Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



In 1930, African American sociologist Charles S. Johnson of Fisk University traveled to the Republic of Liberia as the American member of a League of Nations commission to investigate allegations of slavery and forced labor in that West African nation. In the previous five years, the face of Liberia had changed after the large-scale development of rubber plantations on land leased by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, with headquarters in Akron, Ohio. Political turmoil greeted Johnson in Liberia, an underdeveloped nation teetering on the brink of economic collapse. This dissertation focuses on Johnson’s role as the key member of the League of Nations Commission of Inquiry, and examines events leading up to the investigation. Also touched upon are the life and career of Harvey S. Firestone, the history of the rubber and automobile industries, and Liberia’s relationship with the U. S. Department of State. Central to this dissertation, however, is Charles Johnson, an important and underappreciated figure in African American history. Johnson’s diplomatic approach to race relations in the United States earned him respect from philanthropic foundations that funded his research projects, but also led to criticism and jealousy from his black colleagues and peers. Because Johnson guarded his privacy so closely and left behind little in the way of personal information, the journal that he kept for six months in Liberia becomes all the more important as a clue to his inner thoughts and feelings, as well as a guide to his personality and character. Furthermore, Liberia shaped Johnson’s thinking as a scholar in important ways, particularly in regard to the economic foundations of exploitation, caste and class, and political disfranchisement. Johnson’s mission to Liberia and his spirited defense of that nation’s tribal citizens, as this study shows, suggests a more complicated and assertive individual that contrasts with the largely one dimensional image of him that has metastasized over the years. Indeed, Johnson was one of the few African Americans who showed any interest in the welfare of Liberia’s indigenous tribes. In that regard, he was a maverick, overlooked and underestimated.



Document Availability at the Time of Submission

Release the entire work immediately for access worldwide.

Committee Chair

David H. Culbert



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