Doris D. Grimes: A Page of Liberian History An Anniversary Edition
By Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II
Doris Delicia Grimes, a Liberian, was born about 91 years ago on October 31. She died naturally and peacefully on December 21, 2015, in New Jersey, USA. She was in her early 80s when she died. I first wrote this tribute in January 2016 in her honor. I am republishing it with added information as a birthday anniversary edition. October 31 is also the birthday anniversary of her husband, Joseph Rudolph Grimes. Therefore, the tribute is in part to him.
She was a quiet and intelligent woman and a scholar in her own right. She stood with her late husband in good and bad times. Their marriage lasted for over 55 unbroken years. Interestingly, as indicated, they were born on the same month and date and got married that same date. To them and others, it was a marriage made in heaven. I knew them very well.
As a boy attending CWA in Liberia in the 60s, I visited them regularly at their Sinkor area home. She liked working with her hands attending to her garden. Mr. Grimes was then Secretary of State, as the position was called. It was unusual in those days for a lady of her standing to get her hands dirty.
Like her, Mr. Grimes was quiet. He was tall and also an effective diplomat, who guided Liberian foreign affairs and policy in the sixties and up to the time of President Tubman’s death in 1971. He had a soft voice. He was the first Liberian to graduate from Harvard Law School and the first Liberian to earn a Master’s degree from Columbia University. He founded the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law of the University of Liberia. He was the first dean of the law school named after his father, who was Secretary of State and later Chief Justice of the Liberian Supreme Court. Joseph Grimes was an inspiration for my decision to study international affairs and my boyhood dream to become a diplomat and an international lawyer. He was a lawyer. He was my Godfather.
Although quiet, Doris Grimes would respond if you addressed her wrongly. She was concerned about the social cleavages in Liberia. In 1966, I came to the US to continue my high school education. Mrs. Grimes visited America a year after and was a guest of the late Ambassador Nathan Barnes, Liberian permanent representative to the UN. I visited her at the ambassador’s residence in New Rochelle, New York. She suggested that I play with the ambassador’s two boys, who were about my age. I decided to help them in moving a portable stereo set from one room to another. But the children wanted me to carry the set all by myself while they played. They probably felt that as a country boy, I should do their work. Mrs. Grimes was quietly mad about that attitude. The children’s behavior may have been due to the belief in Liberia that native people should serve the settler elites and they, the settlers, should always rule Liberia.
Though she was well educated and a member of the elite, she was private and caring. She was considered the pillar of her husband. Mrs. Doris Grimes contributed to research on Liberian affairs. Her scholarly work at the New York University, her alma mater, has been cited by other researchers and Liberianists, including Gus Liebenow, author of “Liberia: Evolution of Privilege”. I admired her simplicity, honesty, and commitment to truth. She was conscious and proud of her African culture in the face of criticism.
In her unpublished book, ”One Together, J. Rudolph Grimes and Doris Grimes”, she described her experience in maintaining this cultural heritage. She wrote:
“Most of the time I wore Liberian attire to everything official and unofficial. I had been doing this even when I was in school in the USA. The Liberian officials did not like this; they criticized me and even blamed my husband for my action, wearing lappas, the only Liberian official’s wife who wore lappas.”
At her husband’s funeral in New York, she stated that she was not a diplomat and spoke strongly against his critics, according to her, for spreading lies on Mr. Grimes. It was said that when Tubman died, Secretary Grimes hid the news of the death from reaching Vice President Tolbert because Grimes wanted to become president. Tubman had left the government in care of Grimes when he departed to London for medical treatment. The president was accompanied by Mrs. Tubman and the Under-Secretary of State T. Ernest Eastman.
In an excerpt of her book, she narrated that Grimes did not get the news of the passing until later, though he had spoken to Mrs. Tubman the day of the death and she informed him that the President’s operation was successful and that the president was in the recovery room with several doctors. Mrs. Grimes stated that at the same time the news had reached Liberia and was circulating around town. Ernest Eastman, instead of informing Grimes first, told the news to Steve Tolbert, the VP’s brother, and later to the VP.
The vice president was out of the city when Tubman died. Accordingly, when Grimes confirmed the death, he made necessary arrangements for the Speaker of the House to immediately swear in the VP. The speaker’s son, Attorney General George Henries, was also in the room. Just after the swearing-in, Tolbert held Grimes’ arm and said “Rudi, you did this for me? God will forever bless you”. Grimes responded, “I did it for Liberia Mr. President”.
She also pointed out that many individuals were positioning themselves and trying to get on the bandwagon of the new president after Tubman’s death, and they were making up lies and stories for their own benefit. She informed that before the surgery, Steve told friends that the president would die in office and the vice president would take over. She stated that Steve was boasting to the friends asking them what government posts they wanted.
