TODAY’S FEATURE: Liberia – The Election Of 1955, A Witness To History, Part 2
By Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II
I published this article in 2017 as a part of an analysis of “The Ethnicity of Liberian Electoral Politics, and a Look at the Election of 2017”. I have edited this edition and added some information. Part 1 of the witness discusses the election of 1951, and it can be viewed on the internet. That election was between two individuals from two different classes: William Tubman of the Americo-Liberian settler class and Didwho Twe of the Liberian native group. The Liberian government denied Twe’s party from participating in the election and therefore Tubman won unopposed and gained further political legitimacy and power. The 1955 election, however, was between two giants of the Americo-Liberians; former President Edward Barclay challenged Tubman.
Barclay (pictured left) was of a Barbados parentage. He was born in Montserrado County. He served as Secretary of State under President Charles D.B. King and became president upon King and Vice President Allen Yancy’s resignation in 1930. He was a musician and a composer. At the age of 19, he wrote, “The Lone Star Forever”, a Liberian national and patriotic song. He sailed Liberia through a difficult economic storm and brought the country to economic success, thanks in part for making the US Dollars as Liberian official currency and for making Liberia as a landing and supply base for American warplanes and military goods during World War ll. He had a good and cordial relationship with the US. He was the first African president to visit America as an official guest. He was a respectable and elder statesman upon his retirement from the presidency. Barclay was educated at the Liberian College, now the University of Liberia.
The election of 1955 can be called in Liberia the election of the century. It was a race between the teacher and the student or the father versus the son. I was 9 years old and remembered the election very well. But I did not understand what was happening. As an adult, I learned that it was an election in which Barclay challenged sitting President Tubman. Barclay brought Tubman into prominence, took him to America, and introduced him to Franklin Roosevelt as Liberian future president. Why did Barclay, who was comfortably retired, come out to challenge his in-law and protégé? The expression below would answer the question.
Having resisted petitions to challenge Tubman and having patiently tried and unable to change Tubman’s mind regarding carrying out drastic reforms, Barclay finally agreed to enter the race against Tubman. He did so mainly because Tubman had freed from prison members of the “Bamboo Society”, a group from the Vai tribe accused of an assassination attempt on President Barclay. Barclay jailed them and refused to pardon them before leaving office. This factor was the controlling reason for accepting the petition to challenge Tubman. It differs from the view that he got out of retirement because Tubman failed to honor an agreement to return the presidency to him.
Barclay believed that Tubman’s action to free his enemies was a personal attack, an affront and that Tubman’s reforms were intentionally geared to publically disgrace him. He informed the Liberian people of his regrets to had have supported a man whom he did not know very well and to have selected him as his successor to the presidency.
Nevertheless, Tubman had the upper hand. As the current president, he had all the power of the office at his deposal. Secondly, he mastered all the “tricks “and strategies Barclay had taught him, some of which he (Tubman) had used against Didwho Twe in the 1951 election.
However, Barclay was also popular and many of the Congos in the True Whig Party and many of the natives in Twe’s defunct party supported him. Further, many of the natives in the rural areas, where Barclay had visited during his presidency, supported him. They included Grandcess and Barclayville, the latter was named after him while in office. Some people insinuated that Barclay was from Barclayville and that he was Kru. As stated before, he was born in Brewerville in Montserrado County. His paternal grandparents came from the West Indies and he was a Congo.
To get more native votes, Barclay chose Nettie-Sie Brownell as his running-mate. Brownell was Grebo and from Maryland County. He was nationally popular, especially in the Southeast of Liberia. He was a lawyer and a former attorney-general.
The Kru in Claratown and other places in Monrovia marched with placards and palm branches in support of the former president. “Barclay is a man”, they shouted as they marched. Teacher Jugbeh, a former representative in the Liberian Legislature and a leader in the Twe party, was an organizer of the demonstration. I saw them paraded from Claratown. My mother, a market woman residing in Claratown, participated in that march. She was not political and maybe she and others were told to demonstrate. My father was neither. He had just graduated from college then. I did not know if he voted or for whom he supported. Tubman also had supporters in Claratown. One of them was old man Sleweon, a Karbor Kru, He operated a seafarer business hiring men for stevedore work at the Monrovia Free Port. He had been a strong Tubman’s supporter since the 1951 election when most of the residents were backing Twe, a fellow Kru. He made no bone of his support for Tubman despite other Kru criticizing him.
