Local history: Hello, Mr. President! Akron rolled out red carpet for Liberian leader

Liberian President William V.S. Tubman sits for a portrait while visiting Akron in 1954.
Liberian President William V.S. Tubman sits for a portrait while visiting Akron in 1954.
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Star-spangled banners fluttered over Akron. Upon first glance, they looked like typical U.S. flags, but careful observers noticed subtle differences.

These flags had 11 red and white stripes instead of 13, and they featured a lone white star on the blue field in the corner.

Akron officials gave Liberian President William V.S. Tubman the red-carpet treatment when he arrived for a visit in 1954. After meeting with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Washington, the 58-year-old West African leader embarked on a three-week tour with the Rubber City as his first major stop.

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“President Tubman, likable leader of the little Liberian Republic, came to town today and charmed his way into the hearts of all he met,” the Beacon Journal reported.

Liberia maintained a special relationship with America. The republic was formed in the 1820s as a colony for formerly enslaved people and free-born Black people from the United States and Caribbean nations. It adopted English as its official language, named its capital city, Monrovia, for U.S. President James Monroe, based its constitution on the U.S. Constitution and patterned its flag after the U.S. emblem.

Liberian leader receives key to city

Akron Mayor Leo Berg and U.S. Rep. William H. Ayres led a local delegation of 100 community leaders as Tubman’s train arrived at 8:40 a.m. Oct. 22 at Union Depot. U.S. Secret Service agents, uniformed police and plainclothes detectives provided security as Tubman stepped off the Pullman car.

A smiling Berg held a large ceremonial key to the city and asked if the president would please accept it.

“With pleasure,” Tubman replied.

Tubman noted that it was his third visit to the city. He had come to Akron in 1928 as a Liberian senator and returned in 1943 as president-elect.

“Each time, the welcome becomes more hearty,” he said.

Ayres greeted Tubman “in the name of the people of Ohio.”

“The friendliest of relations always have existed between your state and my country,” Tubman replied.

Liberian President William V.S. Tubman accepts the key to the city from Akron Mayor Leo Berg and U.S. Rep. William H. Ayres at Union Depot in 1954. United Auto Workers-CIO representative William Fowler and Akron Assistant Law Director Rufus Thompson are next up in the receiving line.
Liberian President William V.S. Tubman accepts the key to the city from Akron Mayor Leo Berg and U.S. Rep. William H. Ayres at Union Depot in 1954. United Auto Workers-CIO representative William Fowler and Akron Assistant Law Director Rufus Thompson are next up in the receiving line.

Tubman felt a deep kinship with Akron. Liberian leaders credited Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. with saving the nation of 1 million from economic collapse.

In 1926, Harvey S. Firestone Jr. had approached Liberia about growing rubber, noting that its fertile soil and tropical climate were ideal. The Akron company lent $5 million to the nation to launch the industry.

By the early 1950s, the Firestone plantation in Liberia was the largest in the world, covering 90,000 acres with 10 million rubber trees producing 72 million pounds of rubber per year. With 30,000 Liberians working for the company, Firestone had become the nation’s largest private employer.

“Your state has done great things for my country,” Tubman said.

Reporters flock to Mayflower Hotel

A six-limousine caravan whisked him to the Mayflower Hotel, which was decked out in American and Liberian flags.

Tubman freshened up in the presidential suite on the 16th floor, changed into a blue suit, dined on scrambled eggs, ham, sausage, toast and coffee, smoked a cigar and welcomed reporters for a news conference.

“Gentlemen, I am at your disposal,” he said.

“The only thing more important than the press of this country is the Congress of the United States.”

Tubman fielded questions about international relations, U.S. policies and racial tensions in Africa. A reporter asked him if he was concerned about the spread of communism in his nation.

“There is such unification in my country that there is hardly any possibility for communism or any ‘ism’ to find a foothold or to prosper,” Tubman said.

Harvey S. Firestone Jr., chairman of Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., leads Liberian President William V.S. Tubman on a tour of the company in 1954.
Harvey S. Firestone Jr., chairman of Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., leads Liberian President William V.S. Tubman on a tour of the company in 1954.

The Liberian leader returned to the caravan for a tour of the city. He viewed the Elizabeth Park housing project, the new Akron Expressway, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Akron Municipal Airport, the Rubber Bowl and Derby Downs before stopping at Plant 2 of Firestone.

Firestone Jr. led Tubman on a tour that included newly arrived rubber from Liberia, scientific advancements at the research center and the Harvey S. Firestone Memorial.

