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Liberia Dispatches 2: Matilda Newport

NPR’s Jordana Hochman is traveling to Liberia on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the . She's sending in dispatches of her trip.

There’s a monument in Liberia that symbolizes the country’s complicated relationship with its past. Joseph Saye Guannu stopped to talk about it on a walking tour of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city. He’s a Professor of Liberian history and a native Liberian. That distinguishes him from Americo-Liberians, the small percentage of people descended from freed American blacks who colonized this part of West Africa in the 1800s.

The monument relates to one of those early settlers – a woman named Matilda Newport. According to myth, or history – depending on your perspective – Matilda Newport repelled an attack by native Liberians on the early settlement. As they were advancing, Newport fired a canon. The explosion scared them off, and Newport helped save the fledgling colony on December 1 st, 1822.

Liberians celebrated this story every December 1 st until 1980, when it was abolished. The national holiday was controversial because it honored the triumph of one group of Liberians over another. But the monument still stands. For Professor Guanno the monument it is not a unifying symbol. “I cannot identify with it,” he says. He explains that there is a street named after Matilda Newport, as well as a high school, and they haven’t been renamed. Their existence demonstrates Liberia’s continuing struggle to create a national identity.

posted by JJ Sutherland

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Jordana Hochman