History

Let Us See It

Why companies with long histories should open up their archives.

A burned, faded sign bearing the name of a rubber brand is seen in front of a water tower.
An old water tower stands near abandoned outhouses on the former site of a Firestone plantation in Liberia. Patrick Robert/Sygma/Corbis/Sygma via Getty Images

Firms build worlds. On this, historians and businesspeople agree. Corporations have always been among the greatest forces shaping American life. And the many corporations that hold private archives documenting their past activities have unique powers to disclose—or hide—their contributions to racial injustice in America. That’s why, if they truly want to advance the cause of social justice, companies should throw open their archives for researchers to use.

Let me make the case, using one example from my own experience as a historian. Harvey Firestone Jr., president of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, recognized the power of American industry in making history when he established the company’s archives in 1943. The records “not only of Firestone but of all American industry,” the rubber magnate believed, “represented vital source material as historically important as the records of Government and the military.” By 1952, the company had amassed what it described in a pamphlet as “560,000 documents, 150,000 photo negatives, thousands of feet of microfilm and 400 recordings.”

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For years, those archives, which grew over time, were housed at a public institution, the University of Akron. For years—despite Harvey Firestone Jr.’s stated intentions—they remained inaccessible to historians, including me. On multiple occasions, as I researched my book Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia, I was denied access to the Firestone Archives at the University of Akron’s Archives and Special Collections. I was told that it “was the long-standing policy” of what is now the Bridgestone-Firestone company “that no one is to be allowed access to the materials.” After a 2005 court case alleging labor abuses on Firestone’s rubber plantations in Liberia was dismissed in 2011, the archive was boxed, loaded onto a tractor-trailer, and removed from the university library in 2017. An archivist at the University of Akron library told me at the time that he believed the archive was taken to a company facility in Jacksonville, Florida, for review.

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Archives are the stuff of the historian’s trade. Gaining access to private corporate records is essential to understanding the role corporations have played in shaping our public history. What we now know about how Big Tobacco covered up the health effects of smoking, or how oil companies sowed seeds of doubt about climate change science, only came through court cases that made company records public in the process of discovery.

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For historians interested in understanding the role of business in shaping the history of the transportation industry, race relations, and American foreign policy, the Firestone Archives are a tantalizing treasure trove of information. For those interested in the history of Liberia in the 20th century, they are an essential resource, particularly since so many historical documents in Liberia were destroyed during 14 years of civil conflict. “The papers are not Firestone’s alone. They are in a real sense owned by both Firestone and Liberia,” professor Elwood Dunn, a distinguished Liberian historian and political scientist, recently told me. Dunn was denied access to the Firestone Archives in the early 1980s, when he attempted to learn more about how Firestone became an intimate part of Liberia’s history.

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Harvey Firestone Jr. established his company’s archive at a transformational moment in both the firm’s and the nation’s history. The world was at war, and rubber was the single commodity most important to the success of Allied forces. Disruption of production would create huge problems for the Allies. To manufacture a single battleship required 75 tons of rubber. One ton of rubber went into each armored tank. The American military required six times the amount of rubber per person employed than it had needed in World War I. When the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 and began its sweep across the Malay Peninsula, seizing control of Singapore by February of 1942, the United States’ worst fears about the rubber supply chain were realized. In a matter of weeks, a region that supplied 90 percent of the world’s natural rubber had fallen to the Axis powers. Suddenly, the small West African nation of Liberia, where Firestone had secured a land concession to grow rubber, took on strategic importance to the United States during World War II.

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A map of the west coast of Africa, from Sierra Leone to Cape Palmas.
An 1831 map of the west coast of Africa, from Sierra Leone to Cape Palmas, by the Philadelphia mapmaker Anthony Finley. Courtesy of David Rumsey

As a historian of science, medicine, and the environment, I wanted to understand how the Firestone plantations in Liberia became an experimental laboratory for American biomedical and scientific research. More broadly, I wanted to know how the Firestone plantations transformed land and lives. For more than a decade, I worked to piece together the history of Firestone in Liberia. State Department records, company operation manuals, and letters home from white plantation managers, available in American government and university archives, told part of the story. Interviews I conducted with chiefs, village elders, and retired Firestone workers in Liberia told another side. I searched for Liberian documents, many of which were burned or lost during Liberia’s civil wars, which erupted in 1989 and ended in 2003. Some were salvaged during the war years. Other archive remnants were scattered in various locations in the capital city of Monrovia. Together, these fragments shed light on the motivations, desires, and practices of an American corporation abroad and its impact on Liberia.

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For example, Firestone touted its Liberia plantations as an exemplar of modern industry and progress, buttressed by the transformative power and humanitarian benefits of American science and medicine. But within the fragmented remains of Firestone’s rubber empire that survive outside the still-hidden Firestone archive, I discovered a darker tale of corporate philanthropy and profiteering in the name of development. Empire of Rubber tells a story of how Firestone Tire & Rubber Company exported Jim Crow practices to build a racially segregated industrial plantation on distant shores.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Liberia, which was established as a free Black republic in 1847, operated in a world where racial capitalism structured the flow of global finance. Land and labor became the resources upon which the struggling Black republic, saddled with foreign debt, sought to maintain its sovereignty as European nations, in a scramble for Africa, carved up the continent. Liberia needed capital for development and sought American protection from Great Britain and France, which vied for its territory. Toward these ends, Liberia negotiated an agreement with the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company in 1926 that granted the company access to up to 1 million acres of land to grow rubber. The deal secured Firestone and America a source of rubber free from British control.

