William R. Tolbert

William R. Tolbert
Credit: Focus on Liberia

William Richard Tolbert

Term 20th President: 1971 – 1980
Born May 13, 1913, Bensonville, Montserrado County, Liberia
Died April 12, 1980, Monrovia, Liberia
Race/Ethnicity Black, Congo
County of Origin Montserrado
Profession Minister
Political Party True Whig Party

Bio

The Bark Azor arrived in Liberia in 1878 with freed slaves from the American South including 29 year old farmer Frank Tolbert, his wife, and their 5 children from Ninety-Six, South Carolina. The Tolberts eventually settled in Bensonville, Montserrado County. Their grandson, and future president William Richard Tolbert was born in Bensonville in 1913. Tolbert’s father was a successful coffee farmer and taught his son to grow several crops. Tolbert and Victoria David, the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice, were married in 1936.

Education

Tolbert was educated at Liberia College (currently University of Liberia) and earned his Bachelors of Arts degree in 1934. Morehouse College in the US awarded him an honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Laws in 1952. In 1966, the University of Liberia also gave him an honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity.

Career

His career began in the government as a treasury clerk in 1935, and he was later elected to the House of Representatives in 1943. Tolbert was a minister of the Gospel and at one point he served as pastor of Zion Praise Baptist Church in Bensonville. He was elected president of the Baptist World Alliance in 1965 and some years later was ordained as an elder.

In 1951, he ran as William V.S. Tubman’s Vice President and remained in said position for 19 years. Tubman and Tolbert were reelected in May 1971. Upon Tubman’s death in July 1971, Tolbert succeeded him and served the rest of his term. The True Whig government allowed Tolbert to also serve Tubman’s elected term beginning in January 1972 instead of holding elections to replace the deceased president. The election law allowing the Vice-President elect to serve as president if the president elect was unable did not exist until May 1972.

1935 Treasury Clerk
1943 Representative, Montserrado County
Minister of the Gospel
Pastor, Zion Praise Baptist Church in Bensonville
1952 Vice President under President Tubman
1965 President of the Baptist World Alliance
1971 President

Vice President
Bennie D. Warner

Presidency

Tolbert came to power when the nation was still ethnically divided and most of its wealth concentrated in the possession of the Congo class. Considering his Vice President role under Tubman had been mainly ceremonial, he had to quickly establish his influence and political power when he assumed the presidency.

Tolbert came in propelling change in the government and social structure. He was simpler in dress and materialism as compared to Tubman. To win the heart of the people, he raised the salaries of government employees, eliminated the compulsory dues every public employee had to make to the True Whig Party and retired some older Tubman loyalists. Within his first 2 years, he sold Tubman’s presidential yacht and renegotiated some of the concessional agreements with foreign investors. He ushered in an era of change and improvement in the lives of everyday Liberians.

Continuing this course would have rendered him Liberia’s best and most transformative leader. Nevertheless, like his predecessors, he had much loyalty to the Congo base, Masonic Order and the True Whig Party. According to Guannu, the Old Guards of the True Whig party advised him to return to the good old days of Americo-Liberian supremacy.

With education and westernization, some indigenous obtained political power and gained access to the Americo-Liberian fraternities. Tolbert was blamed for relaxing the rules that allowed such natives into positions of power. Taking their advice, Tolbert retreated in his policies and eventually failed to build the great nation he had promised. His slogans like “Mat to Mattress” and “Total Involvement for Heights” were mere slogans.

With this came opposition from political activists, students, employees, market women, ordinary citizens and within the government itself. The times were changing and the True Whig Party was losing its century-old hold. An increase in the price of rice, Liberia’s staple food, led to the rice riots in 1979. In the same year, Liberia hosted the OAU Conference, having spent millions on the Hotel Africa Complex to host foreign dignitaries while the nation was still undeveloped.

On a personal note, former US Ambassador to Liberia, Perkins terms the late President a psychopath. He was a Baptist minister and had served as head of the Baptist Convention, yet, he wanted the age of consent for girls reduced to 12 years old, as he had a fondness for very young girls, some of whom he kept as concubines. He was also a physically abusive husband and had his wife walk a few steps behind him to assert his status over her.

The Tolbert family was very well known and wealthy, with many of them holding prominent government positions, exhibiting the corruption and nepotism in the ranks of government. In a show of presidential power, he had his hometown of Bensonville renamed to Bentol (Ben from Bensonville, tol from Tolbert). He changed the capitol city of Montserrado County from Monrovia to Bentol. Tolbert and his family developed Bensonville with the family homes that had picket fences, a family burial plot and other development structures that now lie in ruins.

The 1980 Coup and Tolbert’s Death

On April 12th 1980, a military coup led by Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe ousted the Tolbert administration. The President along with others at the Executive Mansion were killed during the coup. Many top government officials were arrested and jailed. On April 22, thirteen of those that had been arrested were executed on South Beach after a speedy military trial found them guilty of human rights violation and corruption.

This ended the True Whig dominance of Liberian politics and raised the hope and prestige of some native Liberians. The nation continued under the leadership of the People’s Redemption Council comprising members of the coup and headed by Samuel Doe.


Sources

Executive Law – Title 12 – Liberian Code of Laws Revised. Chapter 4.7. 11 May 1972.

Liberia’s New Leader: William Richard Tolbert Jr. New York Times (1923-Current file), Jan 05 1972, p. 4. ProQuest. Web.

Lipschutz, Mark R, and R Rasmussen. Dictionary of African Historical Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. Print.

Perkins, Edward J. Mr. Ambassador : Warrior for Peace. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006. Print.

President Tolbert of Liberia Africa Report Profile. Africa Report 18.4 (1973): 14. ProQuest. Web. 28 May 2019.

Van Der Kraaij, Fred. The Presidents. Liberia’s Past and Present. Web.

Williams, Alfred B. The Liberian exodus; an account of voyage of the first emigrants in the Bark “Azor” and their reception at Monrovia, with a description of Liberia-its customs and civilization, romances and prospects. Charleston, S.C., News and Courier Book Presses, 1878.

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