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Rebuilding His Homeland



Civil war in Liberia has had a profound effect on the life of the Rev. William Tolbert III ’77. When he arrived at Cornell, he was the son of the president of this West African nation. Three years after graduation, he and other members of his family were placed in a military prison after his father was assassinated and a brother and several uncles and cousins slain in a military coup.

Tolbert spent 20 months and 10 days in prison and wasn’t allowed to travel until 1983, when he returned to New York and married his Liberian high school sweetheart, Henrietta. The family’s property was returned in ruins in 1986. Civil war ended in 1997 and a democratically elected government was installed, but much of Liberia’s economy had been destroyed. Prior to the war’s end, Tolbert made assessment trips home and began the process of helping to rebuild this country founded by freed American slaves.

For part of the year Tolbert lives in White Plains, N.Y., with his wife and eight children, ages 3 to 26. The rest of the time he lives a simple lifestyle and ministers to the congregation at Zion Praise Baptist Church in rural Bentol City, Liberia, where his father also served as pastor until his death. The scope of the ministry now includes three other churches and five schools.

“I’ve experienced personal healing, so I can tell others what God has done and is still doing in my life,” he says. “So many people came out (of prison) physically healed and spiritually transformed. The soldiers couldn’t understand how we could sing, praise our Lord, and pray, in spite of our persecution. We questioned God and asked why did this have to happen, but we accepted our situation and remained resilient.”

Because his father was a spiritual and political leader, people have tried to steer Tolbert toward a political role. Tolbert instead sees his role as a religious and socio-economic healer. In addition, he and other family members including his brother, Stephen Tolbert ’83, are piecing together the shreds of their family’s once-prosperous palm and rubber plantations.

Tolbert first heard of Cornell through a family friend, Dorothy Newbury, a Fulbright lecturer in Liberia in 1965-66. She taught education at Cornell from 1953 to 1977.

“Cornell allowed me to integrate my interests in business and economics, sociology, and the arts,” Tolbert says. A ceramics course with Doug Hanson has inspired him to research kiln-fired bricks for use in infrastructure rehabilitation and development of the clay and tile industry in Liberia, which is abundant with red and white clay. There is extensive use of clay and sun-dried bricks for construction throughout Africa.

“The effort to rebuild is monumental not only because of a collapsed economy, but because Liberia lost one-fourth of its population to fighting,” he says. “We need qualified, committed people who are unselfish and not afraid of the challenge of ministering and administering in that context. I invite all professionals—doctors, lawyers, engineers, psychologists, sociologists, educators, nurses, economists, and financiers—who are trained and want to help redevelop Africa. We need to know that the world has not forgotten us as we cross the threshold into the 21st century.”

Those interested in joining this effort may contact Tolbert at He is especially interested in solar energy experts. He is unable to respond quickly when in Liberia.

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