William V. S. Tubman

William V.S. Tubman
Credit: Liberia Past & Present

William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman

Term 19th President: 1944 – 1971
Born November 29, 1895, Harper, Maryland County, Liberia
Died July 23, 1971, London, England
Race/Ethnicity Black, Americo-Liberian (Congo)
County of Origin Maryland
Profession Lawyer
Political Party True Whig Party


The Tubman family were freed slaves from the state of Georgia in the USA. Upon his death, Richard Tubman of Georgia left in his will $10,000 to transport his freed slaves to the colony in West Africa. This group included William Shadrach and Sylvia Tubman who arrived in Maryland in Africa (Cape Palmas) via the brig Baltimore in 1837.

In Liberia, William Shadrach’s son, Alexander, became a Methodist minister. Entering politics, he joined the elites, serving in the House of Representatives, and as Speaker of the House. Alexander Tubman married Elizabeth Barnes, also from a family of freed slaves from Georgia. William V.S. Tubman, their second son, was born on November 29, 1895 in Harper, Cape Palmas, Maryland County.


Tubman received his early education at the mission and government schools. He later attended the Methodist teacher training school and completed in 1913. He was ordained as a Methodist lay pastor at age 19, as his initial plan was to become a Minister. His interest in Law led him to study under several of Liberia’s leading lawyers. He wasn’t a graduate of Liberia College or as educated as most of his predecessors, but passed the bar and setup a law practice.


Tubman became a minister like his father, joined the Liberian Militia and worked as a revenue collector in Maryland County. After passing the bar and opening his law practice, he was elected to the Senate. He later served as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and from that post was elected Liberia’s 19th president.

He served six terms and was elected for a seventh term on May 4, 1971. Tubman died in London on July 23, 1971 and his remaining term, and the one for which he had been reelected were completed by VP William R. Tolbert from 1971 – 1975.

Lay preacher in the Methodist Conference
Member of the Liberian Militia
Internal Revenue Collector for Maryland County
1916 Recorder in the Monthly and Probate Court
1917 Passed the bar and set up a law practice
1920 Elected to the Liberian Senate
1937 – 1944 Associate Justice of the Supreme Court
1944 – 1971 President

Vice Presidents
1944 – 1952: Clarence Simpson
1952 – 1971: William R. Tolbert



1944 – 1952;
1952 – 1956;
1956 – 1960;
1960 – 1964;
1964 – 1968;
1968 – 1971;

Tubman was an endearing president and had an indisputable power over the government. He connected with everyone including the indigenous Liberians. He was known to many as Shad Tubman. His presidency marked numerous changes in the government, social, economic, infrastructural and political composition of Liberia.

Tubman Photo Collection, Indiana University
President William V. S. Tubman stands in traditional dress on balcony with officials greeting crowd from the True Whig Party Presentation
Credit: Tubman Photo Collection, Indiana University
During his era, the natives were allowed to vote and women could run for political offices. His term also included training the Liberian Frontier Force and establishing the public school system. The administration passed the Civil Servants Law allowing the hiring of qualified applicants to some government positions.

The hinterland provinces became counties and were fully represented in the House and Senate. Over his 27 year presidency, he visited many towns around the country, hosting hearings and communing with the natives. His unification program promoted the concept of a Liberia without the native and Congo divisions.

The divisive colonial ethno-racial labels of “civilized vs. the uncivilized,” “Americo-Liberian,” Countryman,” and “aborigines” were discontinued in official public usage and the media after 1964 when Tubman emphasized the creation of a new Liberia in which all its citizens were simply Liberians, rather than “Americo-Liberian” and “Tribal People.”

-Stephen Hlophe, 1979

At a Gbarnga visit, he held a hearing where anyone with a grievance could bring their case and be heard. With an interpreter at hand, each case was presented in the native tongue and English. He listened to all sides and judged wisely with good humor, keeping in mind the customs of the people.

As the Emancipator, he held the Grand Council of Chiefs and Elders in Harper, Maryland County, to lay down the philosophy of his unification policy. He began addressing the gathering with the following:

Nothing creates better understanding than people meeting people, shaking hands and speaking to one another, exchanging ideas and observing the customs and traditions of one another.

-President William V.S. Tubman, 1955

In as much as this measure broke barriers between the two classes and lifted the status of the natives, they were still marginalized in a nation dominated by Tubman, the True Whig Party, Masonic Order and the Americo-Liberian (now termed Congo) family class. Few educated natives were joined into this class through marriage and other connections.

Foreign investment and development bloomed during this period. The Open Door Policy started by his predecessors and accelerated by Tubman, encouraged foreign capital and enterprise into the nation. This resulted in mining at Bomi Hills, an increase in rubber and other exports, the building of Roberts International Airport, a balanced national budget, among others. Many modern government structures like the Executive Mansion, the Temple of Justice, and the Capitol Building were constructed under Tubman. He also developed Harper, the capital of Maryland County from which his family hailed.

The total infrastructural development under Tubman did not extend to a majority of the Liberian population. Most of the roads remained unpaved, most of the interior regions had no electricity or running water and not much changed for many people in those regions.


Anderson, Robert Earle. Liberia, America’s African Friend. University of North Carolina Press, 1952. Print.

Elections in Liberia. African Elections Database. 25 Nov. 2011. Web.

Hlophe, Stephen S. Class, Ethnicity, and Politics in Liberia : A Class Analysis of Power Struggles in the Tubman and Tolbert Administrations, from 1944-1975. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1979. Print.

Huffman, Alan. Mississippi in Africa. New York, N.Y.: Gotham Books, 2004. Print.

Liebenow, Gus. The Liberian Coup in Perspective. Current History, 80:464 (1981:Mar.) p.101

Liebenow, J. Liberia; the Evolution of Privilege. Cornell University Press, 1969. Print.

Massaquoi, Hans J. “Liberia End of the Tubman Era”. Ebony. Oct. 1971. Print.

Smith, Robert A. The Emancipation of the Hinterland. Star Magazine and Advertising Services, 1964. Print.

Smith, Robert A. William V. S. Tubman. The Life and Work of an African Statesman. Van Ditmar, 1967. Print.

Wilson, Charles Morrow. Liberia: Black Africa in Microcosm. [1st ed.]. Harper & Row, 1971. Print.

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