Mrs. Grimes wrote of the matter in detail as follows.
“The Ambassador, J Dudley Lawrence called McKinley DeShield to tell him that Mr. Tubman had died. Mac DeShield sent his son, Leonard DeShield, an official of the State Department to tell Mr. Tolbert who then began calling his relatives to come to his home. The Under-Secretary of State, Ernest Eastman, had called Tolbert’s brother Steve Tolbert who was in Washington D. C. Steve expressed the opinion that Ernest Eastman was trying to get on their bandwagon now that Tubman was gone”.
Moreover, “I might mention here that Steve Tolbert had bought a yacht and was traveling with friends to Sierra Leone some months before Mr. Tubman became ill. He told his friends that Mr. Tubman would die in office and his brother would be the successor and Steve said he would be in charge of everything. He then asked his friends what positions they wanted, one wanted to be the Attorney General, one the Secretary of State, one Ambassador to Italy, and one said, “I just want to be able to sell my f… Paint”.
She felt that President Tolbert, upon ascendency to the presidency, was insincere and not honest when he said that God had told him after many fasting and prayers what position Grimes should take in the new administration. But the post in mind was suggested to the president in a letter by “all of the English Speaking heads of state” in Africa whose representative had visited Grimes and had given him a copy of the letter. A few days after, the president invited Grimes to tell him of the revelation from “God”.
“Imagine!!! Rudolph has a copy of the letter at home and this man is telling him such things. The man, according to Liberian expression has no shame”, she wrote. Grimes did not take an offer from Tolbert. He took employment in the private sector. The president appointed Rocheforte Weeks, a former president of the University of Liberia and a lawyer as Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Mrs. Grimes additionally stated that the source of the lie that Grimes was hiding the death news was Mac DeShield, the Post Master General in the Tubman administration. He was said to have done everything possible to be in the good book with the new president to retain his government job. Unfortunately, Tolbert dismissed him upon being president. The removal may have gotten to him so much that he was said to have unsuccessfully tried to influence instability in the Tolbert government. At his sickbed, Mrs. Grimes indicated that DeShield wanted to speak to Grimes but it was too late. DeShield became Post Master General as the youngest cabinet member in the Tubman government. He became the oldest and powerful as the years went by, serving as the Secretary General of the True Whip Party. He was close to the president. Tubman selected him to give the six term acceptant speech on Tubman’s behalf when the president was having eyes problem. However, Tolbert made DeShield the first to go.
Unfortunately, also, Eastman was removed from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Steve Tolbert died from a plane crash while serving as Minister of Finance. The rest is history. Regrettably, Doris Grimes’ book did not get published before her death. It would have thrown more light also on Liberian politics and events before and immediately after Tubman’s demise.
When Steve served as the finance minister, many Liberians disliked him, accusing him of forcibly buying out companies and acting as a “prime minister”. However, those that closely worked with Steve viewed him positively as a fair and competent manager who respected and rewarded talents. He was a successful and wealthy businessman before working in his brother’s administration. One assistant who praised him is Former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She worked under Steve at the Finance Ministry.
A conspiracy theory has been advanced regarding Tubman’s death. Ambassador David Chieh, Sr., then Tubman’s private secretary who also accompanied the president to London for the medical treatment, reported in his memoire, “Spectacular Rise and Catastrophic Fall”, that Tubman’s trip was not for surgery but for a regular medical check-up. However, against the president’s wishes, a team of three physicians pressured Tubman to undergo prostate surgery. They were composed of a Liberian, a British, and a German. Though the operation was successful, complications developed shortly after. We were stunned by the sudden death, Chieh indicated.
He further said it was alleged that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in America knew about the assassination of Tubman and that the death was not caused by what was reported. Therefore, the agency “objected that Vice President Tolbert should become president because he was part of the conspiracy. They instead contacted General Korboi Johnson, Army Chief of Staff, to take over as president. General Johnson who was still too shocked by the entire incident, declined as he knew that there were no provisions in the nation’s constitution to allow for such ascension of power”.
The allegation appears to coincide with Steve Tolbert’s statement on the yacht mentioned by Mrs. Grimes previously. Chieh pointed out also that Deshield, as secretary-general of the party, attempted to seize the opportunity to become president upon Tubman’s demise. But apparently realizing that was impossible, Deshield started showing loyalty to VP Tolbert by insisting that the vice president be located for an immediate swearing-in.
