Who Was the First African-American President?

In Liberia, the first 10 presidents of this West African nation were born in the United States.

(Photo: Courtesy Wikicommons)

REPORTING FROM LIBERIA — When asked who the first African-American president was, most people in the United States would certainly say Barack Obama. In fact, it was Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who was born in 1809 in Norfolk, Virginia, and became the first president of the Republic of Liberia in 1848.


In fact, the first 10 presidents of this West African nation were born in the United States. Liberia was founded in the 1840s by freed African-American slaves and Black Americans who had managed to gain their freedom. Those Black Americans came here to establish a new life for themselves, away from the specter of slavery. In the process, they colonized a country that was made up of 16 various indigenous tribal groups and established a nation.


Roberts, the first president, remains enshrined in Liberian culture. His birthday remains a national holiday on March 15 and his image is still on the Liberian $10 bill. Born a free Black man, he came here in 1829 and opened a trading store and later became involved in politics. When Liberia became an independent country in 1847, Roberts was elected president, serving until 1856. In 1872, he was elected president a second time, serving until 1876.


Roberts had the task of getting recognition for the new African republic by the leaders of the world, traveling to Europe to meet with Queen Victoria of England and other heads of state (Great Britain was the first country to recognize Liberia, followed by France in 1848). The United States did not recognize Liberia until 1862, when the government feared that members of Congress from the South would not accept a Black ambassador in Washington.


After Roberts, there were several notable American-born Liberian presidents. There was James Spriggs Payne, who was born in Richmond, Virginia, to former slaves of mixed race. Payne, Liberia’s fourth and eighth president, was so light-skinned that many indigenous Liberians thought he was white. He was noted for working to end the slave trade which continued in Liberia into the 1850s. He also improved relations with the native groups in the country, considering them to have been largely ignored.


The last American-born president of Liberia was Alfred Francis Russell, who served in office from 1883 until 1884. Russell was born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1817 and immigrated to Liberia in 1833 with his mother and cousin. He was a Methodist missionary and later owned a large coffee and sugar cane business. He served as vice president of Liberia until the resignation of President Anthony William Gardiner due to poor health.


In 1884, Liberia elected Hilary R.W. Johnson as president, making him the country’s first head of state born in Liberia.



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