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Liberia’s 13th President- 115 years after

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Just within the forecourt of the Episcopal Church building in Clay Ashland lies several tombs, amongst them one decorated with a Masonic Craft insignia, and an inscription, which reads “Here Lies the remains of His Excellency President William David Coleman, of the Republic of Liberia-1896-1900.

Lying next to him is a twin grave bearing the remains of his son and grandson-Samuel David Coleman and John David Coleman respectively. Both murdered by government forces on June 27, 1955, after accusations of a failed coup-well captured in the book the “Plot That Fail.”

Further away from the Episcopal Church are the Methodist and the Baptist Churches all standing beautifully in their colonial designs. 

Just within the same compound of the Baptist Church is the Mayor office and right in front is a cannon, surrounded by two elephants.  The cannon, residents say was erected in honor of Matilda  Newport, a female heroine in the fight between the settlers and the natives. A holiday which was named in remembrance of her was later abolished after the military takeover in 1980. This Cannon over looks an unclear bush with reeves. Resident say this was the proposed site of the True Whig Party Headquarters, an Americo-Liberian party that rule Liberia for more than hundred years and yet has an unclear bush to point to as a site for its proposed headquarters speaks volumes of their rule.

Further up the hill overlooking St. Paul’s River and the Baptist Compound is a three storey building-That is a Masonic Temple, a symbol of Americo-Liberians settlements.

Further down, that is not too far from the same Baptist Compound is a storey building which now lies in ruins, that his the home of Liberia’s 13th President William David Coleman.

The late President Coleman is one of four Liberian Presidents to have resigned from office. He resigned, according to historians after members of his Cabinet, the Legislature and other citizens expressed dissatisfaction over his interior policy. Since Vice- President J.J.Ross had died, Coleman was succeeded by his Secretary of State, Garretson W. Gibson.

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Under Liberia’s succession laws, Robert H. Marshall was set to become the President as Speaker of the House, but others felt he was unsuited for the position. The National Legislature then repealed the 1873 succession law and placed Gibson in the office of President.

The rest who resigned while in office are President Anthony W. Gardiner (1878-1883). He resigned over his handling of a boundary dispute with the British. He was succeeded by Vice-President Alfred F. Russell. 

President Charles D.B. King (1920-1930). Resigned following publication of the Christy report, the House of Representatives started the procedure to impeach President King who hastily resigned. He was succeeded by Secretary of State Edwin Barclay. And the last of course is President Charles G. Taylor (1997-2003).

Taylor, currently serving a 50-year sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in neighboring Sierra Leone, resigned after rebel forces had taken control of most of the country’s territory amidst international pressure; he was granted political asylum in Nigeria by President Obasanjo despite being indicted by the Sierra Leone War.

Now back to Coleman

The late President Coleman according to his great, great grandson named after his son, Samuel D. Coleman was born in Fayette County, Kentucky and emigrated to Liberia with his family at the age of 16. Though some researchers put his age at the time at 11.

The late President arrived in Liberia with his family in 1853, with his widowed mother, and three others, all settling in Clay-Ashland.

Coleman, according to historians was trained as a carpenter and had other manual labor jobs before becoming a successful trader. Studying at night, he picked up the education he had abandoned as a child.

In 1877, he was elected to the House of Representatives to represent Montserrado County, and became the Speaker of the House. Two years later Coleman was elected as a Senator for the same county. He remained in the Liberian Senate until he was elected Vice President under Joseph James Cheeseman on the True Whig ticket in 1892.They were re-elected twice to the two-year presidential term, and Coleman became president when President Cheeseman died in office in 1896.

Coleman completed Cheeseman term and got himself elected for a full term in office. Historians say his resignation was as of a policy difference with his own cabinet, Legislature and some citizens.

However, according to his great, great grandson, he was forced to only served one year of his two years term on grounds that he had already served a whole year to complete Cheeseman term.

But on paper, we are told that fellow Americo-Liberian citizens opposed his execution of polices concerning the interior lands and people.

It is said that after a falling out with political allies and his own cabinet over his policies placed more pressure on his administration, he resigned from office in December 1900.

Coleman after resigning from the Presidency, remained active in Liberian politics and unsuccessfully attempted for the top job in three elections; 1901, 1903 and 1905, as a member of the People’s party. He died in Clay Ashland in 1908 at the age of 65.

But 115-years on, what was once the home of one of the country’s most high profile citizens now stands derelict like many other structures in the once flamboyant Americo-Liberians settlement.

Current occupants of this structure dare not venture upstairs for fear that a misstep on any of the routine wooden floor could spell a disaster.

“You have to wait for some of the children to guide you, before you fall off on one of those planks,” shouted one of the great, great, great granddaughters of President Coleman who had taken this writer on a tour of the Americo-Liberians settlement.

But Coleman is not alone. There are several other former Presidents of this country whose homes stand in derelict conditions-President Tubman in Maryland, Edwin Barclay, in Margibi, but recently destroyed to give way to host a Chinese construction company, and President Samuel K. Doe in Zewdru, a home he did not occupy before his death.

Just in front of Coleman’s house is the boat landing stairs-where boats used to and still docks over the St. Paul’s River.

Few blocks away from Coleman’s ruined house is the home of one of the country’s most senior citizens-Madam Famatta Morris, a nonagenarian. She is expecting her centenary (100) birthday in September this year. Madam Famatta Morris, an educator,  is a friend of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

Meanwhile, the Americo-Liberian settlement does not have much to remember the country’s 13th president, except for a school built in his memory, The William D. Coleman High school and off course, the Episcopal Church of which he was a member.

Sadly, Clay Ashland a settlement rich in Americo-Liberian history is now being taken over by native Liberians, most of whom were domestic slaves, set freed years later. This once beautiful enclave overlooking the St. Paul’s River, which was home to the nation’s big shots, and sugarcane trade is slowly disappearing. 

The Masonic Temple, like many of the churches in Clay Ashland remains in a very good shape. Businessman turned politician Benoni Urey is its Grandmaster.-More to come on Clay Ashland.

By Othello B. Garblah

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