In the early 1920s, the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, an American tire corporation founded by Harvey S. Firestone, made a one-million-acre deal with the Liberian government to open a rubber plantation. This led to years of forced labor, Jim-Crow style racism, and medical experimentation on African workers.
What if everybody knew… that money from this venture quickly found its way from Liberia to Princeton University?
How much money? As we find out in this podcast, it’s not clear.
In the second episode of “If Everybody Knew,” host and producer Dexter Thomas, ACLS Emerging Voices Fellow and a postdoctoral research associate in the Humanities Council, speaks to author Gregg Mitman; Simon Gikandi, Robert Schirmer Professor and Chair of the Department of English; and Jon Ort ’21, former editor of The Daily Princetonian, about the Firestone legacy in Liberia and what this all has to do with one of the most iconic libraries in America.
This episode was inspired by the Humanities Council’s 2021 Belknap Global Conversation featuring Gregg Mitman in conversation with Simon Gikandi. You can watch the full event here.
Listen in the player above. Or, take this episode on the go with you:
“If Everybody Knew” is a new podcast brought to you by the Humanities Council at Princeton University. Each episode highlights innovative research, new ideas, and untold stories in the humanities at Princeton and beyond. Our episodes are free, and available on our podcast page, or wherever you get your podcasts.
This episode was inspired by the Humanities Council’s 2021 Belknap Global Conversation featuring Gregg Mitman in conversation with Simon Gikandi. You can watch the full event here.
- PBS Frontline and ProPublica: Firestone and the Warlord – the documentary on Charles Taylor and Firestone mentioned in the podcast.
- Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia – Gregg Mitman’s book. You can also find his documentary here.
- Faculty Members Propose Anti-Racism Agenda – the open letter described in the podcast.
- President Eisgruber’s message to community on removal of Woodrow Wilson name from public policy school and Wilson College
- Princeton & Slavery Project: Princeton and Liberia – more on the founding of the library.
- Department of African American Studies podcast: University Reckonings – another podcast tackling similar issues.
This episode was hosted and produced, with all music composed, by Dexter Thomas. You can find his website here, or find him at @dexdigi on Twitter.
About the Guests:
Gregg Mitman is the Vilas Research and William Coleman Professor of History, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and an award-winning author and filmmaker. You can read more about him and his latest book, Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia, here.
Simon Gikandi is Robert Schirmer Professor and Chair of English at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Departments of Comparative Literature and African American Studies and the Program in African Studies. He is the author of many books and articles, including Writing in Limbo: Modernism and Caribbean Literature, Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. You can read more about him here.
Jon Ort ’21 graduated from Princeton with an A.B. in history, and certificates in African studies and Spanish. He served as editor-in-chief of the Daily Princetonian, a Chapel deacon, vice president of the International Relations Council, and a symposiarch with the Princeton Humanities Council. You can find his writing about Firestone’s legacy at Princeton here and here.
Simon Gikandi: What do you do when the people who occupy your moral center have been disgraced or have been proven to be unworthy of that? […] …But equally important in my perspective is also a need to have reminders. What are you going to do to also make sure that the history is not lost?
NARRATION (Dexter):: What’s one thing you wish everybody knew? I’m your host and producer, Dexter Thomas. And that’s the question I’m here to ask in If Everybody Knew, a new podcast from the Humanities Council at Princeton. Every episode, I talk to artists, journalists, and scholars from Princeton and beyond to get into the research, the ideas and the untold stories that could change the world… or at least, maybe just the way you look at things.
So a little bit of a warning here in this episode: I’m going to be talking about some pretty unpleasant stuff. Racism, war, child soldiers, sexual violence. I’ll try not to get too graphic, but I just wanted to say that upfront. That said, I’m also going to be talking about some more mundane stuff. Like car tires, radio shows and libraries.
Those two categories probably don’t sound like they go together, but it’ll make sense in a minute. Let’s start with that last one. The Library. Princeton University is home to the Harvey S. Firestone Memorial library, One of the largest libraries in the country. It’s a mandatory stop on any tour of campus, and it is absolutely gorgeous.
Multiple floors, millions of volumes, and the official website boasts that it has the largest book-to-student ratio in America. They also have priceless collections like Toni Morrison’s early drafts of her novels, and the original autographed manuscript of the great Gatsby. It was even a major plot point in a John Grisham novel that came out a few years back.
