Op-ed Politics 

Rflection: The Day Liberian President William V.S.Tubman Died

By Doris D. Grimes (Mrs. J. (Joseph) Rudolph Grimes,

It is amazing that after all these years, I get calls from Liberians in the U.S.A. and elsewhere, and foreigners worldwide asking me what happened this or that time. One interest to most of them seems to be what happed when my husband “received a radiogram from officials to say that W V S Tubman had died.” My husband died and was buried on September 22nd 2007, and he never received a radiogram from anyone (official) with President Tubman to say that he had died.

I have decided to print a section from my soon to be publish book, “One Together – J. (Joseph) Rudolph Grimes and Doris D. (Delicia) Grimes – which deals with the day Mr. Tubman died. I am doing this because Liberia has “so called Experts” and some newspapers spreading inaccurate information (Lies) about their relatives and friends and about historical events.

On July 18th, 1971, it was announced that the Liberian President, William V. S. Tubman would be traveling to London to enter the London Clinic for health reasons. His wife Antoinette Tubman, his doctor, Dr. Henrique Benson, Security Officer Wilfred Clarke and an Under Secretary of State, T. Ernest Eastman would be included in the group to accompany him on his trip. Many of us drove up to Roberts International Airport to see the President off to wish him a safe trip. Mr. J Rudolph Grimes, Secretary of State, was left in charge of the Government.

On the afternoon of July 20th, our friend Putu (Augusta) Porte came by our home. I was sewing near the garden, she sat down with me, and what she told me had me spellbound. She told me that she had come to ask me for Mrs. Tubman’s telephone number because she had had a very strange dream and therefore wanted to talk to her cousin Nettie. When I inquired about the dream she said that she had seen Mrs. Tubman with her hair all opened and grey and someone was saying all the time “A Nation mourns.” I told Putu that I did not have the number and that I would ask my husband if he could get it for me when he returned home later in the day.

Rudolph came home for lunch on the 23rd of July 1971, and Sylvia Harmon, a culinary person at the Mansion and I were at our place. He mentioned that Mr. Tubman had informed him that he changed his mind and decided that he would have the surgery that he said he would not have the day before. Rudolph said he had called all of the Cabinet to the State Department and informed them of what Mr. Tubman had said of the pending surgery and told them that he had been informed that it was over successfully and that Mr. Tubman was in the recovery room with seven doctors. He also asked them NOT to leave the city. The Vice President, Mr. William R. Tolbert, in a navy blue suit, led the group in prayers and the acting Secretary of Treasury-Lafayette Johnson cried out openly. Rudolph and I were having the Independence celebration. I had given many of the food that would be prepared to professional people to help – Fanny Speare, Thelma Morris Badio, and Jemima Peal – of course, the \mansion staff and others.

About a half hour before Rudolph came home for lunch, around 1:00 pm, my phone rang and it was a call from the Vice President’s house – a female voice – and she said, in a low voice, “they say he is dead and the Tolbert family people are arriving” and then the person hung up. Sylvia saw the expression on my face and said “Mrs. G. What happened?” -I then said, “I cannot understand what’s going on.”

I began warming the lunch for Rudolph – he was having his usual drink before lunch. Our doorbell rang and I went to answer the bell and this man entered just as Rudolph sat at the table for lunch, the telephone at the head of the stairs rang, – I suggested that Rudolph take the call in the bedroom after the overseas operator said that she had Mrs. Tubman on the line. I put the food in the oven to keep warm and went to the table where the visitor was seated. He did not want a drink and said that he had just left the Vice President’s home and Ernest Eastman had called to tell the Vice President that Mr. Tubman had died.

Rudolph was on the phone with Mrs. Tubman and I did not want this man to see me through the glass triangle on the swinging door – so I needed a beer – got down on all four and went to the bedroom and told Rudolph what the man, Emmett Harmon had told me. Rudolph told me to pick up the phone extension and listen to Mrs. Tubman, I heard Mrs. Tubman say that she had been told that her husband was in the recovery room – the operation was successful and seven doctors were in the recovery room with him and that was all she knew. When Rudolph came back to the dining room, Emmett Harmon asked him what he had heard, and he said what Mrs. Tubman had said. Emmett Harmon got up to leave and I took him to the door where he again repeated what he had told me earlier that Ernest Eastman had called to tell Mr. Tolbert that Mr. Tubman had died.

