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COLLECTION Identifier: HUG 4879.405

Plenyono Gbe Wolo personal archive

Overview

This collection contains the papers of educator, theologian, and lawyer Plenyono Gbe Wolo (circa 1890-1940), the first Black African to graduate from Harvard University (AB 1917). It primarily includes letters written by Wolo to his friend and benefactor Emeline Fletcher Dickerson as well as letters between Wolo's benefactors as they secured funding on his behalf. These letters provide insight into the life and experiences of a Black international student at Harvard, Christian missionary networks, and politics in Liberia during the 20th century. The collection also includes photographs of Wolo and writings by Wolo on education in Africa, Christianity, and a brief autobiography.

Dates

  • 1913-1941

Creator

Conditions Governing Access

The Plenyono Gbe Wolo personal archive is open for research.

Extent

.57 cubic feet (1 document box, 1 legal half document box)

The Plenyono Gbe Wolo personal archive contains letters, photographs, notes, and newspapers dating from 1913 to 1941 documenting Wolo’s life and experiences as a Black international student in the United States including his specific activities at Harvard; Christian missionary networks; and education and politics in Liberia during the early 20th century. The collection primarily contains letters written by Wolo to his friend and benefactor Emeline Fletcher Dickerson during his time in the United States as a student at Harvard and his later return to Liberia.

Letters from Wolo to Emeline Fletcher Dickerson between 1914 and May 1917 document Wolo’s education, part-time work, and social life at Harvard. Wolo discusses money and items received from benefactors, expenses, performance on examinations, and attending church, sermons, and events. He also discusses difficulties finding work, corresponding with other Kru in the United States (Ko Wle Gbi Donma), meeting personal benefactors and members of the Christian community, and homesickness. Wolo worked part-time as a waiter at the Harvard Union and Foxcroft dining hall. He discusses his difficulty in relating to the Harvard Union full-time waitstaff and the stress the additional work put on him. In one letter Wolo discusses Liberian prince Samuel Kaboo Morris and the impossibility of Morris being Kru. Wolo’s presence at Harvard caught the media’s attention as illustrated by an article clipping from an unidentified newspaper. The collection also includes two Harvard graduation portrait photographs of Wolo.

Letters from Wolo to Dickerson between October 1917 and 1922 document Wolo’s education at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. Wolo discusses lectures he attended, travels within the United States, his health, and studies. Letters from 1919 detail Wolo’s meeting with Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell to ask for assistance in contacting the United States Department of State about improving relations between Americo-Liberians and the native people of Liberia. Wolo comments on traveling to Washington D.C in April 1919 to meet Assistant United States Secretary of State William Phillips about the issue; a memo from Wolo to Phillips outlines his concerns. The collection also includes a letter from Wolo to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts about the ratification of a loan to Liberia.

Letters from Wolo's friend and benefactor Professor Reverend George Alexander Johnston Ross to his colleagues, including Dickerson, often negotiate funding and material supplies for Wolo's travel and living expenses in the United States and Wolo's later return to Grand Cess, Liberia, where he organized a day school. Budgets from Dickerson and Ross’s wife, Caroline, detail monetary amounts and supplies sent to Wolo. Wolo’s tendency to give away his funds to fellow Africans in the United States was a source of frustration among his benefactors.

Letters from Wolo to Dickerson after his return to Liberia in 1922 document Wolo’s attempt to create a day school in Grand Cess and his involvement in Liberian politics. Wolo discusses tension between him and the Roman Catholic Church who already ran a school in the area, disagreements between the Kru chief and the central government, and a conversation with Liberia president Charles D. B. King about a loan from the United States. In 1930 the Liberian government was accused of using native Liberians as slaves. Wolo served on the international commission of inquiry that investigated the case and discusses his displeasure with how the investigation was handled.

Writings by Wolo include his comments on the report “Education in Africa” by Thomas Jesse Jones, an essay on Christianity, and a brief autobiography.

