- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 18, 2001

LOUISIANA, Liberia Flowers still bloom along the curves of what was once a long, gracious driveway. Orange blossoms wave gently in the humid breeze.
But the last gardener fled two decades ago, and now only a narrow footpath winds through the tall grass to the looming plantation house.
Liberia's recent history is written on the mansion's walls, hieroglyphics of a civil war that gutted this West African nation. The house, once pristine white, is spattered with shrapnel from artillery shells. Ornate columns are splintered by bullets. A power line, long useless, is strung across the front yard, draped with ragged laundry.
But the Louisiana mansion in a tiny town whose name reflects the roots of the freed slaves who founded Liberia 180 years ago still echoes a lost America. Like a Technicolor scene from "Gone with the Wind," the house evokes an antebellum society of plantation balls and parasols, of a minuscule elite bound to one another through intermarriage, business connections and byzantine social rules.
Their culture survived across two centuries, with the slave descendants ruling as masters over the indigenous tribes until a bloody 1980 military coup. By the time Liberia's seven-year civil war ended, in 1996, the nation was in ruins and the old ruling class had disintegrated.

Ruling class returns
But that culture is quietly coming back.
Not the way it once was: No balls are held at the crumbling Louisiana plantation house, now watched over by the illegitimate grandson of the former attorney general who built it. No women carry lace parasols through Monrovia, the capital.
Still, it's there. At least for a lucky few.
It's in the ruins of the Masonic Lodge, a burned-out palace overlooking downtown Monrovia, where the core of the elite who styled themselves Americo-Liberians once gathered to secretly chart the nation's course. The Masons were outlawed for a time after the 1980 coup, when the country's new indigenous rulers denounced them as fossils from Liberia's past, and during the civil war the lodge was often the scene of fighting.
Now, a handful of Masons sometimes gather at sunset, parking their Mercedes out front and pushing aside the squatters who live inside to make new plans amid the wreckage. It's in the makeup of Liberia's new government.
The president, former warlord Charles Taylor, is himself Americo-Liberian, though his family was not of the most elite caste. But many top officials, from the maritime commissioner to the commerce minister, are members of old, prominent families. Dozens more influential slave descendants have returned as business leaders.
"We have a re-emergence of the settler group at the helm of power," said Massa Crayton, an aid worker who traces some of her roots to the ex-slaves. "They're doing it cleverly, though, keeping one or two natives around."
Mrs. Crayton, a self-described "salad" because of her mix of backgrounds, despises Liberia's obsession with American culture.
"Liberians are lost between being a Liberian and being an American," she said. "We are lost in limbo."

'Deep South' traces
America is nearly everywhere in this country.
The ramshackle architecture, with broad front porches and tin siding, could be in rural Mississippi. The accents are deeply reminiscent of black neighborhoods across the South. Elementary schools are named for Richard Nixon, and nearly every store accepts American dollars. As the sun sets, old men play checkers on their front stoops.
And, like America, Liberia has a long history of bigotry.
The Americo-Liberians trace their roots to the 1820s, when hundreds of freed American slaves were sent to Africa by anti-slavery societies. Many died, ravaged by disease and malnutrition. But the survivors took root and established a vision of what they had left behind.
"It was a re-creation of that plantation culture, with themselves as the lords," said Moses Nagbe, a prominent Liberian poet.
The ruling class was composed entirely of slave descendants. They controlled the government, ran every major business and owned much of the land. Their motto "A love of liberty brought us here" celebrated equality, but their laws enshrined their position as Liberia's masters.
Among the elite, status was often linked to skin tone the lighter the better and the state from which one's ancestors came. Virginia was at the top, Mississippi very much at the bottom.
"Those who came from Mississippi were below ignorance," said Ernest Eastman, a prominent Americo-Liberian and longtime diplomat. He ticks off some of the commonly heard slurs: "Their ancestors were simple field hands ignorant blacks."

Selling citizens as slaves
In the 1930s, a president was forced from power after an international investigation found he had been selling uneducated countrymen into slavery on central African cocoa plantations. Through the 1950s, indigenous teen-age boys were forced to carry settler families in hammocks through the nation's interior, hauling them on an elaborate trail network through thick forests.
Ask most Americo-Liberians about those times, and they would say things were pretty good. They would talk about how their families took in smart local children, giving them a smattering of education and sometimes their American names in exchange for menial labor.
But Liberia's indigenous people recall things differently.
They remember the daily derision and the jobs to which they didn't even bother aspire. They remember starting each day carrying slop jars filled with their employers' waste.
Their long-suppressed fury was unleashed after the 1980 coup, when a barely literate army sergeant seized power, promising an end to "settler rule." As onlookers cheered, gray-haired Cabinet ministers wearing only their underpants were tied to poles on the beach and shot. Their families and friends scattered across Africa and to the United States.
"Maybe we were just too foolish to understand," said Mr. Eastman, the diplomat, who escaped execution only because he was abroad during the coup. He is now an adviser to Mr. Taylor.
But while things are improving for the old aristocrats, poverty and war have worn the edges off many of this nation's class distinctions.

Ravages of civil war
Liberia remains a devastated country. The war, a seemingly endless battle for power among a long list of warlords, left nothing untouched. Years after the fighting stopped, the economy is still a wreck; electricity is rare, running water even rarer. While Mr. Taylor and his inner circle grow rich U.N. investigators accuse him of gunrunning and diamond-smuggling most of the country stumbles through each day.
Louisiana, once an enclave of the elite, retains its glory only in memories. A town of a few hundred people about 25 miles from Monrovia, it suffered deeply during the war. Repeatedly, its residents fled the fighting.
"Now all of us have the same problems: no money, no jobs, no this, no that," said Joseph Cooper, a taxi driver who grew up in a concrete shack just a short walk from the plantation house.
Like Liberia, the mansion barely hangs on. The roof is caving, the paint peeling, the yard overgrown.
Morton Cassell watches over the place. The child of an "outside woman" the native mistress of the owner's son Mr. Cassell was allowed to visit only occasionally as a child. His grandfather didn't like him around, he said. So he was raised in town, and in poverty.
"When I entered this house for the very first time a country boy imagine. They had a piano. They had wall-to-wall carpeting. They had plank floors, not concrete," he said, smiling at the memory of his astonishment.
Years later, much of his grandfather's family has fled, and he is the plantation's master. He keeps up the building as best he can, but he has little to spare for repairs while scrambling for a living by growing cassava.
Mr. Cassell is a friendly man, and tells his story sitting barefoot on a cracked concrete bench under an old leafy tree. His young children stand behind him, listening, and chewing on the small, sweet nuts that fall from palm trees.
The Technicolor scene is gone. Now the mansion simply evokes present-day, combat-savaged Liberia and one small family drama that played out in one small town.
"It made me angry," Mr. Cassell said of his second-class status.
But despite the treatment by his family, he remains fiercely proud of his heritage, and particularly his ties to that cold, powerful man who barely let him in the door.
"You look at this man's picture and you're looking at me," said Mr. Cassell, obviously pleased at the similarities. "You don't see a difference."

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