By T. Anthony BellFebruary 27, 2019
FORT LEE, Va. (Feb. 26, 2019) -- The first African-American president and a former Fort Lee Soldier were born more than 150 years apart in different countries, yet their lives are eternally bound by complex narratives surrounding issues of slavery, oppression, power and freedom.
Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a Norfolk native, was born free in 1809. Literate at a young age, he became relatively prosperous but not necessarily privileged. The relegation likely forced him to pursue opportunities elsewhere, and he departed these shores for West Africa in 1829.
Eighteen years later, Roberts became an African head of state.
Momo Larmena Jr., a native African and former 92W water treatment specialist who trained here just over a decade ago, is descended from those who followed the tracks of Roberts and others to what became the African country of Liberia. Ironically, he would be forced to find his life and liberty in the same place Roberts was denied his.
Roberts and Larmena's stories of migration in some ways highlight the plight of black people looking to escape bondage, oppression and hostilities since arriving here in 1619. Claude A. Clegg III, a history professor at the University of North Carolina, said relocation -- whether forced or not -- is a reoccurring episode in the African-American storybook.
"If there is one enduring theme of African-American history, it is migration (from internal and international perspectives)," said the Lyle V. Jones Distinguished Professor. "African-American history starts in migration with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade … and other transitions followed."
The Great Migration of the early 20th Century was most significant. It compelled blacks by the millions to head north not only to avoid Jim Crow's overreaching shadow but to serve their economic interests. It was but one of many population shifts they authored in search of justice and equality, sometimes with such declarative resignation as "any place is better than here," said Clegg.
Migration was surely on the mind of Roberts. He had moved in the early 1800s to Petersburg, an industrial town with a large population of free blacks who had access to education. Such advantages, however, were insufficient for the ambitious young man and those like him, said Deborah A. Lee, a Standardsville-based historian.
"I think the best description is they (Roberts and others) had hit the glass ceiling," she said. "For all their skills, accomplishments and tremendous potential for more, they were limited to what (the dominant society would allow them to) do in this country."
Roberts and several family members left the U.S. for the West African colony of Liberia in 1829. It was established by the American Colonization Society with support from the U.S. government and sold as a black homeland. The idea appealed to Roberts and others who saw the promise of opportunity and freedom -- opposite the suffocating, pervasive discrimination they were subjected to in the U.S, Lee explained.
By 1843, more than 4,500 African-Americans had migrated to Liberia, and 10,000 more had traveled to their ancestral home by the early 1900s.
Liberia shed its colony status in 1847, becoming Africa's first Western-styled republic. Roberts was chosen as the first president the same year. He presided over a nation that closely mimicked the one he departed.
For starters, Liberia's flag is similar to the 1847 U.S. flag, all but for the number of stars; and the nation's founding documents were full of the same freedom and liberty idealism featured in the U.S. Constitution.
Most significantly, the American emigrants and their descendants (called Americo-Liberians) became a ruling class bent on maintaining power. They were 5 percent of Liberia's general population, yet they systematically subjugated the indigenous peoples, creating a tiered racial order reminiscent of Southern antebellum society, according to Liberian historian Abayomi Karnga in a 1923 publication.
"The indigenous African-Liberians were at the bottom of the hierarchy," he wrote. "These divisions led to de facto segregation amongst the various groups. Specifically affected were the indigenous population."
Liberia was literally a contradiction of its name and national seal motto -- "The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here."
Despite the initial intentions of the Americo-Liberians, the country became a state of smoldering tension over the years. It reached an explosive climax in 1980 when indigenous natives led by Samuel Doe staged a coup, executed members of the ruler elite and installed their own government.
As a result of the rebellion, the African American vision of a prosperous and free nation in the land of their ancestors had been effectively cast into Africa's mountainous heap of failed regimes.
Following the coup, Liberia was unstable and the potential for violence was great. Beginning in 1989, rival rebel factions clashed, killed and butchered, causing the flow of blood to run swiftly through the streets of the capital, Monrovia -- named in honor of U.S. president James Monroe -- and elsewhere. More than 200,000 people were annihilated and hundreds of thousands more became displaced in the seven years that followed.
The tentacles of Liberia's violence slithered its way into the Larmena family. Murdered in 1990 was Momo Larmena Sr., forcing Momo Jr., his mother and seven others in the family to flee the rampant chaos sweeping the nation. The act effectively set off a chain of events that led them to America.
The Larmenas departed the shores of Africa in 1998, landing in Sacramento, Calif., under a refugee resettlement program. Sacramento is roughly 2,700 miles from Richmond, birthplace of Larmena relative James Spriggs Payne, Liberia's fourth and eighth president.
Prior to completely getting resettled in the U.S., Momo Larmena Jr. -- a former chemist -- returned to Liberia in 1999 to support post-war reconstruction efforts. He served as the secretary general of the Liberian Red Cross and as a consultant with the United Nations Development Program.
"They had elections, and I believed the war had ended," he said in a Traveller article published in 2007 while he attended training here.
Liberia was more stable but not necessarily safer, as Larmena found out firsthand. In a 2004 flare-up in hostilities, men from the same group that murdered his father appeared outside his home. Larmena and two sons narrowly escaped the pending attack after a man he knew to be a U.S. Army Soldier showed up in a vehicle with a driver, whisking him away moments after men began pulling weapons from the trunk of a parked automobile. He departed for Sacramento a few days later.
"If it wasn't for the U.S. Army, I wouldn't be here," he said in the Traveller, referring to the heroic efforts of the rescuers.
In 2005, Larmena sought to pay his debt to the country that welcomed him. He tried joining the Army but could not because he was few years past the then-maximum age of 36. When the age limit was raised to 42 in 2006, he enlisted in the Army Reserve the following year on his 42nd birthday.
In 2007, Spc. Larmena completed advanced individual training at Fort Lee, a mere 20 miles from Payne's birthplace of Richmond. His graduation was but another golden nugget in a sack full of fortuity that began with a Soldier risking his life to save his.
"I don't consider myself a lucky man," he said. "I consider myself a blessed man."
Blessed indeed. Larmena resumed his community service work in the Sacramento area, exercising his residency there with a high degree of zeal, gratitude and responsibility. He created HIV/AIDs education and computer literacy programs for low-income residents, and his efforts garnered praise from throughout the community and from then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and then-President George W. Bush.
Larmena later became a Methodist minister and now makes his home in Nebraska. The Army Reserve officer is now addressed as Chaplain (Maj.) Larmena. The 53-year-old recently returned from a Middle East deployment in that capacity. His career in the ministry follows the footsteps of Payne, who he said is his maternal great grandfather.
Payne also was Roberts' fellow passenger on the 1829 voyage to freedom.
Ironically, Larmena's 1998 flight to freedom can be viewed as a metaphorical return trip for Roberts, Payne and 15,000 African-Americans who emigrated to Liberia over the course of 90 years believing they could never be described as American.
Indeed, the America today bears no resemblance to the version that forced them away. It is comprised of a phenomenal patchwork of races, ethnicities, colors and nationalities who have unparalleled access to prosperity, equality, justice and freedom. More than 1.3 million people immigrating to this country last year thought so.
That is not to say the country's current state was a flight through time without turbulence. Such events as the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, labor disputes and contemporary issues such as the #Me-Too Movement and Black Lives Matter all have served as a gauntlet testing the strength and integrity of America's founding documents.
Those events are indications America is not without fault but has its shining moments when society seeks to repair itself. It will continue to evolve at the behest of people like Larmena and 300 million others who can freely strive to be productive parts of a greater whole dedicated to the ideals of freedom, justice and equality.