Rudolph left to return to his office and I took a shower and went to check on things at the Mansion. Sylvia had been trying to get in touch with me; she said Rudolph wanted to talk with me. We could not find a free phone. We ended up getting the phone in the upstairs of the kitchen. When I finally got Rudolph, he told me what the woman from Mr. Tolbert’s house and Emmett Harmon told you were true. I asked him if someone called him and he said no – he had called and it was confirmed. Ernest Eastman, Dudley Lawrence or any other officer never informed J. Rudolph Grimes of Tubman’s death.

Sylvia Harmon, Mai Padmore, and I went to the State Department. Sylvia was in the front seat with me, and Mai Padmore in the back seat. We saw Oliver Bright and James Morgan downstairs. I rarely went to Rudolph’s office, now here I was knocking on his office door, when he said, “Come in” and we entered. I was not prepared for what I saw. All hell broke loose. Sylvia screamed, rolled, cried and cried and rolled. Later I remembered the Tubmans had educated Sylvia at the Cordon Bleu in France and elsewhere.

Rudolph was at his desk and the only person in his office was George Henries, the Attorney General. I have to add here that the Attorney General remained in Mr. Grime’s office until after Mr. Tolbert was sworn in.

Rudolph then said “honey you go and stop all the preparations of food, etc. at the Mansion and elsewhere. You people do not breath a word to anyone, even though I told everyone to remain in the Monrovia area – now they are saying Mr. Tolbert is not at home or his office and has gone to his farm.” “ I have sent the Director of police, Smythe, from Monrovia with a team of Police and the Attorney General has a team of police coming from Gbarnga, and wherever he is he will be brought in and sworn in keeping with the laws of Liberia.”

“Mai, I have booked George to leave for London tonight to be with his sister when she returns home. He says he is not going and will send Ed Padmore. This is no time for Ed Padmore – go and see if you can get him on the plane tonight.” The three of us left for the Mansion – did what we had to do and Sylvia and I went to our home. We brought the telephone near the garden and there we remained downstairs the entire time.

Rudolph called to remind me that we had a dinner engagement at the Italian Embassy. He suggested that I get us out of it. I called the ambassador’s wife and apologized that my sinus was acting up we would not be able to be present at the dinner. Her response was, “Oh Doris, we are so sorry and I do understand the Doyen of the Diplomatic Corps who is the Vatican representative just informed my husband that he received the information from the Vatican less than an hour ago, we will keep in touch – you take care now.”

Who informed whom – The Ambassador, J Dudley Lawrence called McKinley DeShield to tell him that Mr. Tubman had died. Mac DeShield sent his son, Leonard DeShield, an official of the State Department to tell Mr. Tolbert who then began calling his relatives to come to his home. The Under Secretary of State, Ernest Eastman, had called Tolbert’s brother Steve Tolbert who was in Washington D. C. Steve expressed the opinion that Ernest Eastman was trying to get on their bandwagon now that Tubman was gone. Eastman deserved more than that, what was said of him. Eastman than called Vice President Tolbert to tell him that Mr. Tubman had died.

The two men who were with Steve Tolbert in D.C. when Eastman called him, Estrada Bernard and Clarence Simpson are in Monrovia and can confirm their presence there. The third has died. Steve Tolbert began sending messages to Liberia to be met – he knew he was taking over the country, Liberia. Mr. Grimes was still in his office doing his work, Sylvia and I was still near the garden when the telephone rang, it was a Liberian Foreign Service official in an Embassy trying to find out if what he had heard was correct and he wanted to talk with Mr. Grimes. I told him Mr. Grimes was in his office – suggested that he call Mr. Grimes at his office as I knew nothing.

William Hoff, a gardener at the Mansion came by to find out whether I would use some of my blooming potted plants for the reception. I told him I did not know. Sometimes they borrowed a blooming plant or two to be used for certain official functions at the Mansion. He wanted to know why we were so quiet – we just wanted him to go away.

