A Tribute to Svend E. Holsoe (1939-2017), a Tireless American Scholar of Liberia

Once again I bring to the community of Liberia scholars the sad news of the passing of a renowned scholar of the Liberian experience. Professor Svend E. Holsoe, an expert on the Vai people and an avid and unrelenting collector of things Liberian passed away at a Philadelphia hospital on the morning of May 4, 2017, after a protracted illness at age 78.

His partner, Mr. Reuben Mollo James, survives him.

Svend’s parents, Torkel and Birthe Ambt Holsoe took him as a youth along with them when his father was both a forestry advisor to the Liberian government and a part of the United States Navy team supervising construction of the Free Port of Monrovia (now the National Port Authority). So a part of his early schooling was in Monrovia in the late 40s and early 50s.

There, he began to form acquaintances and develop a “feel” for things Liberian. Though he would later go on to study Anthropology with a focus on the Vai people, he developed early a broader interest in the history and culture of all the peoples of Liberia. It is this broader interest that led him to become perhaps the largest single collector of documents and artifacts on or related to the country.

Born in Morgantown, West Virginia on March 16, 1939, he was educated at Haverford College (B.S., 1961), and Boston University (M.A., 1963; Ph.D., anthropology with minor in African History, 1967). With a dissertation entitled “The Cassava Leaf People, An Ethnohistorical Study of the Vai People with Particular Emphasis on the Tewo Chiefdom,” Holsoe went on to become a significant researcher and teacher.

Before becoming professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Delaware in 1995, Holsoe served as assistant professor of anthropology and director of the African Studies Center at DePauw University (1967-70), assistant, then associate professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware (1970-95).

He also lectured about Liberia at many venues in the United States, Africa, and Europe, incurring in the process the burden of unsolicited consultations from many pioneering their own study of Liberia. Governmental entities, corporations, and international agencies to provide expert opinions on Liberian affairs frequently called upon him.

Two notable awards he received were the Liberian Studies Association Annual Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 1999, Indiana University’s Chancellors’ Medallion in honor of his unique contributions to scholarship and donation of his valued Liberia Collection papers.

I first came to know of and subsequently met Svend not long after I arrived in the United States for graduate studies in 1967. Incidentally, this was the effective beginning of my own journey into understanding my country and its peoples.

No doubt I traveled with Svend on this journey for my first exposure to his then already large collection of books and other materials on Liberia at his home in Delaware. It sparked my interest and developed in me what in time became the own passion for Liberian history and culture.

This was in 1971 as he hosted the annual conference of the Liberian Studies Association. It was there in Newark, Delaware that I learned of Svend’s pioneering role in the creation in 1968 of the Liberian Studies Association and founding editor of the Liberian Studies Journal the same year. He served as editor 1968-80. Both association and journal remain the single surviving institutions devoted to Liberian studies anywhere.

It was my fortune to serve as editor of the journal for a decade, 1985-95. My friendship and association with Svend led to much collaboration including our joint compiling of the first edition of The Historical Dictionary of Liberia (No. 83, 1985), and an aborted attempt to edit for publication his manuscript on President E.J. Roye.

To assist me and my family shortly upon our arrival in the United States following the 1980 overthrow of President Tolbert, Svend schemed with the Roman Catholic Fathers at Tenafly, New Jersey to compensate me for copying important documents I had acquired during my six-year service in the Tolbert administration.

There were as well scores of Liberians who benefitted in diverse ways from his friendship and assistance. In the interest of brevity, I will cite but three. The first is Morris M. Dukuly, Sr. (former Minister in the Sirleaf administration) who should have preceded my own for the association came earlier and was deeper.

Morris recounted to me in an email message the details of how he met Svend in Liberia and the impact he came to have on Morris’s life. After doing very well in elementary school, his prospects were uncertain for continuing his education due to family circumstances. Svend entered his life in 1967 while in Liberia to do field work for his dissertation. He provided the financial means for him to attend and successfully complete High School.

