The Education of Charles Taylor
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Charles McArthur Ghankay Taylor was born to poor parents in a rural town in Liberia, about 30 miles upriver from Monrovia, on Jan. 28, 1948.
His father, Nielsen Philip Taylor, the great-grandson of immigrants from the American South, was educated through a Lutheran overseas mission in the 1940s. He became a teacher, and eventually a judge in the First Circuit Court of Monrovia, according to Charles Taylor and Liberia: Ambition and Atrocity in Africa’s Lone Star State.
Taylor’s mother, Louise Yassa Zoe Taylor, was a native Liberian from the Gola tribe with almost no education who worked as a servant in Nielsen’s grandparents’ home.
“She was a very pretty lady, and, the story goes, some friskiness occurred in the house between them and my mother was impregnated,” Taylor once said of the courtship.
Taylor waxed poetic to adoring congregations on campus, in the can, and in front of the International Criminal Court about growing up in a thatched hut. He claimed he only got his first pair of shoes when he was eight or nine-years-old.
“We took our baths in the same creek, and did fishing in the same creek … there was no light and running water.”
Charles Taylor started his formal education when he was seven at Arthington Central School in rural Montserrado County in the 1950s.
He earned a scholarship to one of the most prestigious high schools in Liberia when he was 13-years-old. The opportunity had limitations; while his schoolmates were from “well-heeled Monrovian Americo-Liberian families,” Taylor found himself expelled for malcontent conduct.
He worked his way into an educator training program in 1967. The government-sponsored project sent Taylor to a remote Bethlehem Steel Corporation-owned mining town in Bomi Hills. There, he taught math and science to uneducated, unskilled adult laborers.
At age 20, Taylor enrolled in an accounting course through La Salle Extension University. He also entered politics for the first time, working a part-time job in Liberian President William Tolbert’s cabinet.
All the while, he hustled, solicited benefactors, and set his sights on studying economics in the United States.
Eventually, Taylor crossed the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, and made himself at home in the cauldron of parochial politics, segregated schools, and a thriving criminal underworld that plagued Massachusetts in the 1970s.
As of this publication, the convicted war criminal is listed on Bentley University’s “Notable Alumni” page, alongside celebrities like Jay Leno and the drummer from Dream Theater.
He also made a name for himself as a prominent Liberian expat activist and agitator.
In 1974, Taylor joined the Union of Liberian Association in America (ULAA), and went on to chair the Boston branch.
“The word ‘thoughtful’ comes to mind when I think about him,” former Bentley economics professor Alex Zampieron told the Boston Globe in the wake of Taylor’s hostile takeover of Liberia.
“He was not brilliant, but he did his work and when he absorbed something you could tell that he would be really thinking about it.”
Peers in the ULAA remembered him as “more of an activist than academic,” who never missed a meeting.
“He made sure his voice was heard in a senatorial manner,” former ULAA member Maureen Hutchinson told Taylor’s biographer.
Mohammed Kromah, who served as president of the ULAA in 2003, remembered the early days of Taylor’s ascension.
“He was a flamboyant type. He wanted to always be in the limelight,” Kromah told the Globe.
“He made his point and he wanted it to be accepted by everybody.”
Kromah added, “If you listen to Taylor … you will buy whatever he’s selling to you.”
Taylor and his Bentley buddies boasted their extracurricular activities, like “taking on Harvard boys” in spirited debates.
“We used to go and sit and argue with the Harvard students around Davis Square.”
Eventually, Taylor moved off campus, into an apartment on Cheney Street in Boston. There, he befriended Delores Adighibe, former co-chair of the Liberian Community Association of Massachusetts.
“He was very big-hearted, very giving, but extremely political and concerned about Liberia,” Adighibe told the Associated Press in 2003.
“We were all very active.”
In his later testimony, Taylor told the world about the racial animosity and plethora of criminal activity he saw in the Hub.
“I was living in an area of Boston called Roxbury,” he said in the Special Court of Sierra Leone.
“That is a predominantly black neighborhood in Boston. I was lucky to get a job with a plastic company. They made cellophane plastic bags and I worked there, in a very bad part of Boston. … It was called South Boston.”
Taylor claimed he was “one of only two or three black men to go out in South Boston at the time.”