My friend on Old Road, Letitia Scott called and wanted to know whether we had heard that Mr. Tubman had died in the London Clinic. I told her I had heard nothing and Sylvia told her the same thing, she then told us that Mildred Yancy Davis, a niece of Sataria DeShield and grandniece of Mr. Tubman had caused havoc in the area by screaming, rolling in the streets, as her Aunt, Sataria DeShield, had called to tell her, that Ambassador Dudley Lawrence had called to tell her husband, Mr. DeShield, that Mr. Tubman had died in London. And her husband had sent his son Leonard DeShield to tell Mr. Willie Tolbert. My first thoughts were, that’s their Cape Palmas set up – you do not handle things like that in a Government. Ignorance and inexperience is well demonstrated here.

Let me give you an example of what I told two top Government officials during the OAU ceremonies. Most of the time I wore Liberian attire to everything – official and unofficial. I had been doing this even when I was in school in the USA. The Liberian officials did not like this, criticized me, and even blamed my husband for my actions – wearing lappas – the only Liberian official’s wife who wore lappas.

I remember I was sitting in my car in front of the Executive Pavilion waiting for my husband to come from the OAU meeting so we could enter together. I see the Press (Liberian) Wilfred Smith, Forti Frank, Pratt and others laughing and they said something to Stanton Peabody who laughed so much he had to sit. They were all waiting for the other Press people to come from the offices to join them.

Stanton brings one foreign pressman over to me and he plays what this man had mistakenly recorded. Mac DeShield is saying, “I don’t know why she wears lappas to everything – the old man will not like this.” Then Mr. Willie Tolbert says – “Her husband is to be blamed for this, he cannot control her.” I was so mad that I walked into the Executive Pavilion with Stanton following me and some others walked over to Mr. DeShield and said your wife’s sister Mrs. Maria Gibson was married to Mr. Tubman’s nephew, a Yancy and they had one child McDonald, I don’t know what happened, but she divorced him and he married her younger sister Olive and there was several children from this union – then your wife’s oldest brother, Fred Gibson married Mr. Tubman’s niece, Elizabeth Yancy to whom everyone says he is extra close – so if he Mr. Tubman buys clothes for your wife – that is your Cape Palmas family affair – he has not bought and will not ever buy a pocket handkerchief for J. Rudolph Grimes’ wife. You use fan and air conditioner together, keep Christmas lights outside on 24/7 and do not pay ( the TWP man) light bills like some of us have to do Then I went over to Mr. Tolbert who was laughing and I said to him, “my husband and I are a team he does not control me and I do not control him, you know what you are waiting for.”

Further down the street from where Leticia Scott lived, the sister in law of Vice President W. R. Tolbert lived and she is reported to have son for Mr. Tubman. So Mildred Yancy Davis needed to scream, roll to pass the information to their family people (relatives). We later heard the American Singer called William Bell who was famous for “Bring the Curtain Down” was performing live at the Relda Cinema in Sinkor and some of the Tubman children and relatives heard of Mr. Tubman’s death because of Mildred’s activities.

Mr. Grimes was still in his office – the Attorney General, George Henries was there with him, and the Secretary of Defense, Allen Williams had joined them. Cabinet members were beginning to arrive and being ushered into the conference room. The Chief Justice was attending a conference abroad and an associate justice could not be found, Mr. Grimes an expert on Liberian and Constitutional laws had the Speaker ready to swear Mr. Tolbert in as President.

A Clerk came to tell Mr. Grimes that the Vice President was on the way to his office. Mr. Grimes leaves his desk – goes to the door, opens it – sees Mr. Tolbert in a safari suit and cap – extends his hand – says “Good Evening Mr. President.” Tolbert steps back as if surprised – a very poor actor, and is ushered between the Secretary of Defense and Grimes and the Attorney General where he is sworn in by the Speaker of the House as President of Liberia. Tolbert grabs Grimes, head on one side and says, “Rudi you did this for me – God will forever bless you.” “This is for Liberia, Mr. President,” Mr. President,” Grimes replied.

