liberians, continue to function as Americans while raising awareness and money to fight Ebola in their homeland.
“We are very resilient, generous and determined people,” said Mulbah, who moved to Atlanta in 1999. “With the attention, we at least have a platform to tell the world who we are. I just wish the attention had not come about because of Ebola.”