Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is known around the world as the first female head of state on the African continent, a champion of democracy and one of the most powerful women on the political stage.
But to Dr. James Sirleaf, medical director for the Department of Emergency Medicine at Midtown Medical Center, the 2011 Nobel Prize recipient will always be “Mom.”
On Wednesday, the physician will introduce his mother to the Columbus community when she makes her first trip to the city. The president will visit on her way from the 72nd United Nations General Assembly, where she delivered a historic farewell speech last week while preparing to step down from office after two elected terms. Next month, Liberia will hold presidential and legislative elections, which — if successful — would mark the first the time the war-torn country will peacefully transfer power in 73 years.
“My mother typically visits her grandchildren once a year,” said James Sirleaf, who moved to Columbus about two and half years ago. “... Usually when she’s in the U.S. at a meeting or something, she tries to come down to where I live and spend two or three days. ... Understanding that the public wants to share and see her, I’ve asked her to come to an event.”
While in town, President Sirleaf will make an appearance at the medical center 9 am. Wednesday. Later in the day, she will visit St. Anne Pacelli’s School, where she will be introduced by her two grandchildren who matriculate there. On Thursday, she’s scheduled to visit Brookstone School, which has a longtime relationship with Liberia through mission projects.
James Sirleaf said his mother, who received her post-secondary education in the United States, is a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and The Links Incorporated, and both organizations are trying to quickly organize a function in Green Island Hills to host the world-renowned president.
Sirleaf comes at a time when the historical connection between Columbus and Liberia is being researched by local architectural historian Matt McDaniel, who authored a book titled “Emigration to Liberia.” The book traces the mass migration of more than 500 freed blacks from the Chattahoochee Valley to Liberia after the Civil War. About 447 were from Columbus and 39 from Eufaula, Ala., accounting for about 12 percent of black emigrants from the United States to Liberia during that period, according to McDaniel’s research.
Earlier this year, McDaniel traveled to Liberia on a medical mission trip led by James Sirleaf through an organization the physician founded called the Heartt Foundation. While Columbus doctors worked at the hospital in Monrovia, McDaniel traveled around the country looking for descendants of Columbus settlers. He found several families with Chattahoochee Valley roots, and he is in the process of developing a documentary.
While on the trip, the group also met President Sirleaf at her home and took photos. James Sirleaf said his mother is very interested in McDaniel’s research and has read his book.
President Sirleaf, a native of Liberia, moved to the United States following a divorce from her husband in 1961. She earned a bachelor’s in business administration at Madison Business College in Madison, Wis., in 1964; a bachelors in economics from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1970; and a master’s in public administration from Harvard University in 1971.
She returned to Liberia to serve as assistant minister of finance under President William Tolbert in the 1970s. But in 1980, Tolbert was overthrown and killed by army sergeant Samuel Doe. Sirleaf was forced into exile, fleeing to the United States, where she worked for the World Bank. She then moved to Nairobi, Kenya.
When she returned to Liberia in 1985, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison after speaking out publicly against Doe’s military regime. After serving a partial sentence, she moved to Washington, D.C.
In 1997, Sirleaf ran unsuccessfully against President Charles Taylor, whom she had supported in 1990 when he waged a bloody rebellion against Doe. In 2003, Taylor resigned due to mounting international pressure for alleged human rights abuses, and went into exile.
In 2005, Sirleaf assumed leadership of the Unity Party and ran a campaign promising economic development and an end to civil war. That year, she was elected to the Liberian presidency, becoming not only the country’s first female head of state, but the first black female president anywhere in the world.
On Jan. 16, 2006, she was inaugurated. Guests at the ceremony included United States First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.
After her election, Sirleaf requested Taylor’s extradition, and he was detained by U.N. authorities. Taylor later was found guilty of terror, murder, rape and other charges, and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
In 2011, Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist; and Tawakkul Karman, a Yemeni journalist, politician, and human rights activist. The three women received the prize for their “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work,” according to the Nobel Peace Prize website.
James Sirleaf said President Sirleaf — mother of four sons — was a “career mom” while he was growing up in Liberia, but she always looked after her children. When his parents divorced, he went to live with an uncle, he said. But his mother was very involved in his life, always encouraging her sons to excel academically.
“She was there for college, medical school, all the important things in my life,” he said.
Like his mother, James Sirleaf was educated in the United States, receiving a bachelor’s degree from Morehouse College and a medical degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. He worked in Connecticut for 15 years before moving to Columbus by way of Albany, Ga.
He said he already was an adult when his mother was elected, and it has been an interesting journey.
“I had my career, my life, my job, before she decided to run for president,” he said. “When you think about it, two of the last presidents are dead and one is in prison for life. Who wants to deal with that?”
James Sirleaf said the most difficult part was dealing with his mother’s imprisonment. While he was matriculating at Morehouse, she was thrown in prison for nine months.
“When she was in prison one time, she slipped out a note to us on toilet paper and said, ‘I don’t know if you will see me again,’ ” he said. “So, those were tough times for all of us.”
Other than that, his mother’s presidency hasn’t impacted his life too significantly, he said.
“It puts me in a little bit of a spotlight,” he said. “But I, and the people that work with me, all know that when I go to work I’ve got to be an ER physician, I’ve got to be a medical director, and those are things that I’m expected to do.”