Follow us on Instagram
Try our latest crossword

How Firestone exploited Liberia — and made Princeton as we know it

<h5>As the end of the term nears, Firestone Library remains full with students late into the night.</h5>
<h6>Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
As the end of the term nears, Firestone Library remains full with students late into the night.
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the authors views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here. 

In 1944, the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company approved a $1 million donation to finance Princeton’s new library — with one condition. The Harvey S. Firestone Memorial Library had to serve the company’s desire of “maintaining its high position in the Rubber Industry.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Princeton agreed that the “outstanding University Library” would “at all times” teach the public about “the many advantageous uses of rubber.” Princeton further promised to “increase the available supply of men scientifically trained in rubber” — in so many words, to prepare the student body for Firestone careers.

Princeton’s Library propagandizes the Firestone Company. It serves a corporation that has, for nearly a century, oppressed Black laborers in the West African nation of Liberia.

As a volunteer researcher with the Princeton & Slavery Project, I have spent two and a half years tracing the entanglements that link Princeton to Firestone’s exploitation of Liberia. My research, published in full on the Project’s website, reveals how Firestone’s racist system of forced labor made Princeton one of the world’s foremost research universities.

In 1926, the U.S. State Department helped Harvey Firestone Sr. wrest a 99-year rubber concession from Liberia. Spread over one million acres, the plantation became — and still is — the world’s “largest single natural rubber operation.” In a nation founded upon Black freedom, our library’s namesake established an enclave of white supremacy.

Patterned after the antebellum U.S. South, Firestone’s plantation amounted to a network of forced labor camps. The project began with the forcible removal of Indigenous Bassa communities. White managers coerced tens of thousands of Liberian children, women, and men to tap rubber — grueling and dangerous work.

To combat the risks to the plantation’s productivity posed by infectious disease, the company turned to medical racism, in one instance injecting Black staff and residents with a live strain of malaria. The rules of segregation rooted in Jim Crow governed the plantation’s hospitals, schools, and social spaces.

ADVERTISEMENT

Firestone claimed that its food subsidies, healthcare, and education system gave Liberian workers — who tapped rubber up to 11 hours a day, 26 days a month — all that they needed. In reality, the company exploited their labor and controlled their lives (and arguably still does).

Princeton’s astronomical wealth in the 21st century cannot be divorced from Firestone’s fortune in the 20th. Firestone Library was only the crown jewel in a 60-year relationship that transformed our University. Between 1920 and 1981, Harvey Sr. and his descendants — at least 11 of whom attended Princeton — donated to the University more than 150 times.

Firestone money touched every aspect of campus, from bookshelves to barbells, chapel pews to chemical pipettes. The Firestones often donated corporate equity, making Nassau Hall a shareholder to which the company was accountable. By 1970, the Firestones had lavished the University with over $3.58 million and pledged at least $1.3 million more. Adjusted for inflation, their contributions to that point exceeded $39 million.

That same year, Princeton faced “an acute financial crisis,” as The New York Times reported at the time, which threatened to drag the endowment below $400 million. With past and pledged Firestone gifts totaling $4.89 million, three generations of the Firestone family could claim more than one dollar for every one hundred in Princeton’s endowment.

Subscribe
Get the best of ‘the Prince’ delivered straight to your inbox. Subscribe now »

Harvey Firestone Jr. Class of 1920, the man who played the largest role in the company’s abuses in Liberia, enjoyed the closest ties with Princeton. The eldest of five brothers, all of whom attended the University, Harvey Jr. managed the Liberia plantation before becoming the company’s CEO. A friend and confidant to successive Princeton presidents, Harvey Jr. served as a University trustee for 30 years.

Princeton cannot plead ignorance of Firestone’s record in Liberia. As early as 1928, a book by Raymond Leslie Buell GS Class of 1920 and 1923 reported that Firestone’s “conditions in Liberia” made “forced labor almost inevitable,” while prominent Black nationalist Marcus Garvey denounced Firestone for treating laborers as “virtual slaves.” By 1933, Pan-Africanist scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois had joined the chorus.

Princeton continued to propagate the company’s paternalistic narrative — even as Black students forced a reckoning against institutional racism. In 1968, a top Princeton administrator traveled to the Liberia plantation, where he proposed that the Firestones fund Princeton’s Program in African Studies. That same year, the Association of Black Collegians (ABC) and other student groups protested Princeton’s investments in apartheid South Africa.

Princeton held $127 million, nearly a third of its endowment, in some 40 companies with subsidiaries in South Africa. Firestone, South Africa’s largest tire manufacturer, was central among them.

While the ABC intensified its campaign of direct action, Princeton doubled down on Firestone. In 1970, the University asked Harvey Jr. and one of his brothers to fund a professorship in African Studies, citing “the Company’s long-established and forward-looking interest in Africa.” The Firestones declined, in part because of what they perceived as leftism at Princeton.

Firestone’s dealings with apartheid led two of Princeton’s institutional peers to divest from the Company. In 1978, Smith College and Hampshire College sold a combined $726,000 of Firestone stock. Hampshire’s then-president, Adele Simmons, had left her role as Princeton’s first woman dean the year before.

But our University never abandoned the family that, in the words of Princeton President Harold W. Dodds GS Class of 1914, “continues to add lustre to the name of Princeton throughout the world.” Our library still celebrates the man who was remembered after his death in the 1950s for bringing “[m]odern plantation standards” to “thousands of natives only a drumbeat removed from primitive existence.”

Firestone Library has served its benefactors well. On campus, the Library is affectionately known as “Stone.” Laptop stickers joke, “Get Firestoned.” We pass beneath the bust of Harvey Firestone Sr. every day. But we have never faced the company’s atrocities.

A century after slavery ended in the United States, Nassau Hall profited from Firestone’s practices of white supremacy. Firestone’s racist exploitation of Liberia propelled Princeton’s rise as a world-class university.

Jonathan Ort ’21 served as The Daily Princetonian’s 144th Editor-in-Chief. He can be reached at jaort@alumni.princeton.edu and on Twitter @ort_jon. This piece is adapted from “What Princeton Owes to Firestone’s Exploitation of Liberia,” an essay published by the Princeton & Slavery Project.

Ort previously called for Princeton to investigate and disclose its ties with Firestone. He authored two opinion columns on the subject, both of which ran in The Daily Princetonian: “Liberian labor: Confronting Firestone’s historical complexity” (Feb. 2019) and “Reviewing the legacy of Harvey Firestone” (Dec. 2017).

Comments