Moreover, the Kru may have forgotten that it was the Barclay administration, which used heavy force against the Kru resistance in the 1930s and caused the deaths of many Kru, including Warrior-Chief Senyon Juah Nimley. These men died for defending themselves against government retaliation and brutality, as some scholars have documented.
Unlike the Kru, many Vai, particularly families of the freed prisoners, did not support Barclay for reason that if elected, he would retaliate against them. Barclay was nominated and became the standard-bearer of the Independent True Whip Party, a break-away group of the ruling True Whip Party. While the membership of both parties was mostly of the Congo stock, the Independent True Whip Party had many members of the Reformation Party, which nominated Twe for the 1951 election. As pointed out in the discussion of that election, the Reformation Party was composed of both natives and Congos.
The election was held in May 1955. Tubman defeated Barclay by a landslide and disgracefully. According to the results, Tubman won 99.5% of the votes, Barclay got 5% and William Bright of the Independent Presidential Party received 0% or 16 votes. With this number, Tubman may have received the majority of the Congo votes. This may have included the Montserrado Rock Town Boys, the Congo political elites in Montserrado County who had dominated power and had controlled politics in Montserrado in previous elections. Their non-support for Barclay may have sadly disappointed him because he was their leader. There was public jubilation in the streets for Tubman’s election. Supporters cried, “Tubman is the man we want, Tubman the man”.
To punish members of the opposition and to stop further political challenges, Tubman is said to have used “a play from the playbook” of Barclay. Accordingly, within two months after the election, a marked man named Paul Dunbar was arrested for an alleged assassination attempt on the president at the Centennial Pavilion, where Tubman was attending a function. Dunbar confessed and named the plotters. Barclay’s party was implicated. The government security arrested and jailed some leading members of the party. Jailed members included Thomas Nimene Botoe, Kru governor in Monrovia; Gbafleh Davies, party organizer; Bill Horace, legal adviser of the party; and Nettie-Sie Brownell, former Attorney General and vice presidential candidate to Barclay. Gbafleh Davies, a lawyer, later became a strong Tubman supporter.
The late Dominique Nimely, who witnessed the occasion stated to me in a 1995 interview that the event occurred on a heavy rainy day in Monrovia. That the guests ran for cover when they heard the shot. Tubman was rushed upstairs. Later, people went to console him; he was calmed, sipping a glass of whisky.” Wolo Nah, Philip Lawrence, and I were considered suspects and arrested because we had shaken Tubman’s hand and congratulated him immediately before the shooting. We were taken before him. We expressed our innocence. After a brief investigation, he signaled for our release”, Nimely narrated. He also indicated that Barclay and Twe did not have a chance to defeat Tubman in their respective election. “Tubman had the support of the people”. “His administration brought honor to Liberia”, he further expressed.
The government went after other key opposition leaders. Samuel David Coleman, chairman of the opposition party, escaped arrest as the government army approached him at his Coleman Hill residence in Monrovia. The troop chased and killed him and his son on his farm. Some accounts said that they were killed while escaping to Sierra Leone.
The son, John Coleman, had just returned from studies at Howard University in the US. The government brought the bodies to Monrovia and publically displayed them outside of the soldier barracks to warn future opposition. Though I did not see the bodies, I saw their pictures at the government photos exhibition center near Mechlin Street in Monrovia. Barclay, however, was not arrested nor harmed. His party died just as Twe’s. Barclay died in November, seven months after the election and he was buried on his farm.
Samuel Watkins discussed the killing in detail.
