By Jackie N. Sayegh
Growing up in Liberia, the name of name of Albert Porte was whispered amongst older relatives with varying emotions: anger, admiration, resignation, frustration, but never with apathy or indifference. Many expressed frustration over his constant “buzzing” thereby upsetting the powers that be while others secretly admired his courage. Secretly being the operative word here. As a child, the name was not significant in my world. Childhood friends, play and school took precedence and life went on as life is meant to do.
Last month, while writing a paper on an entirely different subject, I came across a letter written by the late Albert Porte to then President Tubman on the occasion of the president purchase of a luxury yacht that Porte maintained would be a burden to the country not only because of the cost, but because of its annual maintenance of $125,000.00 (“Thinking about the Unthinkable things the Democratic Way”, Monrovia, 1967 pp. 22-23).
Liberia, as a poor country, Porte pointed out, could ill afford the expense of a yacht much less the maintenance. President Tubman fired off a dismissive and patronizing response that accused Porte of being a “grumbler . . . you make no contribution or make so little contribution to the resources of the country that you should be ashamed to talk about the public expenditure. How much taxes have you or any of the grumblers paid into the public treasury from 1944 . . . Your spirit appears to me to be anarchical. I remember during the last Administration, you were critical and censorious of it.”
This was not the first time nor would it be the last that Porte bumped heads with the President. One that I found particularly fascinating centered on his constant dismissals and reinstatements as a school teacher.
On January 1st, 1949, then Secretary of Education J W. Pearson sent Mr. Albert Porte a letter informing him that his position as a public school teacher had been terminated. No reason was given for the dismissal. Mr. Porte appealed his dismissal to which, three weeks later, Pearson responded that he would do his best, but he was “under authority and am not at liberty to do more than I am instructed to do.” From the letter’s tone, it was evident that while Secretary Pearson was in sympathy with Mr. Porte, his duty was to carry out the directive of the president. Whether or not Pearson played a part in advocating for Porte is unclear, but in February, 1949, Porte received a letter from Pearson informing him that “in keeping with the directive of His Excellency the President, I wish to advise that you are restored to your position as principal of the government school in Crozierville effective as of Feb., 1949.”
The uneasy and uneven peace between the government and Mr. Porte continued on its bumpy path and reached a roadblock on July 2nd , 1955 when Mr. Porte was summoned to “kindly call at the Department of Public Instruction on Wednesday, the 6th instant, at 10am for a conference.” Three days after the “conference,” Mr. Porte became the recipient of another letter from the Secretary of Public Instruction E. J. Yancy, informing him that “having shown qualities of a man inherently an anarchist, by exposing the administration of Mr. King, Mr. Barclay, and now President Tubman; for organizing a committee to contribute to Mr. Tuan Wreh who viciously attacked the present administration and [is] attempting to prevent the Registra of the poll of Crozierville on election day from performing her duties because she was a school teacher, I have been directed to terminate your services as a public school teacher as of today’s date because of the herein above outlined.” At least this time reasons were given for the dismissal.
Four days later, Mr. Porte responded with the demand that he be allowed the “opportunity to face the accusation and accusers in an impartial investigation and also that you reconsider the directive given.” His appeal proved futile. President Tubman, however, took time from his vacation in Totota to explain that:
“Mr. Porte refuses to contribute one cent of his money that he is receiving from a Whig administration to the success of the Whig party. But he was willing to contribute to the support of the family of a man who to all intents and purposes has committed criminal libel against the administration and had been convicted by the legislature and imprisoned.”
Satisfied with the public reprimand, President Tubman instructed Secretary Yancy that Mr. Porte was to once again “assume his former position as principal of the government school within the township.” On December 8, 1955, Mr. Porte thanked the government for his reinstatement but brought up the issue of the back wages owed him. He was after all entitled to his back pay and reinstated or not, this was an important point to him. Secretary Yancy indignantly explained that as Mr. Porte was not “in service at the time because he was dismissed and not suspended, he had no claim to such wages.”
To add insult to injury, not only did Mr. Porte not receive his back wages, the deduction to his salary resumed. Porte’s silence to this problem ended on May 7, 1966, when he wrote then Secretary of Education Augustus F. Caine requesting that “in view of the current speculations that members of the True Whig party are to contribute to the party fund at the end of the month and that salaries are to be cut therefore, I am earnestly requesting that you direct no such cut to be made from my salary cheque.” Porte’s reasons were direct, unflinching and clear: “I am not a member of the Whig Party and should not therefore be forced to contribute to its funds. President Tubman in his recent visits abroad, made it clear that unlike Ghana, ours is not a one-party state by law. While it is a fact that my salary was refunded to me in the past when I raised the question of non-membership, I feel it is humiliating, despotic, and tyrannical that such requests for a refund should have to be made amidst the circumstances in the first place.”
As expected, the government’s answer was swift and expected. Four days after his letter, Secretary of Education Augustus F. Caine informed Mr. Porte that he was “hereby relieved of your duties as public school teacher of Montserrado county effective today’s date, for administrative reasons.”
There is no other correspondence I found to show what happened after this but we can all infer from the courageous character of Mr. Porte that he did not take this latest dismissal without a fight. Committed as he was to the fight against injustice there is no doubt that the struggle continued, in another form, under another Liberian leader, at another time. It was rumored that he carried his toothbrush with him everywhere for he never knew where his nights would end: in prison, at another house, or on the streets.
The power play and vendetta of three Liberian presidents against a single citizen and the silence of the Liberian community gave clear evidence of how lonely the fight against injustice can be. Twain points out that “in the beginning of a change the patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot.”
So what makes one man stand tall and speak out against injustice while others cower and shrink? What makes a person, with civility, dignity, and a clear perception of the rights of the individual present reasoned arguments to defend his or her position while others resort to offensive behavior and rude speech? What makes a person practice Gandhi’s maxim that “a ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.” I guess the question in its truest form is what makes a man, a man (or a woman for that matter).
There is no doubt it was a lonely fight, but Albert Porte did not shrink from demanding his full menu of rights. His pickings at the buffet table might have been slim, but the selection was his, his decision whether to partake or not, always on his own terms. His terms.
God, give us men! A time like this demands
Strong minds, great hearts, true faith and
Men whom the lust of office does not kill;
Men whom the spoils of office cannot buy;
Men who possess opinions and a will;
Men who have honor; men who will not lie;
– Josiah Gilbert Holland –
Jackie N. Sayegh is Program Manager of the Institute for African Development at Cornell University. She is AN alum of the University of Liberia and Cornell. The responsibility for views expressed in this article is solely those of the author who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org