Michelle Obama has posted a picture of herself in front of Firestone. Suffice to say that if libraries could be celebrities, then Firestone would absolutely be A-list.
Now as you listened to that, you might’ve had one of two reactions. The first one would be, ‘Oh, cool. Big library. Sounds nice.’ The other reaction you might have, and this is more likely if you’re African, especially if you’re west African is: ‘Wait, Firestone? As in… that Firestone?’.
And you wouldn’t be saying that because of the tires. Not that you’d be wrong because yes, that is the same Firestone. You’d be saying that because, well, Firestone has a pretty rough history in West Africa.
The fact that our rubber production enterprise of international significance exists in Liberia today is the result of the vision and courage of a prominent American who in the early 1920s became convinced that Americans should produce their own rubber to safeguard American consumers from the tyrannies of alien rubber cartels. This industrial pioneer was Harvey S Firestone, founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company.
NARRATION (Dexter):: Firestone was founded by Harvey S Firestone in Akron, Ohio in 1900. The company grew quickly. And within a few years they became the official supplier to Henry Ford’s automobile company. But there was a problem. Harvesting rubber requires a very particular climate, and it won’t grow well in the U.S. So Firestone needed to find another place. They settled on Liberia, a young country in west Africa that had been founded in 1822, largely by formerly enslaved African-Americans. At this point in the 1920s, the Liberian government was in a lot of debt, especially to Great Britain. For Firestone, this presented a great opportunity. Here was a country that not only had the right climate, but was in desperate need of money. So in 1926, they struck a deal with the government of Liberia. Firestone would get 1 million acres for a 99 year lease, for the price of six cents per acre. And if that sounds like a low price, it is. Even in 1920s money. But that wasn’t it. They were also getting workers. Whether the workers wanted to be there or not.
Gregg Mitman: And one of the parts of the agreement was that there was a quota system; various districts in the interior were required to send a certain number of men each year to work on the plantations.
NARRATION (Dexter):: That’s Gregg Mitman. He’s a professor at the University of Wisconsin. And he recently published a book called Empire of Rubber about Firestone’s early days in Liberia. It details how grueling the work of tapping latex from rubber trees was. Workers used harsh chemicals that made their hands go numb, and occasionally caused blindness. And Mitman says that the way these workers were treated would be ironically familiar in a country founded by people who had escaped American slavery.
Gregg Mitman: …now once they got there, they were paid. But you know, I’ve talked to some laborers whose fathers started on the plantations in the twenties. And, they said they went there by force. That they didn’t go there voluntarily.
Some of the workers will say that. “My dad was a slave.” And they’ll actually use that word. So yeah, Firestone could basically plead ignorance in this. [That] people are showing up, whether they’re coming voluntarily, whether they’re coming, um, because they were forced. But Firestone was clearly behind this. And it blew up into a big international scandal. And this is where the NAACP and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom launched a publicity campaign against Firestone, and a League of Nations investigation into forced labor and slavery. But that system existed up until the early 1960s.
NARRATION (Dexter):: The investigation itself ended in 1930. Firestone managed to escape any real consequences. There was some increased scrutiny on them, but their policies didn’t change much. Back in the home factory in Ohio, black people weren’t even allowed to work in the factory until the 1950s. And in Liberia, things were even worse. So bad that workers went on strike, twice.
Gregg Mitman: So the first strike that happens on the plantations is in 1950, during this time, the Firestone plantations in Liberia where the most profitable subsidiary of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. And at the time that the strike happened, tappers were making 18 cents per day. So it was below the Liberian [minimum] wage law. In 1963, the most massive strike on the plantations happens. All the divisions on the plantations are shut down for two weeks. People that were, living in Firestone worker housing, who were part of that strike, say that trucks would come in, and they would say, “if you’re a part of the strike, we’re moving you, because you can’t be on the man’s land if you’re not working for the man.” And so people were, you know, physically removed out of their houses.
Dexter Thomas: They removed them from their homes?
Gregg Mitman: Yes. We know that it turned violent. It’s likely that some people were killed.
Dexter Thomas: Uh, you say ‘it’s likely’. Why do you have that caveat on it? Are people not sure?
