The Republic of Liberia is a country on the west coast of Africa, with a population of more than 3 million. Liberia, meaning “Land of the Free,” was founded by freed slaves from the United States. Under the auspices of the American Colonization Society, it was “free men of color” who established the colony in 1822.
Many in the Chicago black community will remember May 9 as the day the first elected woman president in Africa visited the DuSable Museum of African American History.
The DuSable event was hosted by Cong. Jesse Jackson Jr., who recently pushed forward a bill to give $50 million in aid to Liberia to help rebuild the country after years of civil war. Joining Jackson for the event was his wife, Sandy. Cong. Jackson is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was sworn in as Liberia’s president in January, becoming the first-ever elected female head of state of an African country. Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard trained economist, has been involved in her country’s fight for peace and justice, having been jailed twice during the presidency of Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, and narrowly escaping with her life at one point before going into exile.
This was Johnson-Sirleaf’s first visit to Chicago, and only her second to the United States since becoming president.
The auditorium at the DuSable Museum was packed, with many well-known politicians, community leaders and clergy in attendance.
The official ceremony began with the Kenwood Academy choral group, dressed in their formal red and black attire, performing musical selections. Rev. Willie Barrow, chair emeritus of the Rainbow/Push Coalition, gave the invocation. Antoinette Wright, president and CEO of DuSable, welcomed everyone. Chicago’s Grammy-winning Gospel artist, Darius Brooks, and Santita Jackson both performed musical tributes. Concluding the program, Johnson-Sirleaf was presented with an original painting done by DuSable’s founder Margaret Burroughs.
In her address, Johnson-Sirleaf said:
“For us from Liberia, it’s a celebration of good over evil. For too long our nation had been subjected to the killings, to destruction, to the decadence”now we can say that evil has been put to rest. It’s a time for celebration for the determination of the power of women”Liberian women, African women. From the time of the campaign when I stood against 22 others, and when it came down, the women said, ‘Our time has come.’ And it was the women from the marketplaces and the women from our villages, from the women who sold their wares on the street, who stood and said, ‘We took the brunt of the suffering during the war, and now we’re going to lead the peace effort.’
“It was the women of Liberia who, despite all of the suffering they took, despite the way their husbands told them that they were going to be pulled out of the homes if they voted for a woman, they stood firm and said, ‘We will.’ [They] underestimated the power of women. It’s a celebration of the promise of the future for our children”children who are today 18 years old and have never been to a school, children who are conscripted into the army and taught to kill against their will, children who are put on drugs and drink because they saw people kill their parents, children who have lost their innocence. Today we can meet with them. We see a glimmer of hope in their eyes. We can see that, yes, for them the future is assured. We want to celebrate the emancipation of the African girl child.”
She then related a story she was told about a young girl in one of the village schools:
“A teacher tried to talk harshly to a young girl who was beginning not to study, beginning to look at other things at the table. The teacher said to her, ‘Pay attention, turn around here, you’re a little girl, you’re suppose to be disciplined and quiet.’ The little girl stood for awhile, and she said, ‘Teacher, today a woman is president. Please speak to me carefully.’
“And so the story of woman’s equality, the story of sensitivity that comes from being a mother has reached our children even in the far-off villages, and I know that is going to inspire them to go to school. That’s going to break the chains that make them marry early. It’s going to break the tradition where they are left behind when the young boys go to school because they say they are the ones who can succeed. Our girl children now have this hope and vision that they too can rise.
“We want to celebrate friendships”people of Liberia and people of Chicago, the people of Illinois. Indeed, it was that friendship that led your president, your congressman to reach out across the ocean to recognize that Liberia deserves another opportunity.
“We thank you for celebrating with us where we are today. We thank you for the support and the encouragement collectively and individually. The Liberian people relate to you, through me, this message of hope, of promise, of renewal.”