Boston — 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, premiering on PBS Thursday, October 10, 2002 at 10pm (check local listings).
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 and the US government as a home for freeborn blacks and former slaves-and the settlers' relationship with the indigenous people. Looking 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. 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," says producer Nancee Oku Bright.
"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. 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."
LIBERIA: AMERICA'S STEPCHILD is the sixth offering of World Story, WGBH Boston's ongoing series of specials on modern world history for PBS.
The Liberian story begins in the early 1820s, when the Washington, DC-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, including: its early struggles with disease; eradicating slavery on its own shores; warring indigenous tribes; its evolution as Africa's first independent republic; and the nurturing of its international diplomatic relations, particularly with the United States. One hundred and 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.
Flash points of Liberia's volatile political history include:
* Political stability falters under long-term President William V.S. Tubman, who despite introducing much needed reforms into the political system, gradually suppresses all political freedom and expression to become a virtual dictator.
* In 1980, after a violent military coup, Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe becomes the first leader of Liberia to hail from one of the country's indigenous tribes. During Doe's time in office, Liberia and the United States celebrate 120 years of diplomatic relations between their nations and reaffirm the bond uniting their citizens.
* After a failed coup attempt against him, President Doe brutally punishes rival tribes, setting off a reign of terror that drives many young boys over the border to become rebels.
* In December 1989, some of those same boys return as soldiers in Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) militia. A seven-year civil war ensues, leaving 150,000 Liberians dead and displacing more than half of the population. The United States chooses not to intervene.
* Presidential elections held in 1997-certified as fair by international observers name Taylor as Liberia's new president. Despite the high hopes of Liberians, peace remains elusive to this day.
LIBERIA: AMERICA'S STEPCHILD is a Grain Coast Production for WGBH. Executive producer for WGBH Boston is Zvi Dor-Ner. For Grain Coast Productions, director, producer and narrator is Nancee Oku Bright; producer and editor is Jean-Philippe Boucicaut, producer is Arnoud Hekkens, and executive producer is Hugh Purcell. Funding is provided by the Ford Foundation, the Stratford Foundation, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, Agnes Rein, National Black Programming Consortium, the Paul Robeson Foundation and public television viewers. LIBERIA: AMERICA'S STEPCHILD is closed-captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers by The Caption Center at WGBH Boston and described for blind and visually impaired audiences by Descriptive Video Service® (DVS®) at WGBH.
WGBH Boston is America's preeminent public broadcasting producer, the source of nearly one-third of PBS's prime-time lineup and companion online content as well as many public radio favorites. WGBH is a pioneer in educational multimedia (including the Web, broadband, and interactive television) and in technologies and services that make media accessible for people with disabilities. WGBH has been recognized with hundreds of honors: Emmys, Peabodys, duPont-Columbia Awards even two Oscars. In 2002, WGBH was honored with a special institutional Peabody Award for 50 years of excellence. For more information visit www.wgbh.org.
Photography contact: Alexandra Holden, WGBH Boston, 617-300-5309, email@example.com