“[The] allegation that Mr. S. David Coleman was plotting to assassinate President Tubman created panic within the government and the controlling True Whig party. The government soldiers were ordered to capture and bring Mr. S. David Coleman to answer the charge of treason. Mr. Coleman and his supporters [were] prepared to defend themselves. The soldiers and security tracked Mr. Coleman at his farm and found him and his son John at the farm. The soldiers were already prepared to execute the orders to capture, immediately open fire on the farmhouse. Mr. Coleman retaliated with equal force in defense. The soldiers then set fire to the [farm] house to burn them outright. Mr. Coleman and his son attempted to escape but [were shot and killed]. The entire incident for killing them and exhibiting their bodies left gruesome memory…[And] it left an indelible record in the history of Liberia as the second brutal political murder of Liberia’s citizens”.
Coleman was a lawyer and a former Secretary of the Interior under the Tubman administration. He first supported Tubman but later joined Barclay in the election. He was the son of former President William David Coleman. The government also arrested the editors of the opposition newspaper. Chief Editor Bertha Corbin, an American citizen who had been naturalized as a Liberian, was arrested and “denaturalized and deported back to the US”. (Nyanfore, D.K. 1913).
Liberian journalist Tuan Wreh, an editor, was jailed and demoralized as he was made to clean public toilets in Monrovia. Many Liberians, largely the Kru in Monrovia, were angry when they saw him in that condition. Tuan Wreh wrote “about Tubman’s politics of force and fear” in his book, “Love of Liberty, the rule of President William V.S. Tubman in Liberia, 1944-1971”.
The government, through its propaganda machinery, painted Coleman negatively. It was reported that Coleman killed some government soldiers in his fight against arrest. The administration portrayed him as a lawless and disrespectful person who was bent on disturbing the peace and causing trouble. A trouble-maker in Liberia during that time was referred to as David Coleman. My younger brother James, a kid, was called David Coleman whenever he “made trouble” by throwing rocks at the house and not obeying orders.
It should be noted, however, that Coleman’s father, President William Coleman, was accused of the massacre of Gola, Vai, Mandingo, and Kpelle chiefs who, by government invitation, had come to attend a tribal peace conference. The government troop gunned them down. Perhaps the authority feared that a tribal unity would have threatened the power of the settler ruling class. Coleman, a president who had advocated for better relations with the interior people, was embarrassed by the massacre and therefore by force resigned the office. His enemies, including Arthur Barclay, William Gibson, and Charles King favored the resignation and paved the way for Gibson to succeed Coleman as president. The vice president to Coleman, Jacob Ross, died at the time of the resignation. Arthur Barclay, the uncle of Edwin Barclay and brother to Edwin’s father Ernest, became president succeeding Gibson. Charles King also became president 8 years after in 1920 succeeding Daniel Howard. Thus Coleman’s adversaries, with eyes on the presidency, accomplished their aim.
Coleman may have learned later that his foes had engineered the resignation. To regain power and perhaps to get back at them, “he came out of retirement and ran for the presidency as the candidate for the People’s Party in 1901, 1903, and 1905, but lost” (Nyanfore, D.K. 2018). He died in 1908 in ClayAshland, the birthplace of the True Whig Party. Coleman was born in the US. In Liberia, he was a carpenter before entering politics. He was vice president to President Joseph Cheeseman and succeeded him when the president died in 1896. He vowed to continue Cheeseman’s progressive interior policy, which was not in the interest of the settler elites.
Tubman became a stronger president after defeating Barclay. He stopped opposition to his administration and ruled Liberia with iron hands and dictatorship. In 1968, he sensed native opposition to his authority when his government arrested and imprisoned Ambassador Henry B. Fahnbulleh, a Vai, who was Liberian Ambassador to Kenya and jailed James Gbyeyea, Robert Kennedy, and Gabriel Fangarlow, superintendents of Bong County, Loffa County, and Nimba County respectively for an alleged attempt to overthrow the Americo-Liberian government. The accused were all natives. Tubman later freed Gbyeyea, Kennedy, and Fangarlow but kept Fahnbulleh in jail until he died in 1971.
Comparing the 1951 and the 1955 elections, in my view, the former was more exciting. Tubman was against a son of the soil who was different and more educated. Though Twe was not in government longer than Tubman and Barclay and was from a poor uneducated family, he was brave and direct. He stood by his principle and was against odds. Tubman saw him as the biggest threat that had the support of the majority. The average Liberians were active in the 1951 election as I indicated in my witness to that event. The ruling government purposely stopped the opposition from participating in the election and therefore Tubman won easily.
