William Richard Tolbert, Jr. (May 13, 1913 – April 12, 1980) was the 20th President of Liberia from 1971 until 1980, when he was killed in a coup d’état.
Trained as a civil servant, he entered the country’s House of Representatives in 1943 for the True Whig Party, then the only established party in the country. He was elected Vice president to William Tubman in 1952 and served in that position until Tubman’s death in 1971.
Tolbert was born in Bensonville, Liberia. An Americo-Liberian, he was the grandson of a former American slave from South Carolina who emigrated to Liberia in the Liberian exodus of 1878. The Tolbert clan was one of the largest Americo-Liberian families in Liberia.
He attended Bensonville Elementary School, Crummell Hall Episcopalian High School, and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Liberia in 1934. He married Victoria A. David, with whom he had eight children.
Tolbert was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1943, and served until being elected vice president. A Baptist minister, in 1965 he became the first African to serve as president of the Baptist World Alliance, and was also a member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity. He became Grand Master of the Masonic Order of Liberia. (Source: Wikipedia)
- Tolbert was the second president to speak an indigenous language (after President Benson), and he promoted a program to bring more indigenous persons into the government.
- Tolbert abandoned Tubman’s strong pro-West foreign policy and adopting one that focused on promoting Liberia’s political independence, he established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China, Cuba, and several other Eastern Bloc countries.
- Tolbert severed Liberia’s ties with Israel during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 and spoke in favor of recognising national rights of the Palestinian people.
- Under Tolbert, Liberia returned to a two-party system in 1978 when the Progressive Alliance of Liberia, headed by Gabriel Baccus Matthews, became recognized as a legitimate opposition party.