Gregg Mitman: The reason I have that caveat is because, in writing this book, I was never allowed access to the Firestone archives, which for many decades existed at the University of Akron. So they existed on a public university. But, uh, yet, they’ve never been available to the public. And there’s likely a lot of documents in that archive that are important, not only to the history of Firestone in the United States, but also to the history of Liberia.
RADIO SHOW AUDIO:
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, a Firestone tire and rubber company now in its 50th year of serving. And the nationwide network of Firestone dealers in stores present the voice of Firestone, which is being broadcast simultaneously on regular radio FM…
NARRATION (Dexter):: Firestone knew that things like accusations of slavery, or news about violently putting down a strike could generate some bad PR for them. So they made sure to get out in public with their side of the story. Sometimes it was subtle, like the Voice of Firestone. This program ran from the twenties through the sixties, and it gave Firestone an opportunity to present themselves to Americans as patrons of the fine arts.
RADIO SHOW AUDIO:
…your favorite music, played by the Firestone orchestra. Under the direction of the distinguished American conductor Howard Barlow, and theme by Elizabeth Firestone, pianist and sung by the soprano…
NARRATION (Dexter):: Sometimes they were more direct, like in their series of promotional documentaries. Nowadays, we’d probably call this sort of thing ‘branded content’. This one is from the late forties:
It has always been the desire of the Firestone to contribute to the social and human, as well as the economic progress of Liberia. Over the years, Firestone has established free schools, modern hospitals…
Dexter Thomas: What was life like in Liberia for, for an American who was there compared to somebody who was actually from Liberia?
Gregg Mitman: Life was pretty posh for a white planter in Liberia. And just another point to bring out here is that well until 1963, no Liberian ever had a position in the management structure of the Firestone plantations company.
Dexter Thomas: Really?
Gregg Mitman: Basically the plantations were a Jim Crow enclave on sovereign African soil. 125 white managers oversaw a Liberian workforce of approximately 30,000. White managers were given two story houses. Very beautifully built, always located on top of the hill. So it’s kind of like the ‘Big House’ overlooking the plantation.
Dexter Thomas: Yeah, this is all sounding very ‘Southern Plantation’ to me.
Gregg Mitman: Yep. And there is a kind of Southern plantation, even the style of the houses. So, and then on the, on the top floor were the living quarters for the white planters and families and, and below was where Liberian servants lived. There was an exclusive Firestone staff club, which was whites only, which included a golf course. It was the social hub of the white plantation management.
Dexter Thomas: I’m sorry, whites only?
Gregg Mitman: Whites only.
Dexter Thomas: In Liberia.
Gregg Mitman: In Liberia.
Dexter Thomas: …in Africa.
Gregg Mitman: …in Africa.
Africa may be the last place where one would expect to find the golf course. But this one on the Firestone plantations has been enjoyed by thousands of American travelers and service men who have passed through Liberia. Its popularity proves that golf is a good game anywhere
Gregg Mitman: If you were a worker, uh, you know, a Liberian worker now you would not be allowed access. It’s so egregious that in 1958, the Liberian legislature passes an anti segregation law to prevent Jim Crow on the plantations. Because… it was a segregated school system. White management sent their kids to a different school than Liberian labors. For example, it was a segregated healthcare system as well. Firestone, you know, basically exported Jim Crow policies to Liberia. And increasingly during the 1950s with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and liberation movements throughout Africa, Firestone in Liberia becomes a real embarrassment to the U.S. state department and they push on Firestone to clean up its act.
NARRATION (Dexter):: All the more reason for Firestone to make an appeal to the American public that Firestone was in Liberia to help. And that without Firestone, Liberians wouldn’t be nearly as productive, or healthy.
Much of Liberia’s progress in medicine and public health is due to the industrial statesmanship of Harvey S. Firestone, founder, and Harvey S Firestone Jr, Now head of the worldwide Firestone Organization. A gift from that organization enables the American Foundation for Tropical Medicine who established in Liberia a permanent research center for service to a tropical medicine in general. This Liberia Institute was a milestone in tropical medicine. World famous medical authorities…
NARRATION (Dexter):: The tricky thing here is that everything that narrator just said is mostly true… technically. Firestone did provide health care for its workers, even though it was routinely accused of providing worse care to Liberians than to the white American overseers. We can’t say that everything Firestone did in Liberia was universally bad. It’s a lot more complicated than that. But one thing for sure is that they weren’t telling the whole story about their medical program.