Biographical Note

Educator, theologian, and lawyer Plenyono Gbe Wolo (circa 1890-1940) was the first Black African to graduate from Harvard University receiving an AB in 1917. The son of the chief of the Kru ethnic group, Wolo was born around 1890 in the village of Grand Cess, Liberia. At a young age he met Methodist Episcopal Church missionary Reverend James Boas Robertson who encouraged him to study at Monrovia Seminary. Wolo enrolled at the seminary and was placed under the care of Alexander P. Camphor and Mamie Camphor, two African American Methodist Episcopal missionaries. Alexander Camphor was the principal of Monrovia Seminary, founder of the College of West Africa, and eventual first bishop of Africa elected by the United Methodist Church (1916).

With support from the missionary community including Camphor, Reverend Percy S. Grant, and fellow Kru member Didhwe Twe, Wolo traveled to the United States in 1910 to attend Mount Hermon School in Northfield, Massachusetts, where he hoped to study scientific agriculture (see article "Mount Hermon's African Students, 1898-1918" by Sean Foley). After graduating from Mount Hermon in 1913 Wolo continued his education at Harvard University where his interests shifted towards theology and education. Wolo excelled in English and was one of 54 men exempted from a second semester of the class in 1914. Wolo was a member of the Harvard University Christian Association, the Harvard International Polity Club, and treasurer of the Cosmopolitan Club, a social club for foreign students.

Following graduation from Harvard University in 1917, Wolo received an AM from the Teachers College at Columbia University (1919), and a BD from Union Theological Seminary (1922).

Homesick, Wolo returned to Grand Cess, Liberia, in 1922 to start a day school for children. He was interested in educating the indigenous people of Liberia using a curriculum that incorporated local practices and addressed community specific needs in health, agriculture, and industry. In 1926 he became an Assistant Regional Manager for the Firestone Rubber Company where he assisted in labor disputes on two plantations. In 1929 he received an LLB from the Liberian Bar. He also served as Secretary to the International Commission of Inquiry into the Existence of Slavery and Forced Labor in the Republic of Liberia (1930), a professor of Economics at the College of West Africa (1937), Assistant Secretary of the Educational Board of Liberia (1930), and Director of the Banking Corporation of Liberia (1930).

Benefactors throughout Wolo's lifetime included Emeline Fletcher Dickerson (Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies), Professor Reverend George Alexander Johnston Ross (Union Theological Seminary), William R. Moody (Mount Hermon School), A. Lawrence Lowell (Harvard University), and Anson Phelps Stokes (Phelps Stokes Fund).

Wolo married Djuah Weeks in 1925 (divorced 1936), Malisa Dennis-Wolo in 1936 (died 1938), and Mary Elizabeth Hansford in 1940. Wolo died of pneumonia in Monrovia, Liberia, in June 1940.

Arrangement

The records are loosely arranged in chronological order.

Related Materials

In the Harvard University Archives:

  1. Records of the Foxcroft Club, 1889-1899, 1914 (HUD 3404)
  2. Records of the Harvard Cosmopolitan Club, 1908-1915 (HUD 3299)
  3. Records of the President of Harvard University, Abbot Lawrence Lowell, 1909-1933 (UAI 5.160)

In the Massachusetts Historical Society:

  1. Trustees of Donations for Education in Liberia records, 1842-2011 (Ms. N-1777)

In the United Methodist Archives and History Center:

  1. Mission Geographical Reference Files, 1920-1970 (gcah. rg. 2120)

In the Northfield Mount Hermon Archives:

  1. Student file (6547MH)

References

  • Topor, Victor Emmanuel Wolor. Plenyono Gbe Wolo: A Symbol of Achievement. Monrovia.
  • Foley, Sean P. 2013. “Mount Hermon’s African Students, 1898-1918.” Northfield Mount Hermon Journal for the Humanities, no. 1 (July): 19-55.

Processing Information

This collection was processed by Jehan Sinclair in April 2019. Folder titles were devised by the archivist.

Title
Wolo, Plenyono Gbe, circa 1890-1940. Plenyono Gbe Wolo personal archive, 1913-1941: an inventory
Description rules
dacs
Language of description
und
EAD ID
hua06019

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

Contact:
Pusey Library
Harvard Yard
Cambridge MA 02138 USA
(617) 495-2461