The End of an Era in Liberia’s History: Eulogy to Dr. Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman

By Patrick L. N. Seyon, Ph.D.
President, University of Liberia 1991-1996

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

July 14, 2004

We have assembled here today with heavy hearts, grief-stricken, to say our final farewells to Dr. Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman, educator par excellence, scholar, philosopher, nationalist, patriot, and, above all, a compassionate, loving, and decent human being. She was my professor in my freshman English class, and my mentor for a good part of my professional life. I owe a good part of what I am and stand for today to her.

We, the members of her University of Liberia Family, extend our deepest condolences to the members of her natural families. Your grief and loss are shared by all of us, Liberia and Africa, as a whole, because Mary Antoinette belonged to all and all ages. We wish with all of our hearts that the situation had been different, so that we could have said our last goodbyes more appropriately in Liberia and at the University of Liberia, the country and institution she loved and served, where she spent most of her professional life, and where we got to know and work with her, and have come away respecting, admiring, and loving her.

Among other things, during her brief three-quarters century of life, Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman validated a simple, powerful social proposition: If you educate a boy, you only educate an individual. But if you educate a girl, you educate an entire community. So, she devoted her entire life and energy aggressively advocating for access to education, at all levels, for women, as she raised and nurtured her own community of scholars at the University of Liberia, her alma mater. The institution was her laboratory. Here she taught, administered a college, and then became president of the university, in one of the most tumultuous times in Liberia’s and Africa’s history. She taught her students three fundamental lessons: (1) social justice and democracy; (2) education and enlightenment for nation-building; and (3) rule of law. Her charge to them was to keep the flame, symbolizing these lessons, constantly burning in their hearts and minds, and never allow it to die, even if it meant losing their lives. Many of her students took their charge so seriously that they risked their lives, and were jailed and tortured during the turbulent years immediately before and during military rule in Liberia. She too was arrested and jailed for these principles. It was in recognition of the pivotal role she played in advocating for rule of law, social justice, and democracy in Liberia that the military leaders, who seized power in 1980, named her “Mother of the Revolution.”

Liberia and Africa are blessed to have had Mary Antoinette, and they would have been better social and political environments, only if their ruling elite had been willing and committed to learning Dr. Sherman’s lessons. She came to the presidency (1978 – 1984) at the university during a time of political upheavals, “great expectations” for socioeconomic betterment and democracy, and much uncertainty for the future both in Liberia and Africa. One of those uncertainties concerned the fate of the African university in the prevailing political storm, and its role in Africa’s political and socioeconomic development. At the time, the university was looked upon by all as Africa’s best chance and hope for a better future.

However, during the decades of the 1970s and 1980s (Liberia’s and Africa’s lost decades), Liberian and most African leaders, civilian and military, wanted to rule both their states and national universities. And that threatened the very concept, or “idea of the university,” as we know it, and Africa’s dream for a better future. Regrettably, the attack on the African university has placed Africa in its current predicament.

Dr. Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman, the first and only woman to head an African university then, understood the threat to Africa of the attack on the university. She, therefore, took on the challenge of ensuring that the African university, in general, and the University of Liberia, in particular, would become the vehicle for Africa’s modernization, social transformation, democratization, and social justice, but would not lose their autonomy, nor surrender to tyranny. As chair of the Association of African Universities, she advocated for and vigorously defended the university’s autonomy against sergeants, generals, and presidents-for-life. Dr. Sherman adamantly maintained that the university, as an institution, had to operate above the corrupting political and social frays of the day, and could not take side in debate in the marketplace. However, she defended, with all her might and intellectual power, the rights of students and faculty, as citizens, exercising their civil and political rights, to participate fully in the political process and social change of their society. As a result, the University of Liberia campus and student newspaper became the de facto opposition voice, principally for students, the future intellectual and political leaders of Liberia. And for that reason, twice, in 1979 and 1984, the campus was occupied by soldiers, in an attempt unsuccessfully, to intimidate and silence academic freedom, free speech, freedom of the press, and dissent.

Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman fully shared the view of the Irish statesman, Edmund Burke, that “All that is required for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.” She perceived the university as the standard by which to judge good and evil, truth and falsehood. So, she dedicated and spent her life fighting evil, correcting social wrongs and injustices, and defending truth with every muscle in her body. She spent most of her life trying to create a social environment for her society, making it better than when she met it.

Now that Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman has quietly slipped away from us, June 3, 2004, it seems an Era in Liberia's and Africa's history has ended, with one of its greatest defenders reluctantly surrendering to her mortality. It was an Era that was willing and committed itself to making the world a better and safer place for all its peoples, and transmitting and nurturing the humanity Africa bequeathed to the world. It recognized the uniqueness, dignity, and sanctity of every human life and sought to put in place and institutionalize measures to protect and secure it. It also perceived a world in which the basic human and social needs of all its peoples would be fully met, and in which the requisite opportunities and resources to explore and be whatever every individual was capable of being would be provided. Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman was the embodiment of these lofty principles, and she made every effort to be an effective instrument for their implementation and full fulfillment.

Now that she has left us, those of her students, whom she has equipped and empowered with knowledge, the intellectual tools, and social skills, and her colleagues must here commit and dedicate ourselves to continue her noble work, as a living memorial.

If I had to write an epitaph for Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman, it would read:

Here lies Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman,who gave generously of her life to the service of her fellow human beings, particularly the poor, the powerless, and women.

She passionately loved knowledge and led many to acquire and love it. Every life she touched was transformed into a contagious lover of humanity. She was a good Christian, and in obedience to her Savior Jesus Christ, she very truly “loved her neighbor as herself.” May her soul rest in perpetual peace!

Professor Seyon is a Research Fellow at the African Studies Center, Boston University, and was a member of Dr. Sherman’s advanced freshman English class at the University of Liberia in 1958.