Gregg Mitman: You know, the dark side of medical humanitarianism and, you know, the plantations became a valuable resource for American biomedical researchers, because you had this essentially captive workforce. There were questionable experiments done on Liberian subjects, on workers.
One of the projects that they were doing was purposely infecting Liberians with a strain of malaria that doesn’t exist in Liberia, to see if black people had a kind of innate racial immunity to this other form of malaria. The complete disregard of rights of Liberian subjects, that they could just be seen as an experimental population is very, very disconcerting.
NARRATION (Dexter):: So just to recap: accusations of slavery starting in the twenties. Importing Jim Crow that got so bad that the Liberian government had to outlaw it the 1950s. And we haven’t even mentioned the environmental impact of clearing out the forest and dumping chemicals in the river systems, including allegations that the water is making people sick. And add to that reports of violent worker suppression, allowing for unethical medical experimentation, and refusing to let anyone see their records up until the present day. So it makes sense that some West Africans are a little surprised when they first visit Princeton and they see the library. So we’ve heard a lot about Liberia here. Now, I think we should hear some more about Princeton. After Harvey Firestone Sr. died in 1938, the family put a lot of work into memorializing him. They erected a massive bronze statue in Liberia. They also donated a lot of money for a library to be built in Firestone’s name. Harvey Firestone Sr. had sent all five of his sons to Princeton, and this was an important school in their family image. The Firestone library was completed in 1948. One way to look at this is as a purely philanthropic act. Another way is as yet another part of their public image. Whatever the motivation, one thing is obvious – or rather one thing is not obvious, at least to people at Princeton: how that big library even got there. There’s no signs about the connection to Liberia on the outside of the building, or on the inside, or even on the library’s website. You could spend your four years at Princeton, pulling constant late nights in the Firestone library, and have no idea about where the money to build the place came from. But maybe it’s not too shocking that people weren’t talking about Firestone in the fifties or the sixties. What’s weird is that nobody on campus seemed to bat an eye as the country that helped fund that library plunged into civil war.
It’s the latest high profile war crimes tribunal…Charles Taylor, the president of Liberia, Charles Taylor… Charles Taylor, one of Africa’s most notorious warlords… 11 counts of crimes against humanity on war crimes… So these counts ranging from murder to rape, to pillage, to the enrollment of child soldiers, boys under the age of 15… his misrule reached across borders and affected so many hundreds of thousands of people… Many of the victims had hands or feet cut off. What message is Charles Taylor’s trial sending out? is at the beginning of the end of impunity.
NARRATION (Dexter):: In 2005, the Liberian Charles Taylor was found guilty of a range of war crimes. He launched an uprising to overthrow the Liberian government in 1989. And this set off a civil war that officially lasted until 1997, when he got himself elected President on the promise that the bloodshed would stop. It didn’t. Charles Taylor used an army that included child soldiers who were called the Small Boys Unit.They were given drugs to make them more fearless on the battlefield. If there were too young to carry rifles, they were given grenades. That conflict also spilled over to nearby Guinea and Sierra Leone, where blood diamonds entered the picture. When Charles Taylor’s forces first started to rise to power, Firestone evacuated their American employees. But their Liberian workers were left to fend for themselves.
Then Firestone came back to Liberia. To do business. PBS Frontline did an entire documentary on this. I’ll leave the link to it in the show notes, but the gist is that Firestone agreed to recognize Charles Taylor’s rebel government and pay taxes directly to him. They allowed him to host his rebel fighters on the plantation as he planned his invasions. And Charles Taylor allowed Firestone to keep doing business and making money in Liberia. In the documentary, some Firestone officials argued that they didn’t know the extent of what was happening, or how bad Charles Taylor would get. But a lot of people say that Firestone was complicit in the roughly quarter of a million deaths that happened in the west African region during the era.
Simon Gikandi: Charles Taylor created destruction, not just in Liberia, but he had this capacity to spread it across the borders. So there isn’t a single west African country not affected by his policies.
NARRATION (Dexter):: That’s Professor Simon Gikandi. He’s the person whose voice you heard in the very beginning of the episode. He was born in Kenya, and he’s the chair of the English department. He’s been on campus since 2004.
