Originally created 09/09/01

From Augusta to Africa: part one



In 1833, Richard Tubman plunged his script "T" seal into the red-orange wax on the parchment of his last will and testament with what must have been great satisfaction.

He had given of his considerable wealth and certainly hoped that, even though he couldn't take it with him, what he left behind would secure his spot in a flame-free afterlife.

But he couldn't have known that he would help beget a kingdom, help beget a king.

Richard Tubman had left a quiet bombshell of a provision in his otherwise boring will: it said that his slaves were to be freed.

Those men and women, who had been chained to the land in and around Augusta, began a grand adventure in 1837 to pioneer new lives on new land in Liberia, an ocean away. Their legacy still resonates in world politics, generations after Tubman himself has been forgotten.

This is the first article in a three-part series detailing the course of those slaves and their descendants during the past 165 years. Staff Photographer Jonathan Ernst spent two years tracking the Tubman People: from their journey to Africa as settlers in a Liberian colony; to their era as the nation's ruling family; to their struggle to rebuild a country wrecked by catastrophic civil war.

Mr. Ernst spent hundreds of hours conducting interviews and poring over historical documents, reference books, doctoral theses, newspaper reports and other resources as he pieced together forgotten facts of the past. His investigation took him to places as close as Appling, Atlanta and Athens, Ga., and as far away as Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Harlem, N.Y.; and Duke University in Durham, N.C.

In February 2000, he traveled to Africa. He spent 25 days in Liberia, where he walked the land those pioneers tended, and he interviewed their great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. He photographed their troubled yet culturally rich country, documenting the landscape, traditions and everyday life of a nation where so much and yet so little has changed.

The combination of Mr. Ernst's research, writing and photography is a rare journalistic achievement. The Chronicle is proud to present the culmination of his efforts - a unique chapter in local and world history that is being told in its entirety for the first time.