“Liberia has a new President.” The announcement was being made on T V regarding the arrival of Mr. Tubman’s body by Henry Andrews an official of the Information Department.

I remember that day after the swearing in, my telephone rang about seven to seven thirty a.m. and I said hello and the voice said, “Doris, how are you?” I said, “Fine, thank you – who is this?” and the voice said “Willie.” I asked, “Willie who” and the voice says “Willie Tolbert” and he said, “call me Willie, Doris.” “No Sir – all my life I have known you as Mr. Tolbert and that is what it is still.” I remember as a little girl Mr. Tolbert and others used to sew in my uncle’s tailor shop.

Heads of State and top officials were arriving for the funeral and I was called and asked to prepare lunch for some of them. Luckily, our cousin, Mai Roberts, and friend Beatrice Bowen were visiting me this day. I had to call George Ashi Supermarket to open up so that I was able to pick up food on my account. I was not given any funds – I did not know how many persons would be at our place. We, Mai, Beatrice, our children, and I prepared meals for three Presidents and their entourage and about thirty-five persons were served.

We drove up for the arrival of the body. When we got in the VIP lounge and began to line up when the plane was approaching – there was a group of the Tolbert relatives and friends who were extra loud and boisterous, screaming, “this is our time, we got it now.” The most vocal in the group seemed to be Mrs. Cecelia Davis Garnett. It got so mad that one of Mr. Tolbert’s daughters went and asked what was wrong and suggested that they behave in a better and more civilized way.

The plane was landing and Ellen Melton, wife of the Secretary of Internal Affairs, lost her cool – she screamed and screamed. We all lined up, officials, diplomats, etc. etc. where the plane would stop. Mr. Tolbert came over to me and said “Doris I want you to be the first to go on the plane before the officials of Government, so you can greet Mrs. Tubman.” I told him that Mrs. Tubman had her daughter and her husband and her brother and other relatives on the plane with her and I did not think I had to be there. He looked at me and said, “Doris I am asking you to please be the first to go on the plane and I am asking you as the President of Liberia.” I looked at him, smiled, and said, “Mr. President, Citizen Doris is going and we both laughed.” I ascended the plane steps and went to welcome my mother’s friend “Nettie Passmore Tubman” and her “handbag holder” at this distressful time of her life.

On my way down the steps, there is the E.L.B.C. boy, Milton Greaves and I hear “Mrs. Doris Grimes has just started down the steps – “She was the first to board the plane.” All of a sudden, I see Emmett Harmon with his handkerchief blowing his nose and screaming I was so shocked that I said, “Behave yourself – what’s wrong with you – move from in front of me.” I then went and stood with my husband and others.

Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and her Government permitted a Royal Air Force plane to take the body of President Tubman to Liberia. The Royal British Guards escorted the body and put it on the catafalque where Methodist Bishop S. Trowen Nagbe said prayers going around the tarmac and Liberians screamed and cried.

The area from Roberts International Airport to Monrovia was lined with folks, with drums and other musical instruments on both sides of the road and also traditional dancers, devils, etc., etc. It was however, very eerie – you could hear a pin drop – a tribute befitting a President of Liberia, yes, one who sycophants felt “slavishly grateful to – dynamic, far sighted, God fearing, sagacious leader – a leader whose policies made the blind see, the lame walk, and the deaf hear”. Typical Liberians talk …” a leader who had been tried by water, by fire …” yes, Tubman of Liberia had come home. When they got to the Mansion, the British Guardsmen took the body (about 4 or 5 on each side) shoulder high and turned it over to Liberian Military officers.

The Liberian Military officials received the body and took it to a room at the Mansion. The Honorable Stephen Tolbert took charge – locked Tubman in a room and he kept the key. He was huffing and puffing all around, and Emmett Harmon was following his every footstep like a stray puppy. Mrs. Tubman was in her quarters with some of her friends and relatives.