Simon Gikandi: At no point do I remember us saying, well, Charles Taylor, Princeton, and Firestone are connected one way or the other. Because we are not good at making those connections. I always talk about what cultural historians and cultural scholars would call a ‘political unconscious’ We know it’s there, and it’s driving these things. But we don’t want to interfere. Princeton needs the Firestones because the American university system is funded by these corporations. And I have written a lot about that connection between money. That’s usually made in conditions of slavery or forced labor and how that money is kind of laundered by being redirected to educational institutions, philanthropic institutions and so on. And so in that case, this is a familiar story to me.
NARRATION (Dexter):: But it’s not a familiar story to most Princeton students. Now we can’t say that Liberia has never been talked about on campus. But one way for getting a feel for what people think is important is by reading a campus newspaper. Even if professors or administration aren’t talking about stuff, students do. And that stuff usually shows up in the paper. And as it happens, there’s an online database of Princeton’s main campus newspaper that contains every issue going back from 1876 until today. And through all those issues, there’s almost no mention of Liberia ever. Or there wasn’t, until 2017. When this first-year student joined the staff.
Jon Ort: Hello everybody. My name is Jon Ort. I am a 2021 graduate from Princeton where I majored in history. In addition to being a history major, I served as Editor in Chief of the Daily Princetonian, which is Princeton’s independent daily student newspaper.
NARRATION (Dexter):: Jon grew up in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado. In high school, he happened to read a book about African history, and there was a mention of Firestone in there. He mostly forgot about it until he got to Princeton, and saw the library. None of his classmates seemed to know anything about this connection. So when he got his newspaper gig, he figured he’d write an article. Actually, he wrote two.
Jon Ort: You know, it’s not in any way as if I ‘discovered’ Firestone’s record. I think that’s well-documented. Historians have done that work. And in particular Liberian historians, people living in Liberia. What I was coming to see was the ways in which Harvey Firestone and the Firestone company had flown under the radar, so to speak, in so far that there, there didn’t seem to be conversation on Princeton’s campus about the ways in which Firestone’s use of coerced, enslaved labor in Liberia, profited Princeton. The library was finishing this massive decade-long renovation project. And there was publicity on campus about the beautiful new study spaces that were opening, how modern the library was. And I was arguing that because the library was trumpeting itself as this modern research institution, that moment called for more honesty and disclosure and response to the Firestone connections.
NARRATION (Dexter):: The first one, he wrote during his freshman year, in 2017. It didn’t really make any waves. But when he wrote about Firestone again in 2019, people started noticing, and talking.
Jon Ort: I think there was, in some of the responses I heard, there was some conversation on Twitter, people saying, well, would this be another instance of returning to a figure who’s lionized on campus, but whose legacy and lifetime warrant scrutiny and need serious consideration?
NARRATION (Dexter):: Now, if you go to Princeton, you know exactly what ‘figure’ he’s talking about here. He’s talking about Woodrow Wilson. For context, we got to go back a couple years before Jon even got to campus back in 2015. This is when a small group of student activists called the Black Justice League released a list of demands, including cultural competency courses for students and staff. But the demand that got the most attention was the one about Woodrow Wilson, who is not only our record saying some pretty awful things about black people, but also enacting policies that actively harmed minorities in America. The Black Justice League said that Woodrow Wilson’s name should be removed from buildings on campus. Again, this is the Woodrow Wilson, not only a former President of Princeton, but the 28th President of the United States. Now, as you can imagine, a lot of people were not comfortable with this, both on and off campus.
Senator Ted Cruz, who is a Princeton graduate himself, called supporters of a name change “pampered teenagers”. But other people thought that a name change was a good idea, and they circulated a petition in support of it. And thus started a long process in which the administration asked for input from the public and from various historians.
Then in 2016, the board of trustees announced their decision: the Wilson name would stay. Officially, the discussion was now over. But that didn’t mean that the debate on campus had. And without quite realizing it at first, Jon had walked right into the middle of it.
Jon Ort: I think the Black Justice League protests, which had been, uh, two or three years prior when I started at Princeton, were on my mind. And I think for myself, it took time to appreciate the Black Justice League’s contributions. I don’t think I’d necessarily have the perspective that I have now. And I was aware of recent conversations at Princeton. Um, and when the piece was published, it became apparent the ways in which Firestone, perhaps fit within them.