“I drove out there from my job at eleven at night and never got attacked,” he told the Hague.
“The people of South Boston formed a kind of cult around me. As soon as whites realized I was African, they changed their attitude.”
How Taylor wasn’t pummeled to a pulp on Old Colony Ave is yet another bewildering layer of his improbable saga of close calls, near misses, and secret passages.
“This was a time when this was at the height of the school desegregation in the Massachusetts area and South Boston,” he said.
“I don’t know how I made it.”
Charles Taylor first made his presence known to the world in the wake of the Monrovia Rice Riots on April 14, 1979.
Initially, a peaceful crowd of about 2,000 people marched on the Executive Mansion in protest of an increase in rice prices, but the demonstration devolved into one of the largest riots in Liberian history.
“Former President William Tolbert, without warning, increased the price of a 100-pound bag of rice from $22 to [up to $30], an unheard of price increase considering most Liberians at the time lived on less than $1 US dollar per day,” according to one African archival account.
“The protest march swelled dramatically when the protesters were joined en route by more than 10,000 ‘backstreet boys,’ causing the march to quickly unravel into a disorderly mob of riot and destruction,” according to Front Page Africa.
Per a New York Times report, “The Liberian military and police opened fire on the crowd of thousands, killing at least 41 demonstrators, prompting several days of mob rule that left 400 people injured and an estimated $35 million in damage.”
In October 1979, a few months after marching in Washington DC, the ULAA staged a demonstration while President Tolbert addressed the United Nations in New York.
“The killing did not sit well internationally,” ULAA author Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II wrote in Victory Over Difficulties, A True Story. “We interrupted Tolbert three times during his speech at the U.N. General Assembly.”
Nyanfore II recalled, “Tolbert stopped his address at each interruption. He was embarrassed, for he had never experienced this before. We were arrested after the disruption and released.”
As a show of good faith, Tolbert willingly hosted the hecklers at the Liberian Embassy.
There, he came face to face with the ULAA’s rabble-rouser chairman, who drove down from Massachusetts to issue a declaration: “We are not here to play games. We mean business.”
Witnesses described the instigator as inspirational and intimidating all at once.
“Tolbert was speechless. He just looked at Taylor.”
The FBI caught wind of a transatlantic smuggling syndicate quarterbacked by a Boston-based Liberty Mutual insurance agent who forged “totalled” documents for perfectly functional vehicles, which were shipped to West Africa.
“Working together with his Liberian cousin Edwin Holder, and with his experience in the insurance industry, [Charles Taylor] soon learned how to put together authentic-looking documentation and arrange to get the goods overseas and into the hands of their new owners,” according to the smuggling ringleader’s biography.
“There was also a related insurance scheme generating ‘intentional losses’ and arranging ‘car accidents.’”
Somehow, Taylor caught wind of the investigation, and fled east across the Atlantic to find his homeland in the throes of upheaval.
On April 12, 1980, President William Tolbert was murdered by mutineers who held Liberian military rank and pledged their allegiance to Master Sergeant Samuel Doe.
Initially hailed as the first president of native Liberian ethnicity, President Doe established a widely corrupt, iron-fisted regime, and promptly appointed Taylor as his director of general services.
Wielding an international finance minister’s pen, Taylor negotiated government purchases—until Doe’s regime accused him of embezzling about $1 million through a New Jersey-based manufacturing company, International Earthmoving Equipment Inc.
Taylor booked it back to the Bay State in May 1983 with an extradition request from the Executive Mansion in Monrovia in tow.
According to one Taylor biography, “U.S. Marshal Frank Dawson had already been trailing Taylor for a time and had followed his maroon Volvo on a number of occasions to houses in Roxbury and Boston’s South End.”
“On May 24, 1984, Dawson decided to make his move as Taylor entered a house in Somerville belonging to Agnes Reeves, a girlfriend and supporter from ULAA days … and when Taylor came to the door he was arrested.”
The disgraced diplomat and his attorney fought the extradition, but the American legal system cared little for the plight of an international political prisoner.
US Magistrate Robert DeGiacomo stuck Taylor, who he described as a “once-favored prodigal son,” in Plymouth County pending extradition.