In minute details, Morris recounted Svend’s many other acts of kindness toward him, adding, “I wanted to share this personal story with you to know how profoundly and indelibly Svend impacted my life and the lives of members of my own family.”

And then he added: “I want to share that because Svend literally and single-handedly transformed the course of my life; he gave me the opportunity to fulfill my potential and become who I have been in this life.”

“Hopefully, this personal story will let you in on the depth of the sadness and sorrow that I and my family feel. Svend will remain irreplaceable in my life. He will always be the father I never had [Morris’s father died when she was age six]. His love of Liberia will remain indelible and exemplary. He was a non-Liberian Liberian patriot. His name in my family will remain forever.”

The second case I cite is that of Dr. Al Hassan Conteh (Liberian Ambassador to Nigeria) who speaks for himself as follows: “Svend took me and my family under his wings when I arrived at [University of Pennsylvania] in 1983 for graduate studies. He became my mentor and academic advisor. This contributed in no small measure towards my academic success at Penn.

“For a few years, before he moved to Lansdowne, PA, he was our distinguished neighbor on Chester Avenue in Philadelphia. I benefitted immensely from studying some of his massive collections on Liberia in his personal library, and at the Institute of Liberian Studies, which was then located around the corner from Chester Ave.

“We later became ‘colleagues,’ collaborating on matters pertaining to the LSA and Liberia… I believe after the late Professors Gus Liebenow and Warren d’Azevedo of blessed memories, Svend became the Doyen of Liberian Studies. As the saying of the wise goes in Nigeria, where I’m currently serving, another ‘Iroko Tree has fallen’ in the Liberian Studies Community. May God Almighty have mercy on him, and may his soul rest in perfect peace.”

The third case is that of Eugene Peabody who, in tears, read to me on the phone the following: “A beloved friend and brother, a Liberianist, a faithful and devoted son of the soul of Liberia: after my university years at Cuttington College he schooled me in the use of the English language by pronunciations and enunciations. His methods of research in anthropology gave me the privilege to attempt to enter the realm of other social sciences.

“We penned the Liberian Studies Journal for several years at the Department of Anthropology of the University of Delaware while I studied graduate economics. We lived together.

“Your general knowledge of African culture and specifically of the socio-cultural history of Liberia is evident by your vast collection [surpassed] only [by] the U. S. Library of Congress. You were a beloved family friend. As a street philosopher once said in Gbarnga: ‘Man’s ingress into this world is naked and bare. His journey through the earth is fraught with trials and tribulations. His egress is to a place no man knows. If you can make it here you can make it there.’ Sleep Svend! You’ve fought a good fight. We will always remember you. Your Brother, S.T.E. Peabody.”

And there are scores of others who would have volunteered testimonies, were the time our friend. I will sneak in here part of an email message I received from Dr. Emmanuel Dolo: “I recall how Svend was generous with his knowledge and time. He took the time to share documents with me during research on the manuscript for my book and to write a statement endorsing it…. He added an immense value to the knowledge base on Liberia.”

Svend was a member of the Friends of Liberia, a group of American returned Peace Corps Volunteers who formed an association that grew to include Diaspora Liberians and other Americans interested in Liberia.

These people came together to help the people of a country in civil war. He was a Board member of the organization 2007-2013, contributing as well to the establishment in 2008 of the association’s Small Grants Fund to finance small educational and social projects. Members of the group, including Svend, visited Liberia in 2009. This may have been Svend’s last visit to Liberia captured in a photograph with him in a tête-à-tête with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

There are many dimensions to Svend’s scholarly work on Liberia. Apart from the fieldwork, he did in Cape Mount County for his dissertation, he started early collecting all sorts and conditions of materials on Liberia. Probably beginning with documents he secured from his father’s work in Liberia, he was allowed entry in 1965 into the Liberian National Archives, then housed with the Department of State (now Foreign Ministry) under the leadership of the late Augustine Jallah.