Dexter Thomas: Jon’s recommendations in his article were pretty simple. He suggested that Princeton release any documents they had about financial or other ties to Firestone. And in the meantime, maybe put an exhibit in the library that could give some historical context. Neither one of these happened. But people started talking. Students, and even professors started to contact Jon privately, telling them that they’d had no idea about this history. And in protests on campus, people started mentioning Firestone. And then during Jon’s junior year, something unexpected happened. Princeton, and Woodrow Wilson, were in the news.
Princeton University announced on Saturday that it will remove former US president Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public policy school. One of Princeton’s residential colleges, formerly known as Wilson College will also get a name change. The decision comes after the university president and board cited Wilson’s racist thinking and policies throughout his presidency from 1913 to 1921.
NARRATION (Dexter):: From the outside, it looked like Princeton and the administration had just made this decision on their own overnight. But I’ve talked to a bunch of student journalists and people who were on campus at the time, and a lot of people are a little annoyed about that. Because there wasn’t any real acknowledgement of the criticism that activists had faced, or the fact that it took a good five years and the shift of public opinion after the death of George Floyd for Princeton to catch up. Now, that’s not to say that everyone was on board. Later that same year, one Princeton professor called the Black Justice League a ‘terrorist organization’ but overall, it was starting to look like things were changing at Princeton a few weeks after the Woodrow Wilson. A group of Princeton faculty released an open letter with a long list of more demands. And in the letter they brought a Firestone, they quoted Jon’s article and almost verbatim, they repeated his recommendation. Fully disclose any ties to the Firestone company, and maybe put some sort of marker in the library that acknowledges Firestone’s history in Liberia. But again, neither one of those happened. As a matter of fact, the conversation about Firestone itself seemed to be fading into the background while the Woodrow Wilson news stayed on center stage.
Dexter Thomas: In the middle of 2020, as you know, it looked as though America, and I suppose the world, was starting to begin to have some more serious and more urgent conversations about racism.
Simon Gikandi: Yes.
Dexter Thomas: Firestone didn’t seem to come up. Do you have any sense of why that is?
Simon Gikandi: I have to agree with you that Firestone did not come up in 2020. And I was surprised because I thought that given all the things we were discussing, not only at Princeton, but in the United States and globally, that if one were looking for one example closer to home, Firestone would come up immediately. It didn’t. And I have some thoughts about why it didn’t come up. One has to do with something that worries me, the limitation of these conversations to the United States. These are global movements and they’ve always been. If you think about movements for black justice in the 1890s all the way to the 1960s, they were always global. But what seemed to have happened in the 21st century is there’s a kind of localization of issues so that we tend to identify a much more with what happens to black lives in Ferguson or Minnesota much more than we are likely to identify with the same issues happening, let’s say in South Africa, which would not have been the case, let’s say in the 1980s. Whatever happened in South Africa would be connected to what was happening to us. So my own sense is that until we start seeing issues in that global context, then there’s a way in which questions of Liberia are going to just slip away.
And that’s, that’s a mistake, because one of the things, again, we see in Mitman’s book, the fact that Firestone till the 1950s would not employ black workers in its factory in Ohio, the same Jim Crow is now exported to Liberia because as far as the company is concerned, there’s a kind of racial continuum. And for them, those boundaries don’t matter. So by the same token, social movements have to understand that there is that continuum. It has always been there and is going to continue to be there. So we can’t just say that Firestone belongs to the past, or that that’s a Liberian problem. It’s also our problem, in many ways.
Dexter Thomas: I mentioned that Firestone has faded into the background for now, but after talking with a lot of people on campus, I’m not sure this topic is going to go away again. Last year, the entire editorial board of the campus newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, published an article entitled “Confronting Systemic Racism Starts at Home.” And it calls out Firestone. And then there’s the Belknap Global Conversation series put on by the Humanities Council at Princeton. This was a series that a lot of people knew for bringing celebrities for lecture events, but a couple months ago, they brought out Gregg Mitman to talk about his book. And of course, the Firestone library came up.
And even though he’s already graduated, Jon Ort has kept working on his research. He’s been looking in the archives at Princeton and he started to find some things.