Mr. Harmon’s wife Dovey Davis Harmon was reigning with the Tolberts and ended up getting a fabulous government scholarship to get advanced degrees in the United States of America. She got so ill in America that she became like a rag doll in an institution. I remained downstairs at the Mansion with some officials of the Order of the Eastern Star, my husband was briefly at the Mansion, – he remained at his office clearing his desk and packing his personal things to get out of the State Department. The funeral was held at the Centennial Pavilion and Mr. Tubman was buried on the grounds. Mrs. Tubman had been preparing a gravesite at their home in Congo town but she was over ruled and had to abandon the area she had begun to prepare.

Mrs. Tubman and others had dinners, etc. To thank those who attended the funeral and began to move out of the Mansion to private places. Mai Roberts, Mrs. Tubman’s first cousin, and I went to clear her things out, I remember we had two truckloads taken to the Tubman’s Estate in Totota and signed for by the house-keeper Emma Stewart, one load also went to their home in Congo town.

Coming back with Mr. Charles Mason, the driver of the car, we had car problems. Luckily, I was on that road regularly and knew just about everybody. I told Mai that we would stop at her sister in law’s place (Gertrude Barclay – Ernest (Barclay’s wife) and even though Gertrude was not home, we were able to remain there because the people in the house knew me. Rudolph had sent his resignation to Mr. Tolbert before Mr. Tubman was buried and he was asked to hold on to everything.

I might mention here that Steve Tolbert had bought a yacht and was traveling with friends to Sierra Leone some months before Mr. Tubman became ill. He told his friends that Mr. Tubman would die in office and his brother would be the successor and he Steve said he would be in charge of everything. He then asked his friends what positions they wanted, one wanted to be the Attorney General, one the Secretary of State, one Ambassador to Italy and one said, “I just want to be able to sell my f… Paint”.

In September 1971, Rudolph began to arrange to attend the UN General Assembly. He arranged thank you and farewell dinners, luncheons, etc, etc., for his colleagues and he insisted that I go with him to the U.S.A. – additional expense for us.

Of course, Stephen Tolbert was into everything. We lived at the Towers of the Waldorf Astoria where my husband was well respected and liked. I had carried Liberian souvenirs for officials of the hotel who had been so kind and courteous to my husband and me over the years. No one can ever say that J. Rudolph Grimes ever put only two $10.00 notes under the pillow for the maids – imagine!!!

Stephen Tolbert and one of his relatives who he said was serving as his secretary was all over America, D.C., NY, VA and elsewhere getting into everything – he would call almost daily to tell Rudolph some stupid things – for example – “my brother wants me to handle this or that – can you give me that person’s phone number or address.” Rudolph would tell him, “I do not handle such things.” He would call to say. “Ambassador Edward Peal is not coming to the reception you are having, he wants to go everywhere with me, because he is begging me to have my brother make him the Secretary of State, now my brother wants me to go to North Carolina to meet with Billy Graham and he wants to go with me.” Rudolph told him to please stop calling him about his brother’s wishes, or this or that. “I do not care to be in your brother’s government so do what you have to do and so do not bother me please. Maybe you do not know it, but I have already resigned from your brother’s government.”

After Rudolph’s resignation from the Tolbert Government Mr. Tolbert offered him several positions, and he told him “No thank you.” I can clearly remember many things that happened during this time. If former colleagues or friends went to the State Department and ask Mr. Grimes – the State Department people would tell them that they did not know where Mr. Grimes was.

It was nothing unusual to see some African Head of State, Foreign Minister or other high officials at our front door, they would say the people at the State Department did not know where you were so we asked people at the Ducor Hotel, and the concierge called someone and said get a taxi and take this gentleman to J. Rudolph Grimes’ home. Here we are now. At one time, we opened our door to see Presidents from two West African Countries.

I can vividly remember that one early afternoon our doorbell rang and I answered it only to see an East African very high official. Rudolph was not at home. We warmly greeted each other and went into our Library – having a drink had music on and our friend was checking out some books when Rudolph entered and was very happy to see his friend. The man told him that he had been sent with a special letter to Mr. Tolbert from all of the English Speaking heads of state regarding Rudolph. Rudolph was given a copy of this letter for his files.