This entailed some controversy as the unorganized documents contained some classified materials and were not open to the public. At any rate, Svend gained access and proceeded with the cooperation of Jallah to organize the documents. The late Professor Tom Shick later produced a listing and categorizing of the work Svend had initiated.

Svend copied perhaps the bulk of the documents dating to Liberia’s founding circumstances in the early 19th century up to and including the early 1960s. This would become the core of his Liberia collection, but he was far from done. From that date perhaps up to the outbreak of civil war in 1990, Svend visited Liberia frequently collecting quantities of government published documents such as the annual reports of the various ministries and other government agencies.

He became what you might call obsessed with securing absolutely all he could on Liberia, resorting at times to buying expensive out-of-print items on the Internet. It is these materials, his books, and other documents, that he donated in 1997 to Indiana University.

The Svend E. Holsoe Collection include copies of the Liberian government Archive Documents between 1824-1983; extensive genealogical records, including analyses and family trees developed from these records; political, institutional, social and cultural surveys from the 1980s Liberia Rural Radio Project; field notes and oral history tapes of Vai and Bandi research; Vai script materials, and slides and photos spanning decades and covering many geographical areas and activities.

Following a hiatus when discouraged about the protracted civil war, Svend relented in his withdrawal from work on Liberia, and about two years ago he sent an additional 100 boxes of the Holsoe Collection to Indiana University that he had collected/produced after the first large consignment went to Indiana in 1997.

Due to massive destruction of the Liberian government archive during the civil war, the Holsoe Collection may contain the only surviving copies of important Liberian state papers and historical and cultural documents.

Perhaps one of the last major public addresses on Liberia was his testimony on September 2, 2008, in Monrovia at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Hearings. He titled his paper “Troubled Boundaries,” as he spoke to what he considered an environment of tension induced by cultural dualities/contradictions that the old regime could no longer contain. He opened the necessity that any new post-war political structure acknowledges “regional political and social differences.”

Svend had many other interests and hobbies in his long and fruitful life. His scholarly interests extended to West Africa, Africa in general, and the genealogy and history of slaves and slavery in the Virgin Islands. But it is the Liberia dimension of his work that I seek to underscore, a dimension that absorbed the bulk of his time and talent.

He was a decent and friendly man. He was also a humanitarian who believed in giving back to sources that elevated him. He said as much to some of his Liberian friends and acquaintances. It was perhaps this character trait that led him, following his fieldwork in Liberia, to so completely devote himself to the collection of massive Liberian documents and artifacts. It is even ironic that the controversy of his access to the Liberian archive in 1965 pales when compared to the holdings he has donated to Indiana University, holdings that any government in Liberia has access to in part of in whole.

In a sense, Svend’s Liberia legacy is three-fold. I consider the archives to be of monumental importance for it contains very simply a huge part of the story of the Liberian past, and that past remains critical to charting a future course. The second legacy is the Liberian Studies Association and the Liberian Studies Journal.

There were attempts to undertake such institutions in Liberia itself and elsewhere, but the efforts were ad hoc where the LSA and the LSJ have endured for half a century and seem poised to go another half century if not longer.

The last, though not the least part, of Svend’s legacy, concerns his ethnographic work not only among Vai Liberians but other Liberian ethnic communities, inclusive of the cross-border groups. Svend has here initiated important scientific work that awaits vetting, alternative perspectives by scholars who are themselves a part of the ethnicities under study, not to speak of Liberians in general.

Svend has made his contribution. The challenge remains for Liberian scholars schooled in the various disciplines such as anthropology, political science, history and sociology to now step up to the plate and deepen our understanding of the country both in its particularities as well as its generalities – regional Liberia and national Liberia.

Svend will be memorialized at a service to be held on June 24, 2017, at the Quaker Friends Meeting House in Lansdowne, PA, USA.

Thank you Svend; Rest in Peace!

D. Elwood Dunn

D. Elwood Dunn is a historian and an emeritus professor of political science at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.

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