Jon Ort: … and so the documentation shows that, through the 50s, 60s, 70s, Princeton, would routinely during this time come back to the Firestones and ask for funding for expansions and continued support of the library. And the Firestones, you know, complied. One of the primary ways Firestone supported and gave to Princeton entailed the transfer of common stock of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. And Princeton’s archives from this time period record dozens of such transfers and you see it, it’s rather routine. At least once a year in the sixties and seventies, and sometimes more than more frequently than that, you see Harvey Firestone Jr. himself, who took the helm of the company, personally writing to Princeton’s president to transfer stock of the company. Sometimes $250,000 to support a library expansion, sometimes for these more specific gifts. But I think the upshot is that Princeton over this time period came into possession of a substantial amount of stock of the Firestone tire and rubber company.
Dexter Thomas: Do we know if Princeton still has Firestone stock?
Jon Ort: We don’t. And you know, this actually goes back to the very first op-ed that I had written because I had asked the university’s press office back in 2017, if they could comment on that or shed some light on what that’s doing now. And they, they, they declined to comment. They said they can’t comment on university investments. So we don’t know.
Dexter Thomas: Do you think students should know?
Jon Ort: I do. You know, we’ve been talking about what Princeton needs to do, is to be honest at the very least about its ties to Firestone, and to rectify, or to respond to its complicity. And I think that, you know, integral to that process, if Princeton’s going to respond in a meaningful way, we need to know not only historically what’s been true, but what’s true today. And I do think that this conversation very, very much important to it is to ask whether Princeton still holds that stock.
Dexter Thomas: How realistic do you think that is?
Jon Ort: I… I have to say my hopes are not high, that Princeton would disclose this information. I think there’s the historical record, um, that I’ve been looking at. It has revealed a lot, but it’s only a partial picture. It can only be a partial picture. And I think only the people who manage Princeton’s endowment who have this holistic view of the institution will be able to provide a full picture.
NARRATION (Dexter):: Jon says there’s a limit on what he can find out on his own because the university has a 30-year moratorium on these records. That means for example, that any records from the mid to late 90s during the civil war, they’re not public yet. So unless something changes, we won’t have that full account, but what if we did, and this is where I asked the question that this podcast centers. We’ll start with Gregg Mitman.
Dexter Thomas: Um, so this, this history that you’re talking about, what if everybody knew all of this? What if, when we looked at a Firestone service center, what if every time somebody walked into the library and saw Firestone up there, they had this knowledge in the back of their mind. How do you think things would change?
Gregg Mitman: I think some of the most egregious elements of the story are the ways in which American science and medicine worked hand in hand with the corporation to advance racial inequality. And we see the kind of enduring effects of that today and the differential burdens in the context of COVID and communities of color in the United States, and the ways in which health and racial inequalities continue to endure. You know, one of the things I say in the book is that this is a history of America, told through the lens of Firestone in Liberia. And I don’t see the book as a history of Liberia. I don’t think I am in a position to write that. You know, I think Americans don’t understand how integral Liberia’s history is to the history of the United States. If we understood, you know, as we’re engaged in this historical understanding of racism in America, as we see in the 1619 project and so forth, Liberia is an important part of that story.
Jon Ort: And in many ways, I think if everybody knew that would be a really welcome sign, right? Because I don’t think we’re there yet, even though I think awareness among the Princeton community is growing. You know, most of the time when I was a Princeton student, I wasn’t thinking that way.
But if we had that kind of critical unflinching knowledge of who built that wealth, where it really originated and the true history, that’s belied by this beautiful library, it would transform how and who we are as members of the Princeton community. I think we would better understand what we’re called to do today, and we’d better understand what our institution is called to do.
Simon Gikandi: I think the question of how people would react if they knew this history is always very complicated. And it’s complicated because I don’t think the central problem is lack of knowledge or ignorance. In a sense, not everyone knows. But there are enough people who know. There are people who know about this connection and have known about this connection, but they did not want to do anything about it precisely because of the way philanthropy and the university and corporations work. One can’t ignore the fact that there’s a way in which universities spend a lot of time courting corporations for money.
Dexter Thomas: We’re talking about the administration here, the university’s?
