Celebrating Liberian Independence: A Q&A with Author Gregg Mitman

Monday, July 26, 2021

On July 26th, 1847, the Republic of Liberia declared its independence from the United States as a free Black republic. But less than a hundred years later, the United States again dug its claws into the country, as the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, expanding along with the automobile boom, appropriated land for rubber plantations. The history of Firestone- of the automobile- is one of racial segregation and medical experimentation that reflected Jim Crow America—on African soil. As Firestone reaped fortunes, wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a few elites, fostering widespread inequalities that fed unrest, rebellions and, eventually, civil war.

Historian Gregg Mitman's Empire of Rubber: Firestone's Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia tells a sweeping story of capitalism, racial exploitation, and environmental devastation, as Firestone transformed Liberia into America’s rubber empire. Mitman scoured remote archives to unearth a history of promises unfulfilled for the vast numbers of Liberians who toiled on rubber plantations built on taken land. A riveting narrative of ecology and disease, of commerce and science, and of racial politics and political maneuvering, Empire of Rubber uncovers the hidden story of a corporate empire whose tentacles reach into the present.

Here, we're presenting a Q&A with Gregg Mitman, delving into this history, and what he encountered while writing Empire of Rubber. 


How did you become interested in Firestone’s Liberian rubber plantations?

I came to the topic unexpectedly.  I had been asked to serve as a scholar consultant on a film that was to be made on the colonial roots of international conservation.  The production company had archival film from three scientific expeditions, one of which was the 1926 Harvard expedition to Liberia.  I was curious about the purpose and intent of the Harvard expedition to Liberia, led by Richard Pearson Strong, a leading tropical medicine expert in the United States whose career had followed the paths of American empire in the Philippines and Latin America.  I then discovered that Strong and his team were guests of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company while in Liberia, which, at that time, had recently been granted access by the Liberian government to up to one million acres of land to grow rubber.  I traveled to Liberia over the course of seven years, retracing parts of the expedition’s route, interviewing elders and retired Firestone workers along the way, and visiting the plantations.  Through my travels to Liberia and to archives in the United States and Europe I was able to piece together this story of capitalism, racial exploitation, environmental devastation, and resistance as Firestone transformed Liberia into America’s rubber empire.


Why was rubber such an important commodity, and why did Firestone choose Liberia to build its rubber plantations?

Paul Litchfield, a former president of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, once described rubber as the vital “flexing muscles and sinews” of the country’s industrial infrastructure.  In the early 20th century, natural rubber was an essential part of all aspects of American life, from raincoats and galoshes to gas masks used by soldiers fighting in the First World War.  Most importantly, rubber was vital to the American automobile industry.  In the 1920s, Americans owned 80 percent of the world’s automobiles and consumed 75 percent of the world’s rubber, the majority of which went into making tires. But only one percent of the world’s rubber grew under the U.S. flag.  Harvey Firestone had set his sights on the Philippines as a place to grow rubber free from British control.  But he was unable to use his influence in the White House and Republican Party to bend the Philippine Legislature to his will and ease restrictions that limited corporate land holdings to 2,500 acres and curtailed indentured labor importation.  So, Firestone began to look elsewhere to establish an American rubber empire.  Favorable reports on the growing conditions and labor supply sent by Solomon Porter Hood, United States minister and consul general to Liberia, helped reorient the Akron tire mogul’s attention toward Liberia, though Harvey Firestone never gave Hood credit for his insights.


Why did African-American intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois initially support Firestone’s plans in Liberia?

When Du Bois, one of America’s foremost Black intellectuals and leaders, traveled to Liberia in December of 1923 at the bequest of President Calvin Coolidge to honor the second inauguration of Charles Dunbar Burgess King, the seventeenth president of Liberia, the country was in dire economic straits.  Predatory loans and the loss of Germany as a trading partner, after Liberia declared its allegiance to the Allied powers during World War I, left Liberia unable to pay off its sizable foreign debt.  Liberia desperately needed foreign capital for development, and that rested largely in the hand of white institutions.  Du Bois believed that the only way for Liberia—surrounded by British and French territories‑—to preserve its independence and sovereignty was to secure American capital.  On Liberian soil, Du Bois believed Firestone had an opportunity to germinate a new relationship among the capital, land, and labor that comprised the plantation, one resting not on exploitation and extraction but on mutual dependence, growth, and prosperity.  It all depended, Du Bois wrote Harvey Firestone, on whether the rubber executive gave “educated black men a chance to work up in your industrial system.” 


How did Firestone’s rubber plantations conflict with traditional Liberian attitudes toward land ownership and use?

