Two hundred years after the first Africans were transported to America against their will, their descendants sailed back to the land of their ancestors. Soon, thousands of freeborn Blacks and former slaves settled on Africa's west coast, in the land that would become Liberia, named for the liberty they so dearly sought. Liberia's growth from a "colony" with a coastline barely 600 miles long to a modern state was not without challenges, but nothing prepared Liberians for the country's devastating civil war that began on Christmas Eve, 1989, and lasted seven long years.
The untold story of America's African progeny is presented in Liberia: America's Stepchild. This dramatic documentary follows the parallel stories of America's relationship with the African republic of Liberia -- founded and backed by the American Colonization Society (ACS) and the U.S. government as a home for freeborn Blacks and former slaves -- and the settlers' relationship with the indigenous people. As seen through the eyes of Liberian filmmaker Nancee Oku Bright, the film also explores the causes of the turmoil that has ravaged Liberia since 1980.
"Today people generally think of Liberia as a disaster, but it was not always so," says producer Nancee Oku Bright. "Liberia was a founding member of the United Nations and one of the key initiators of the Organization of African Unity. It was the only Black republic in the sea of colonial Africa, and it made the colonizers very uncomfortable and the Africans very proud.
"Many of the events that occur in Liberia happen partly because people simply don't know their own history, and, in that vacuum, history can be terribly manipulated," Bright explains. "I would still like to believe that human beings can, if they understand the nuances of their own histories, learn not to repeat the destructive lessons of the past. I also hope that this film can show us how tragedies unfold when there is no political will to do the right thing, either from leaders or from those who they believe to be their allies."
The Liberian story begins in the early 1820s, when the Washington, D.C.-based American Colonization Society endeavored to send free Blacks to Africa. The society's purpose was twofold: to reduce the possibility that free Blacks might induce slaves to revolt against their oppressors, and to spread Christianity and "civilization" to the "Black Continent." Liberia: America's Stepchild retells the early story of Liberia -- of its early struggles with disease; of the eradication of slavery on its own shores; of conflicts between warring indigenous tribes; of its evolution as Africa's first independent republic; and of the nurturing of its international diplomatic relations, particularly with the United States.
One hundred fifty years later, Liberians were divided into two distinct groups: the often privileged American descendants, known as Americo-Liberians, and the indigenous population. It was a division that would lead to political unrest and, ultimately, sow the seeds of war.
Liberia: America's Stepchild, which premiered on PBS on Thursday, October 10, 2002, is the sixth offering of World Story, WGBH Boston's ongoing series of specials on modern world history for PBS.