Simon Gikandi: Yes. The university’s administration. The people charged with running the university. They do feel, when you talk to them, a kind of obligation to raise money, because that’s what enables the university to be a great university. So in that sense, my suspicion always is that there are certain things you don’t want to disturb or change, but, it has to do with the fact, again, that at one point Firestone or Wilson was seen as occupying the model center of Princeton. So what do you do when the people who occupy your moral center have been disgraced, or have been proven to be unworthy of that? It’s, it’s a question then of, again, a kind of intellectual repair. You have to repair that damage and I’m not sure how you do that. But you have to accept the damage first, before you talk about the repair to be done.
Dexter Thomas: So what, what does that repair look like then?
Simon Gikandi: I tend to favor small steps first. And the first step is to accept responsibility instead of saying we, well, we didn’t know. And then the second step is to actually do something fairly straightforward. And that is, since we are a university, the most important and direct link we can make is with Liberia and universities or institutions of higher learning. One thing that’s actually obvious is: many post docs can we offer, or even scholarships, can we offer to Liberian students to come and study at Princeton, and hopefully go back to Liberian Institutes? And then we can move it a step further and ask what kinds of collaborative networks can we build with Liberia, building institutions to help them return to where they were, because many of them were destroyed during the civil war.
Dexter Thomas: So this is something that I think, that is kind of the elephant in the room though. Which is the name Firestone. Do you think a name change would be something that would be appropriate?
Simon Gikandi: Name changes are very important. Don’t misunderstand me. Name changes are important precisely because of the symbolism. And also because of the connotations. What does Firestone mean when you call a building that’s so important to the university, ‘Firestone?’ But equally important in my perspective is also a need to have reminders about that history, because sometimes when we change the name, we also erase all the bad history, so that it’s no longer represented. If you’ve changed the name, what are you going to do to also make sure that the history is not lost?
We have a library built on money that was made from the exploitation of African workers. So that’s it. It’s fairly straightforward. I mean, we can debate how to position it, but to me, the context, that description is obvious, but it’s always missing, of course. So it’s trying to balance on one hand, the need to change names so that we are not continuously reminded and maybe traumatized by that history, while at the same time reminding us that that history did exist.
NARRATION (Dexter):: One last thing. We’ve heard from a few people in this episode. People who’ve only visited Princeton, a former Princeton student, and a Princeton professor. But there’s a group that we’ve been talking about that hasn’t been heard in this episode: Liberians themselves. What do they think should be done about the library? But then again, which Liberians would we ask? The descendants of the workers? Liberian politicians? Liberian historians?
I’ve thought about this a lot. And there’s something that Gregg Mitman said that kinda hit me. That his book isn’t about Liberia. It’s about America. And I think that applies here, too. To the questions that Princeton should be asking not other people, but asking itself. It’s not that Princeton isn’t saying anything about Firestone. It is. Just like those old PR documentaries, the name on the outside of the library does tell us a story – part of one. And as an institution, that’s a story that Princeton has chosen to believe. How long that continues isn’t really up to Liberians. It’s up to Princeton.
Thank you so much for listening to the second episode of If Everybody Knew. I hope you dug it. This episode couldn’t have happened without the participation of Gregg Mitman, Jon Ort, and Simon Gikandi. That being said, the framing and editorializing and everything else in this episode – that’s my own. So if you’re curious to know more, you should definitely go to the source and please check out the show notes at humanities.princeton.edu/podcast.
You can find a full transcript plus links to the books, documentaries, and everything referenced in here. Plus some places you can read more. This episode was also inspired by a live discussion hosted by the Humanities Council as part of the Belknap Global Conversation series between Gregg Mitman and Simon Gikandi from back in November. And the video of that is available online also. And speaking of videos, in addition to the book, Greg Mitman has also produced a documentary in Liberia, and that would be one place that you would be able to hear Liberians speaking directly about the legacy of Firestone in their country. Also, I mentioned that Jon is still doing research. He was telling me that he’s working on an article that goes way more into detail than his previous ones. There’s a lot of stuff he’s uncovered. So when he publishes it, I’ll be sure to update the show notes with a link. And again, you can find all that at humanities.princeton.edu/podcast. Anyway, that’s it from me.
If Everybody Knew is produced with music composed by and hosted by me, Dexter Thomas. See y’all next time.
Esther “Starry” Schor: If Everybody Knew is brought to you by the Humanities Council at Princeton University. Our mission is to nurture the humanities local and globally, engage diverse perspectives past and present, and enrich public dialogue with humanistic approaches. For information about our programs and events, please visit our website at humanities.princeton.edu.