Despite the above, historically in Liberia, secretaries of state had become presidents. In 1900, Garretson Gibson, Secretary of State under President William Coleman, became president upon Coleman’s resignation and the death of Vice President Jacob Ross. House Speaker Robert Marshall, who was constitutionally in line for the presidency, was overpassed by the Liberian Legislature because they felt the speaker was unqualified. Hence, Gibson became president. In 1930, Secretary of State Edwin Barclay became president upon the resignation of President Charles King and Vice President Allen Yancy. The Speaker of the House, John N. Lewis, was in Sinoe County away from Monrovia. The Liberian Legislature hurriedly made Barclay president.
But in the matter regarding Tubman’s death, it would have been difficult for Secretary Grimes to become president. Even if Vice President Tolbert could not be located or was incapacitated, Speaker Richard Henries was qualified to assume the presidency. He was in Monrovia; he was respectable, powerful, influential, and likable among his peers. Moreover, though Grimes was an effective administrator, he was too diplomatic, easy-going, and not charismatic. He was not cut out to play hard-ball politics for the presidency.
Mr. Grimes was compassionate, caring, and encouraging. I remember visiting his office one afternoon after school. The State Department was located opposite CWA on Ashmun and Center Streets. The school boys dormitory where I was residing was at the back, so I visited the office regularly. He had an important document to type. His private secretary, Mr. Moulton, was feeling sick and was struggling typing but could not tell Mr. Grimes the condition. When Grimes noticed the situation, he asked him to go home, and he, Grimes, would do the typing. Though Moulton was hesitant to leave maybe for fear of losing his job, Grimes pleaded that he should go home and get some rest and return to work when he is feeling better. Grimes took off his coat, relaxed his tie, and typed the document with great speed. I was amazed by his typing skill, which I was told he learned while a student in America. Grimes demonstrated similar care with Ms. Diggs, his second secretary. She later married Mr. E. Reginald Townsend, who was serving as an official in the government. Also, in 1966 when I published my first poem in the Palm Magazine, he complimented me for having a good writing skill. The commendation was a huge encouragement and inspiration to a 10th grader.
Back to Mrs. Grimes; she was her own person, was independent, reserved, and acted with dignity. She told President Tolbert that she and her husband were a team and that the husband did not control her and neither did she. She revealed that shortly after Tolbert became president, he called her one early morning. The conversation went as follows.
“Doris, how are you?
I said, “Fine, thank you. – Who is this”?
And the voice said “Willie”.
I asked, “Willie who”?
And the voice said, “Willie Tolbert, call me Willie, Doris”.
I said, “No, sir — all my life I have known you as Mr. Tolbert and that is what it is still”.
In those days in Liberia, women were not supposed to speak as Mrs. Grimes did. They were to stay in the kitchen and take orders. They were to seize any opportunity from men, most especially rich, powerful, and influential men. She was a pacesetter. She knew Tolbert for a long time. She expressed that before he went into politics, he was a young tailor working in her uncle’s shop.
Mrs. Grimes would not hesitate to correct you if you give misinformation, particularly on a subject which she knew about. She took Liberian historian, the late Emmanuel Bowier, to task for stating that Tubman imprisoned former president Edwin J. Barclay and that Barclay died in the US. As an eyewitness regarding Barclay’s death, she corrected that Tubman did not jail Barclay and he did not die in America. She added, “he was never sent to prison. He did not die in prison…..He died at the Du Side Medical Center near Harper” in Liberia and was buried on his farm. She was close to Barclay. She was an in-law of the Barclays, for Mr. Grimes was also a Barclay and an in-law of Tubman.
As indicated in a previous article, Barclay introduced Tubman as his successor to the presidency for the 1943 election against the wishes of many Monrovian politicians. Later upon his election, Tubman and Barclay fell out, though Tubman married Antoinette Louise Padmore Tubman, the daughter of Barclay’s first cousin. The rift between the two men continued until Barclay’s death in November 1955.
Mrs. Grimes was not without wrong or the appearance of it as a human. The late Tarty Teh, a writer, complained that she showed no regard when her dog allegedly attacked him when he was a boy in Liberia and a neighbor of the Grimes.
The late Mrs. Grimes was the daughter of Henry B. Duncan, a former secretary of public works under Tubman. She was an economist. She received a Master’s degree in economics from NYU and wrote her thesis on Economic Development in Liberia. Her husband’s mother, Victoria Cheeseman, was adopted and raised by President and Mrs. Joseph Cheeseman in the Executive Mansion. She was originally Jemoh Fahnbulleh of the Kiazolu clan of the Vai Tribe. She was renamed Victoria after Cheeseman’s only biological daughter, who had just died. Victoria married Louis Arthur Grimes. They named their son Joseph after the president.
Mrs. Doris Delicia Grimes was a lady of grace. I am saluting her not for being the wife of a high government official, but for the life she lived and for her fine character and integrity. She and honorable Grimes were personally helpful to me in my growing up, and I am grateful for their kindness.
May her soul rest in heavenly peace.