Land dispossession is the first step in the creation of a plantation world.  In Liberia, among the country’s indigenous inhabitants, land was held in common, as is the case throughout much of West Africa.  To “sell” or “buy” land was not a widely held West African concept. Chiefs were

the custodians, not the owners, of the land.  Land belonged to the living, to ancestors long since dead, and to those yet to be born.  This customary relationship to land conflicted with Western notions of private property, which Black settlers from America brought with them when they arrived on the West African coast in 1822.  The granting of concessions to foreign corporations like Firestone rested on the belief that the government had the right to “take” land from customary landholders.


Why did the Liberian government grant such generous concessions to Firestone?

As Liberia stateman Clarence L. Simpson observed, Liberia was caught “between the devil and the deep blue sea.” The country, which was saddled with foreign debt, either risked a takeover of its territory by France or Great Britain, which would bring an end to the Black republic, or “accept the lesser evil—that of veiled economic domination by a company belonging to a traditionally friendly country.” In the end, the Liberian government believed safeguarding its political sovereignty outweighed whatever economic freedoms might be lost in striking a deal with Firestone.


How did Liberia’s unique history as a colony for formerly enslaved Americans shape its relationship to the Firestone company?

Liberia occupied only 43,000 square miles on a vast continent of nearly 12 million square miles. But, as one of only two sovereign Black nations in Africa when the Firestone agreements were signed (the other was Ethiopia), its symbolic importance was large to those in the African diaspora fighting for Black liberation and self-rule.  Opinions were divided among Black writers, journalists, intellectuals, and activists in the United States and across the African diaspora on whether Firestone would prove to be a “devil or an angel” to Liberia, as Claude Barnett, founder of the Associated Negro Press once noted.  The initial dealings and ongoing operations of Firestone in Liberia were a source of interest and coverage in the Black press in the United States well into the 1950s, partly because of Liberia’s historic connections to America and its standing as a free Black republic.  The question of whether Firestone would prove detrimental to Liberia’s indigenous population even prompted a debate between two historically Black colleges—Virginia Union in Richmond and Morgan College in Baltimore.  The Virginia Union debating team won, arguing that the Firestone experiment would result in land dispossession, low wages, and forced labor for Liberia’s indigenous inhabitants.


What role did Liberia play in international relations between World War I and II? Why was it geopolitically important to the United States?

At that time, Liberia was the main foothold the United States had in Africa.  When, in December of 1941, the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor and began its sweep across the Malay Peninsula, the United States’ worst fears were realized.  In a matter of weeks, a region that supplied 90 percent of the world’s natural rubber supply had fallen to the Axis Powers.  Access to rubber was one of the greatest threats to the security of the United States and the success of the Allied cause.  Suddenly, Liberia, Ceylon, and a handful of countries in Latin America—the remaining strongholds of Allied natural rubber production—took on strategic importance in a world at war.  In addition, the discovery of large iron ore deposits in Liberia during the Second World War furthered American commercial interests in the country.


In what ways did the Firestone rubber plantations become an American, Jim Crow enclave on African soil?

Firestone sold its presence in the country on a promise of benevolence to Liberia, but life and work on the plantations was highly segregated by race, a fact that led Du Bois to become one of Firestone’s most outspoken critics.  At their peak in the late 1940s, the Firestone plantations employed approximately 30,000 Liberians— the majority of whom were tappers earning 18 cents per day — supervised by roughly 125 white managers. The racial geographies visible on the 200 square-mile enclave and embedded in the structure and management of the plantation workforce were greatly shaped by the racial attitudes of an American company and town.  Akron—the center of American rubber manufacturing—was home to one of the largest centers of the Ku Klux Klan north of the Mason-Dixon line.  On the Firestone plantations in Liberia, white management performed minstrel shows in blackface at the white only Firestone Staff Club.  Housing and healthcare for white management and Black laborers was segregated.  Medical surveillance of and drug testing on workers’ bodies was routine.  Such conditions reinforced the impression of African-American diplomat Edward Dudley in 1951 that Firestone was “transferring U.S. Jim Crow policies to Liberia.”  By the late 1950s, with the rise of the civil rights movement in the United States and liberation movements in Africa, the Firestone plantations had become an embarrassment to the U.S. State Department.


How much did Firestone’s rubber plantations end up benefiting the people of Liberia?