With the 1955 election, many observers saw the contest between Tubman and Barclay as a family affair. Tubman was related to Barclay who brought him to the presidency. He married Barclay’s niece or first cousin. Tubman knew who he was dealing with. He had mastered the game as taught by Barclay and he used the strategies against his teacher. Barclay was unharmed during the government’s reaction to the alleged plot. This was a consequence of the relationship between the two leaders. Moreover, Barclay was not heavily motivated to run. Though he may have not being in excellent health, he appeared comfortable with retirement as an elder statesman and former head of state. He ran mainly because he felt that Tubman was against his interest. Meanwhile, Tubman was viewed as a reformer, unifier, and man of the people. The election results showed that.
However, some viewers considered the incident at the pavilion as a government-planned strategy for a legal reason to arrest the opposition. Others differ, pointing out that Tubman won the election decisively and the opposition was demoralized. So why would the government go after the party after many months? One wonders though, why would a badly defeated party engage in an unlawful behavior knowing so well that if the assassination succeeded, the vice president would assume office for eight years? Further, as a respectable statesman, why would Barclay involve in an unconstitutional act to resume power? The government named the episode “The Plot That Failed” and publicized the event.
The election got more publicity because the competing actors were two settler giants with deep roots in the ruling establishment. The Barclays had ruled Liberia for many years and Tubman’s father was a Speaker of the House of Representatives. Before becoming president, Tubman was a Senator and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. He was also a popular lawyer often called “a poor man lawyer”.
Additionally, the 1955 election was the only contest in which there was more than one candidate since the election of 1931. The winner would stay in power for a term of 8 years instead of 4. Also in the election, citizens voted on a referendum granting voting right to women in the interiors. Tubman ran unopposed in subsequent elections. In the 1931 election, Barclay, the True Whig Party candidate, ran against and defeated Thomas Faulkner of the People’s Party. Faulkner had run unsuccessfully in an early election of 1927 against King. That election was the most fraudulent in world history, making the Guinness Book of Records. In an election of less than 15,000 registered voters, King received about 243,000 votes while Faulkner got 9,000. Faulkner protested but to no avail. But in 1930, Faulkner got the last laugh. King with his Vice President Allen Yancy was forced to “resign for engaging in forced labor and enslavement of native Liberians in Fernando Po”.
There was no indication from my research the candidate Faulkner supported in the 1955 election. He was influential in Liberia. I was told that my father’s namesake, uncle James Nimley or Nimley Nah, was a member of the People’s Party and he voted for Faulkner in the quest for the presidency. I do not know if he supported Barclay or Tubman in the 1955 race, but I know that his niece, my aunty Mary Nyanfore Wilson of Maryland County, supported Tubman. I know too that in the late 1950s, President Tubman appointed him superintendent of Grandcess.
The election of 1955 demonstrated the ingenuity of Tubman as a skillful politician. He learned from his earlier mistake when he allowed Clarence Simpson of Cape Mount County to be his running mate in the 1943 election. But he had no choice. The move was a compromise. Realizing the electoral power of Montserrado County, in the following election, he dropped Sampson and selected Ben Freeman of Careyburg, Montserrado County. Careyburg was a stronghold of the Rock Town Boys and a base of the Congo settlers. When Freeman died before his inauguration as vice president, Tubman picked William Tolbert, Jr also of Montserrado County as vice president. The selection was strategic: Tolbert was a member of the House of Representatives and the son of William Tolbert, Sr, who was the Speaker of the House and chairman of the True Whip Party. By this choice, Tubman secured the support of the Rock Town Boys and the county.
Meanwhile, Barclay did not mend fences with the Rock Town Boys who had vexed with him for selecting Tubman for the 1944 presidency. They felt that Barclay, who was part of them and a resident of Montserrado, should have chosen one of them to succeed him as president. James Cooper, for instance, was vocal in his intention to become president. He ran against Tubman in the 1943 election but lost. Hence, Barclay’s failure to reach out to them and Tubman’s effort to please them put Tubman ahead in capturing the county. Note that Montserrado was and is still the largest populated and vote-rich county in Liberia. Montserrado was also the center of the Congo settlements.
