Liberian president helps launch archival website developed with help from IU

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has unveiled a national history website that was developed with assistance from Indiana University and its Liberian Collections Project.

The site, “A Liberian Journey: History, Memory and the Making of a Nation,” features photographs, short videos, diaries and other documents from a 1926 Harvard University exploration of the West African land. It also includes related oral histories collected in contemporary Liberia.

Chief Plenyono Gbe Wolo and his wife pose in native Vai costumes in this archival photo from the Liberian Journey site. Wolo, the first African to graduate from Harvard, assisted with the 1926 expedition and later worked for Firestone. (Courtesy of IU Liberian Collections/Loring Whitman).

Chief Plenyono Gbe Wolo and his wife pose in native Vai costumes in this archival photo from the Liberian Journey site. Wolo, the first African to graduate from Harvard, assisted with the 1926 expedition and later worked for Firestone. (Courtesy of IU Liberian Collections/Loring Whitman).

Attending a launch celebration Monday, Johnson Sirleaf commended the agencies and universities that developed the site and said it will play an important role in informing Liberians about the past.

“By that, it will make all Liberians to know about their true history and the roles their forefathers played in the past in bringing all of their children up to this point,” she said in a news release.

Staff from Indiana University’s Liberian Collections Project and from IU Libraries’ African Studies Collection and Digital Collections Services played a central role in creating the site, including digitizing and posting archival materials. Many of the photos, videos, diaries and letters from the Harvard expedition are part of the Liberian Collections Project and are the property of the IU Board of Trustees.

The 1926 expedition took place after the Liberian government granted Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. a 99-year lease to establish a rubber plantation on up to 1 million acres. Firestone sponsored a team of scientists and doctors to conduct a four-month survey of Liberia’s interior to assess the challenges it would face.

Loring Whitman, a Harvard graduate and later a medical student, served as official photographer. He captured video images that are the earliest known surviving motion pictures from Liberia along with hundreds of still photographs. The materials provide a glimpse of Liberia at a time of rapid change from a viewpoint shaped by white privilege and the racial attitudes of American scientists.

“A Liberian Journey” is a collaborative project of Liberia’s Center for National Documents and Records, the Liberian Collections Project at Indiana University, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A National Science Foundation grant provided funding.

Indiana University has long been involved with Liberia through research, scholarship, and economic and medical assistance projects. Johnson Sirleaf received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from IU in 2008.

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