During and immediately after the Second World War, rubber extracted from Firestone’s Liberia plantations accounted for roughly 90 percent of Liberia’s exports, generating needed revenues for the Liberia government.  Rubber is also an important cash crop in Liberia today, thanks to Firestone, even for smallholder farmers.  Some of the retired Firestone workers I interviewed, particularly women, also mentioned access to healthcare and educational opportunities afforded some children by Firestone’s school system as benefits.   Many Liberian men who worked for Firestone did so intermittently, earning enough cash to pay hut taxes or a dowry for a wife.  At the same time, the concession economy that Firestone helped create has led to land alienation for Liberian farmers, many of whom hold customary rights to land.  When you consider that the Firestone Plantations Company was the most profitable subsidiary of the Akron company in the 1950s and early 1960s, and roughly three of every four dollars made in Liberia found its way to the parent company in the United States during its heyday, one must ask who was benefitting whom.  In 1963, when the largest “no work” action in the country’s history shut down Firestone’s Harbel plantations and tappers were earning 64 cents per day, the company saw $60 million in profits and Harvey Firestone’s four surviving sons held roughly $250 million ($2.2 billion in 2021) worth of company stock.


What role did the Firestone plantations, and the economic inequality they produced, play in sparking Liberia’s civil war in the 1980s and 1990s?

That’s a tough question.  The Firestone plantations certainly exacerbated economic inequalities in Liberia.  William Tubman, for example, who served as Liberia’s president from 1944 to 1971, was the largest independent and wealthiest rubber farmer in Liberia. He had every incentive, economically and politically, to keep wages low by suppressing strikes on the Firestone plantations, which he did by force with the aid of the Liberian police and military.  By the early 1970s, Monrovia, the West African entrepôt, with its luxurious hotels, thriving port, and state-of-the art John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital, stood as an icon of capitalism’s achievements. But in the countryside, where the majority of Liberia’s 1.5 million people lived, the wealth and benefits reaped from foreign concessions benefited few. The accumulating tinder of inequality, oppression, and resentment, which had built up over decades, if not a century, between Liberia’s settler elite and indigenous population became incendiary.


Why are community farming ventures like the one you observed in Gomue in 2013 so important to Liberia’s future?

Farming subsistence and cash crops has long been important to the livelihood and lifeways of Liberia’s rural population.  In the 1940s and 1950s, the United States provided technical assistance to Liberia through programs like Point Four.  Frank Pinder, a former Farm Security Administration agent expert trained at Florida Agriculture & Mechanical University, had done extensive work in the US South helping Black tenant farmers expand their markets and build agricultural cooperatives. Initially, through a U.S. Economic Mission to Liberia and then through Point Four, Pinder similarly collaborated with rural farmers in Liberia to help diversify Liberia’s agricultural economy to counter Firestone’s emphasis on monocrop plantation agriculture.  Pinder did so in ways respectful of West African crops and farming practices that helped empower rural communities. In 2018, roughly 50 percent of land in Liberia has been leased to foreign concessions for oil palm, timber, rubber, and iron ore, among other natural resources, to try and jump start Liberia’s economy after 14 years of civil conflict.  But local communities, whose customary lands have been taken in the process, have seen little benefit.  In 2018, the Liberian Legislature passed a Land Rights Act that recognizes customary rights to land for the first time in Liberia’s history.  For many rural people in Liberia, access to and control of land is an important means of self-determination.  The new law, if enforced, would provide rural communities greater security for land held in common and upon which many rural Liberians depend for their livelihood and well-being.


Like many historians in the past who attempted to write about Firestone, you were denied access to the company’s archives.  Can you say how you pieced this story together?

Yes, historians have long known about the Firestone archives, which formerly were housed at the University of Akron’s special collections.  Although the archives were held at a public institution, and represent a very important collection for Liberia’s history, given how many documents were destroyed during decades of civil conflict in Liberia, Firestone, to my knowledge, only ever granted access to these collections to one individual.  After a 2005 lawsuit alleging labor rights violations on the Firestone plantations, Firestone removed these corporate archives from the University of Akron.  In the numerous trips I took to Liberia, we used old photographs and film footage taken of the plantations and Liberia’s interior at the time of Firestone’s arrival to spark memories and conversations about the company’s impact on the country.   The stories people generously shared were critical in helping guide my research.  We also worked with former Director-General Philomena Bloh Sayeh at the Center for National Documents and Records Agency and her staff in Monrovia, through a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, in sorting through and loosely organizing more than a thousand boxes of uncatalogued Liberian government documents that detail aspects of Liberia’s history over the course of the twentieth century.  And I combed through many different archives in the United States, and a few in Europe, to piece together what is admittedly one story among many of Firestone in Liberia that need to be told.



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Empire of Rubber