Further, while Barclay’s selection of Brownell as running-mate met the approval, particularly some of the Maryland Grebos and some supporters of Twe, it made little impact in getting more votes from the general natives. Though Brownell was a well-known lawyer, he was not a politician. Moreover, Tubman, a fellow Marylander, reduced his vote-power in the county.
Barclay appeared insincere in selecting Brownell for vice president. In 1931 under Barclay’s presidency, Brownell and Professor Dr. Francis Morai were imprisoned for representing Grebo and Kru people in the League of Nations investigation of the Fernandez Po case involving President King and Vice President Yancy. Barclay’s retaliation did not only cause the jailing of these Liberians and the killing of other Liberians, but it also led to the expulsion of Didwho Twe, Morai, and other advocates from the Liberian Legislature. Note that Morai was an influential Grebo and a representative from Maryland County. Barclay’s reaction also caused the Sasstown War, which resulted in the deaths and sufferings of many Sasstown Kru. Apparently, this could have also affected Barclay at the polls. But Barclay was not alone in the Fernandez Po situation. Tubman, as a lawyer, defended Yancy, a fellow Marylander. As a Supreme Court Judge, he could have stood for justice for the expelled representatives. He did not.
Many of Tubman’s reforms favored the natives, giving Tubman the edge over Barclay with the indigenous population. One reform, the Unification Policy, is said to have united the Congos and the native majority. With this policy, the natives were considered equal to the Congos or the settler minority. The 1955 election was the last major election under the True Whip Party rule in Liberia. After that, Tubman became more powerful and unstoppable until he died in office in 1971.
In Monrovia several years after the election, I visited James Nimley went he was a guest of Mr. and Mrs. John Wilson. They were renting Samuel Coleman’s house on Coleman Hill. It was a beautiful building with many rooms. My father was residing in the house too during his illness. Mr. Wilson was related to Tubman. He and his brother Dash Wilson originally came from Togo. Tubman appointed Dash Wilson Chief Justice of the Supreme Court 1958 – 1971. The Wilsons became Congos upon arriving in Liberia. Others from Togo who settled in Maryland County became Tubman in Liberia. The father of Winston Tubman was said to have come from Togo.
Though I admired the house, I did not know of its historical significance. This was the residence in which Coleman chose to fight the government soldiers in their attempt to arrest him. He decided with his son to die than to be publically humiliated by his enemy. Even if I knew, that history would not have mattered to me during that period.
You see, Liberian history was viewed through the lenses of the powerful. Brevity, advocacy, and standing for one’s principle against government policies were considered characters of bad citizenship. Praise singing of officials and believing all that the government said were behaviors of good citizenship. We glorified the Pioneers, the original American Black Ex-slaves that settled on the land now called Liberia. We mocked and laughed at the culture, history, and contributions of native Africans whom the settlers met on the soil. We adored Western culture over ours. Consequently, we do not value our history.
I was happy to have met Uncle Nimley during my visit to the Coleman house. I had heard about him as a child. He was the elder of the Nyanfore-Nimley family and was retiring as the superintendent of Grandcess. He was a quiet man, he did not talk much. He was typing with one figure his thank-you and appreciation letter to the president during my visit. Tac, tac, tac. We call that kind of typing “breaking the palm kernel” in Liberian talk or colloquial.
I took my school friends to the residence during our recess from Edwin Barclay Morning School, which was located near West Point. It was a public school. Most of us who attended Edwin Barclay came from poor families living in the surrounding slum communities such as Vai Town, Claratown, and Gibraltar. The school was built years back in honor of Edwin Barclay during his presidency.
But we went to the house purposely for ice cubes. The cubes were usually used to cold water for drinking. In our case, we ate the ice. We laughed at each other when the ice burned our teeth when breaking the cubes. It was painful but fun. Sometimes, the ice was the recess meal for some of us.
We experienced the 1955 election; we knew of the imprisonment of the opposition leaders, and we visited Coleman’s house. But we did not know and realize that we were witnesses to history. But we were!
The author has 40 publications published on ModernGhana.
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