To Rudolph’s surprise, Mr. Tolbert invited him to his office and tells him that he has been praying and fasting and the Lord has led him to come to the conclusion of what he is telling him. Imagine!!! Rudolph has a copy of the letter at home and this man is telling him such things. The man, according to Liberian expression has no shame. Rudolph tells him that he would have to discuss it with his wife and he adds insult to injury by telling him “you know Doris and I are closely related on my mother’s side.” We truly had a great laugh that evening.

A couple of days later Frank Tolbert came to our house Rudolph is sleeping and he said that he would wait until he got up. We talked and talked and I heard so many things from Frank. My God did he tell me some things.

When Rudolph awoke and came into the living room where we were, Frank a friend of ours, tells us that the President had told him that he had offered him several positions and he had refused all. Frank wanted to know why. Rudolph told him that there were certain reasons that he would tell him one. He told him about the letter from the English speaking Presidents to Mr. Tolbert and what Mr. Tolbert told him about fasting and praying, etc., etc. Rudolph asked me to get the copy of the letter for Frank to read. When he read the letter, he was furious. He said he never told me about any letter – he told me about praying and fasting and coming to his conclusion, you are right Grimes – let Mr. Willie Tolbert and his brother take the job.” “I related better with Mr. Tubman. I named my son after Mr. Tubman.” Frank told us some more personal things. Frank Tolbert was always very frank and you knew just where he stood unlike many of his relatives. His only problem was that he often got the real Emmanuel sometimes mixed up with his Emmanuel.

Rudolph and I were busy attending to our business when a young man we held in high esteem, and one whom we knew all of his life, came by to see us. We knew his parents and his mother, Eugenia Simpson Cooper taught us at different times in high school. I am talking about John Lewis Cooper, Jr., a deputy to McKinley DeShield in the Postal Office. He had come to tell us what he had heard and what was being talked about around Monrovia. We had not heard this story and could not believe what we were hearing from “John John.” It was being said that Mac DeShield said that when Tolbert had not come to be sworn in – J. Rudolph Grimes said make me President and Mac DeShield closed the door and said “Nobody leave until Tolbert comes.” John Cooper had visited every Cabinet member, and he talked with was the Attorney General (his classmate) George Henries who was with Mr. Grimes when they sent to get Mr. Tolbert from wherever he was, and who remained with Mr. Grimes him until the swearing-in. John also talked with the people in the State Department and no one had heard such a thing. He then went to M.A. DeShield and questioned him, he said Mac DeShield bent his head down and said nothing. John then called to tell us about this. He could not stop asking, “Sec., why did the man lie on you?” This is dangerous when someone can make up something like this.”

I might mention here that Winston Tubman told me that he heard this foolishness, asked M.A. DeShield who bent his head down and said nothing. This was such an elementary lie Mac DeShield told.

J. Rudolph Grimes, JD (Harvard Law – First Liberian), MIA Columbia – (1st Liberian). Expert in International Affairs – a decent human being would never lower himself or his name to such a trashy activity. When Mac DeShield was at Harbel Hospital very ill, he sent for J. Rudolph Grimes as he said he wanted to see and tell him something. Mr. Grimes went to the hospital and took someone with him, but it was too late. If Mac DeShield said those things, he is reported to have said he lied on J Rudolph Grimes. Why did he tell such a lie? Could it be due to ignorance?

A. B. Clarke, Jr., a lawyer and author who worked in the State Department many years ago and knew just about everyone who ever worked there, went to Liberia to research for his book he was writing and he checked with so many persons and found out that no such thing regarding Mr. Grimes ever took place.

Years later, when we came to the U.S.A., we were very surprised when our younger daughter, Doris, came to tell us what she had seen when she went to do some work in her school Library. A Dutch man called Dr. Fred P. M. Van der Kraaij had a website on Liberia on which he stated that Mac DeShield and others had prevented Mr. Grimes who asked them to make him President when Mr. Tolbert had not come from wherever he was. See George Henries’ letter to the Dutch Man in 2003, attached.

At my husband’s funeral on September 22nd, 2007 at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York, I called both Mac DeShield and the Dutch man LIARS and got a standing ovation.

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