With a warm, welcoming smile, Carleen Goodridge greeted her guests like they were family.
As each one entered her newly opened café, The Stand by Le MONADE, nestled between the city courthouse and Mercy Hospital in downtown Baltimore, she walked over and embraced them. Her hair was fashioned into two waist-length braids that draped over the shoulders of those she hugged.
“I’m grateful and ecstatic,” said Goodridge, a 44-year-old Bayview resident. “Being in Baltimore has helped me complete my identity and find a better version of myself.”
The ancestral smells of Liberia filled the air: Hearty greens, stewed palm butter, and manipulated starches. The poppy sounds of Liberian music — a cross of Afrobeat and rap — kept the mood light and lively. For those like Goodridge with a connection to the West Africa country, this was as close to the motherland as they were going to get.
Goodridge has created this experience in Baltimore in a relatively short time. Six years ago, she was living in Fort Worth, Texas with her three sons. But a strong urge made her venture north. Not even the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody and the protests that followed deterred her from moving to Baltimore.
“I felt drawn here,” said Goodridge, who initially started a beverage company, Le MONADE, in 2015. “Other people thought I was out of my mind. I was raising Black boys. Instead of running away from that, I was going to it. For me, I felt a connection. I didn’t know why. I felt I needed to go there.”
Little did she know at the time, but Baltimore had been the port where her ancestors — who’d once been enslaved — departed from the United States in 1837 on the Brig Baltimore in search of a new beginning in Africa, away from the pain and horrors of American slavery and racism. In fact, most of the formerly enslaved who left this country for the promise of a new life in Liberia departed from the shores of Maryland.
Goodridge now believes she was drawn to the area by this ancestral connection — one that has brought her closer to her Liberian roots.
“My ancestors were literally shipped out of the Americas [from Maryland] going to Africa through the American Colonization Society,” explained Goodridge, a first-generation American whose parents are from Liberia. In fact, her great-grandfather, William V.S. Tubman, was president of Liberia from 1944 to 1971. He was a relative of Harriet Tubman, the famed Maryland abolitionist.
The connection between Maryland and Liberia is well established.
Many of the formerly enslaved people and freeborn Black Americans who made the voyage to Africa settled in a country that was known as the Republic of Maryland (also known as the Independent State of Maryland) from 1834 to 1857. It merged into what is now Liberia, which had declared its independence a decade earlier, on July 26, 1847.
Maryland’s Liberian population will celebrate Liberian Independence Day on Tuesday. This year also coincides with yearlong activities marking Liberia’s bicentennial under the theme: “Liberia: The Land of Return — Celebrating 200 years of Freedom and Pan-African Leadership.” Bicentennial programs officially kicked off in the Liberian capital of Monrovia on Feb. 14 and run through Dec. 10.
Goodridge and other Marylanders of Liberian descent will gather, celebrate and organize events centered around their culture.
“It’s really an opportunity to share and to learn more about Liberia and the American-Liberian-Baltimore connection,” she said. “Me connecting back with the food, history and family is accountability as a Black woman and a Liberian American.”
Liberia’s Independence Day and bicentennial should remain important and celebrated by Black Americans, according to George S.W. Patten Sr., Liberia’s ambassador to the U.S.
“Two hundred years down the line and the country is still thriving. It requires celebration by Liberians and African Americans. Many do not know the history,” Patten said. “When we spoke to Congress about the Bicentennial last year, some members of Congress were surprised about the history.”
Patten hopes that more Black Americans consider moving back to Liberia in the future.
“We are willing to help them. We welcome them,” he said. “There are huge opportunities for business and investment. Let them diversify and look our way.”
Liberian Independence Day is significant because it represents one of the first Black-led states in the world — the other being Haiti — in the 19th century, according to D. Elwood Dunn, a retired professor from Sewanee: The University of the South in Tennessee.
“This date is an opportunity to pause and reflect where Liberia has come from and where it is today and perhaps provide Liberians with where they will imagine they will go tomorrow,” said Dunn, who originally came to the United States in 1967 to study at American University in Washington, D.C. He now lives in Silver Spring.
C. Patrick Burrowes, a former Morgan State and Howard University professor, has dedicated most of his career to researching repatriation in Liberia.
Last year, Burrowes discovered the elusive Liberian purchase contract thought to have been lost for 200 years. Burrowes had unsuccessfully searched through Francis Scott Key’s papers before finding the document in the papers of Elias Caldwell, who had clerked for the Supreme Court during the tenure of Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington.
Washington, the nephew of George Washington, was co-founder of a group of white clergymen and political leaders who saw repatriation to Africa as a viable option for formerly enslaved Black people in America. The group had the support of both Southern slaveholders, who feared uprisings by an increasing number of free Black people, and white abolitionists, who believed that returning Black people to Africa offered the best option for their future success.