Honorary degree at University of Akron

Tubman next traveled to the University of Akron’s new Memorial Hall, where President Norman P. Auburn presided over a special convocation attended by 1,500 people.

Firestone President Lee R. Jackson, chairman of the university’s board of directors, introduced the Liberian president, saying “the ties of friendship between his country and ours have been strong for more than a century … these bonds have grown stronger with the passing of the years.”

Auburn honored Tubman for his “dedication to the advancement of your nation and to the well being of your people.”

Liberal Arts College Dean Ernest H. Cherrington Jr. conferred an honorary doctor of laws degree upon the statesman.

Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. Chairman Harvey Firestone Jr. chats with Liberian President William V.S. Tubman and Liberian Ambassador C.L. Simpson in Akron in 1954.
Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. Chairman Harvey Firestone Jr. chats with Liberian President William V.S. Tubman and Liberian Ambassador C.L. Simpson in Akron in 1954.

Liberian Ambassador C.L. Simpson joined Tubman for a reception at the Akron Community Service Center. Attorney W. Howard Fort, president of the center, and Hugh Colopy, president of the Akron Bar Association, welcomed Tubman and presented him with a lifetime membership to the center.

Tubman shook hands and greeted all he met with a smile.

Gala dinner for President Tubman

That evening, Firestone hosted a gala dinner in the Terrace Room of the Mayflower Hotel. Ohio Gov. Frank Lausche was among 130 invited dignitaries. The Beacon Journal called it “probably the most elaborate dinner in Akron’s history.”

The engraved menu featured seven courses: “Persian Caviar and the Fruits of the Seas and Lakes,” “Essence of Truffles Consomme and Cheese Sticks,” “Terrapin a la Maryland,” “Filet Mignon Henry IV with Bearnaise Sauce, Braised Belgian Endives and Parisienne Potatoes,” “Lime Sherbet,” “Hearts of Palms Vinaigrette” and “Coupe Mayflower, Petit Fours and Sugar Fruits.”

Five wines were served: Harvey’s Bristol Fino Sherry, Neuchatel 1950, Chateau Margaux 1949, and Moet and Chandon 1943 champagne.

Afterward, waiters served liqueurs, Haitian coffee and Havana cigars.

In a tribute speech, Firestone Jr. saluted Tubman for modernizing Liberia through improvements in infrastructure, education, health care and sanitation.

Liberian President William V.S. Tubman and Harvey Firestone Jr. hold a tire before the curing process in 1954 at Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. in Akron.
Liberian President William V.S. Tubman and Harvey Firestone Jr. hold a tire before the curing process in 1954 at Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. in Akron.

“To all these achievements on a national level, he has added another of vital importance in the international political sphere,” Firestone said. “This has greatly increased the stature of Liberia among liberty-loving nations.”

He praised Tubman for being “extremely vigilant in guarding against the infiltration of evil influences.”

In return, Tubman praised Firestone for playing “an incomparable role in the economic and social development of Liberia and in further strengthening of mutual friendship between the United States and Liberia.”

‘Eternally indebted’ to Akron

The West African leader left Akron after midnight on a train bound for Chicago, where he planned to meet former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson and place a wreath on the grave of President Abraham Lincoln.

“I feel eternally indebted to the people of Ohio, particularly Akron and Harvey S. Firestone Jr., for the warmth of their reception,” Tubman said before departing.

That warm relationship continued for the rest of his life.

Liberian President William V.S. Tubman enjoys a cigar during his 1954 visit to Akron.
Liberian President William V.S. Tubman enjoys a cigar during his 1954 visit to Akron.

President of Liberia for a record 27 years, Tubman was 75 when he died unexpectedly July 23, 1971, in London following complications from surgery. His body was flown to Monrovia aboard Queen Elizabeth II’s jet.

“President Tubman’s sudden and untimely passing is a great loss to his family, to his nation and mankind,” eulogized Raymond C. Firestone, chairman and chief executive officer of Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.

“Over the years, we have known him as a dedicated leader of his people who worked zealously to achieve stability and peace in his country and in the world.

“As a world statesman and as president of Liberia, he devoted his life to the betterment of his fellow man and his beloved Liberian people.

“He will be mourned as a world leader and a dedicated human being, but most of all, I shall miss him as a man. It was a privilege and an honor to call him a friend.”

The Liberian flag was flown at half-staff at Akron rubber companies.

Mark J. Price can be reached at mprice@thebeaconjournal.com.

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This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Local history: Hello, Mr. President! Liberian leader toured Akron