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The arrangement seemed promising at first, and even W.E.B. Du Bois—the Harvard-trained historian, sociologist, and civil rights activist—supported the Firestone experiment in Liberia. In 1924, when Du Bois first traveled to Africa, sent by President Calvin Coolidge to honor the second inauguration of Liberian President Charles Dunbar Burgess King, Du Bois advised the head of state that his country “must have capital for her development.” Faced with a choice among England, France, and America, Liberia would be wise, Du Bois advised King, to choose white American investment, which he believed posed the least pressing threat to the country’s sovereignty and self-determination.

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Tappers gathered at a collecting station in Liberia in the early 1940s.
Tappers gathered at a collecting station on the Firestone plantations near Harbel, Liberia, circa early 1940s. W.E. Manis Collection, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.
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Du Bois initially held out hope that white American capital working in partnership with “black educated men, both African and American,” might create an industrial plantation of “mutual dependence and prosperity” like none yet seen. It all depended, Du Bois wrote to Harvey Firestone Sr., who founded Firestone Tire & Rubber Company in 1900, on whether the rubber executive gave “educated black men a chance to work up in your industrial system.”

Almost a decade later, Du Bois, whose politics bent evermore to socialism over time, looked back with regret on his advice. “I had not then lost faith in the capitalistic system,” he admitted. Firestone sold itself on a promise of benevolence to Liberia, but life and work on the plantations was highly segregated by race and remained so throughout Du Bois’ lifetime, which prompted him to become one of Firestone’s most outspoken critics.

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At their peak in the late 1940s, the Firestone plantations employed approximately 30,000 Liberians—the majority of whom were tappers earning 18 cents per day—supervised by roughly 125 white managers. Approximately 3 of every 4 dollars made in Liberia found its way to Firestone’s parent company in the United States, which amounted to nearly a half-billion dollars in profits between 1944 and 1971.

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The center of American rubber manufacturing, Akron, Ohio, was home to one of the largest centers of the Ku Klux Klan north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Very few Black laborers worked in Akron at Firestone, Goodyear, and Goodrich; those who did were restricted to the lowest-paid, dirtiest, and most dangerous jobs. (Not until 1955 would Black Americans gain the right to be trained and employed as tire builders, the highest-paid job on the factory floor in Akron’s rubber industry.) On the Firestone plantations in Liberia, housing and health care for white management and Black laborers was segregated. Medical surveillance of and drug testing on workers was routine. Planter’s Punch, the newsletter of the white-only Firestone Overseas Club, was replete with racist caricatures and jokes, demeaning the Liberians upon whose land and labor company profits were made. Such conditions reinforced the impression of Black American diplomat Edward Dudley in 1951 that Firestone was “transferring U.S. Jim Crow policies to Liberia.”

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By the late 1950s, with the rise of the civil rights movement in the United States and liberation movements in Africa, Firestone’s segregationist policies on its Liberia rubber plantations had become an embarrassment to the U.S. State Department. In 1958, Eisenhower’s special assistant for foreign economic policy warned the president of the Firestone Plantations Company in Liberia, Byron Larabee, that the company had a “bad reputation as an employer of Africans,” one that “was damaging to the prestige of the United States.” That same year, in response to Firestone’s segregationist practices and those of other American firms, like Republic Steel, which operated a large iron ore mining concession in the country, Liberian President William Tubman introduced an anti-segregation bill into the Liberian Legislature. That Liberia, a country where white people could neither own land nor be citizens, needed a law against racial discrimination suggests how entrenched Jim Crow was in the plantation and mining enclaves built by American firms on sovereign African soil.

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Without access to Firestone’s corporate documents, much remains clouded regarding how the practices of Firestone and other American firms affected the lives of Liberian workers. By the 1950s and early 1960s, strikes became commonplace on the Firestone plantations. But the number of lives lost as these strikes were suppressed by Liberian security forces—which were armed, trained, and supported by U.S. military personnel and funding—remains murky. When did Firestone begin employing women on the plantations? What was discussed inside corporate headquarters as the civil rights movement and pressure from the U.S. State Department forced Firestone to address its racist policies toward Black employees in Akron and in Liberia? These questions, and others, I could not answer.

We can’t know if Harvey Firestone Jr. ever imagined that the archives he established would come to haunt the legacy of a corporate family dynasty upon which the American rubber industry was built. Firestone intended his company’s archives to be a testament to the expansion of American industry. If those archives are to truly serve American history, as Harvey Firestone Jr. expected, they should be opened to the public. Companies are not legally obligated to open their archives. But bringing these hidden documents to light would add to our understanding of the global reach of American racial injustice.

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