Initial life in Liberia for Black Americans was “rough,” according to Burrowes, who lives in Columbia. In addition to the fact that they had to essentially construct homes and other buildings from scratch, they experienced unexpected obstacles as a result of malaria and other tropical diseases that were foreign to them. They did, however, have access to many things available in the U.S. such as rum, textiles and clothes.
“West Africa had been engaged in commerce — including slavery — with Europe and United States for hundreds of years,” Burrowes explained.
Liberians started returning to the U.S. in several waves, beginning in the 1950s as they started to pursue college and graduate school education, according to Burrowes. Most went to Historically Black colleges and universities such as Morgan State University in Baltimore and Howard University in Washington, D.C. The real immigration uptick occurred in the late 1980s through the early 2000s, as Liberia was embroiled in a bloody civil war that claimed the lives of up to a quarter-million people.
“Those who came back weren’t necessarily the descendants of Maryland who left. You have a diverse group of Liberians who were fleeing the war,” said Burrowes, who came to the United States from Liberia in the 1970s to pursue an education at Howard University. “Some who came back during the Liberian Civil War were considered refugees, and came to America through refugee relocation programs.”
The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 American Community Survey estimates the number of Marylanders with Liberian ancestry increased by 50% between 2009 and 2020.
“I’m sure they [Liberians] stayed [in the Maryland area] because they found livelihood, they found family connections, and found friends,” Dunn explained.
Communities like Baltimore have been attractive to Liberians and other African immigrants because of a mix of affordability and an established chain of migration, Burrowes said.
“When people settle, refugees join them. And it goes from there,” Burrowes said. “Immigrants will go to areas that are experiencing economic hardship, where the cost of buying a home or building is relatively low. That was the case in Baltimore and parts of D.C. a few decades ago. Those places were flocked to by Ethiopians and other immigrants. Now immigrants have been pushed out of D.C. Now they have found places in Silver Spring and other areas.”
Dunn described Liberia as a “country that is in transition.”
“It is moving from its past. It is having a hard time with its present,” he said.
Dunn listed economic and political hard times, as well as political corruption, as “major problems.” A national election in October 2023 could perhaps bring about change — and hopefully national unity.
Goodridge recently hosted a dinner to commemorate Liberian Independence Day at her downtown café.
There, in the space of crisp white walls peppered with West African art and other décor, Goodridge served Liberian staples such as palm butter, a stew usually filled with fish, chicken, and crab, which is served with rice; mashed cassava, a dish made from pounded yam and cassava; and salad consisting of a mix of mango, onions, tomatoes, cucumber, papaya, and spices, which was served with butter pear (avocado cream). The concept features touches of Africa — from various art and décor — to the names of the sizes of beverages she sells in the café. For example, “pekin” is a Liberian term for small; “small small” is a Liberian term for medium and “plenty” is for large.
Goodridge invited a half dozen friends and family. One of her guests, Alexander Freeman, said he has bonded with Goodridge, an Americo-Liberian [the term used for descendants of Black Americans living in Liberia], over food and culture.
Even though he has a “complicated relationship” with Liberian Independence Day, Goodridge’s friendship — and cooking — made him an eager participant.
“It’s extremely complicated. Yes, I love the idea [of Liberian Independence Day]. But personally, I do not feel as if we — a lot of African nations — have actual independence,” said Freeman, 23, a senior industrial engineer major and philosophy minor at Morgan State. Freeman is of Liberian descent, but his family was displaced to the Ivory Coast during the Liberian Civil War. Members of his family were relocated to Baltimore as refugees in 2004 when he was 5. Freeman is a descendant of native Liberians who were in the country before Black Americans colonized the land.
Freeman, who says his thinking is in the minority among his Liberian friends and family, added, “It’s a mirror of slavery from African American people. Those Americo-Liberians still hold the power over our people. When is our day going to come? Liberian Independence is like July 4 for me. We are quote-unquote independent. Of course, I will celebrate. I do not want to be that guy in the family.”
But in America, where he said all Black people are essentially lumped together, he has found a kinship with Americo-Liberians like Goodridge. The two met a year ago while she was running Cōl Bōl, a Liberian concept restaurant pop-up that she showed throughout the city. They remained friends.
“Food itself is a language in a way. If someone can make a meal it can makes a connection,” he said. “It speaks volumes. To hear that there is going to be Liberian, it’s a little glimpse of being home. It’s like a fireplace on a cold night. It’s something to bundle around.”
At the gathering, Goodridge and her guests reminisced and decompressed from a long week.
They talked about the foods their families cooked, the unique spices and flavors of Liberia, why Liberian jollof is superior to versions in other African countries, and strategized how to get more Liberian restaurants opened in Baltimore.
“To see people enjoy what is nostalgia to me is beautiful,” she said. “As connected as Liberia is with the U.S., there is a disconnect. I’m going to keep sharing the flavors and the stories.”