Liberian dresses shine a light on history, hope and the holidays | A&E


Nettie Davis models her traditional Liberian dress and scarf at Holy Cross Catholic Church on Adeline Avenue in Trenton.

The streets of Trenton light up on Sunday mornings when Americans of Liberian descent step out of churches and the sunlight lights up their colorful dresses – but at Christmas they will light up churches too.

“The women wear a lot of traditional West African clothing,” Liberia-born Nettie Davis tells me.

Davis attends Holy Cross Catholic Church on Adeline Avenue, where she talks to me about dresses – a topic that has long interested me and that I started exploring a few years ago and that was cut short by the pandemic.

I got interested again when I walked past a church one morning last summer and saw women in flowing, shiny clothes walking down the stairs.

Father Dennis Apoldite, pastor of the parish which includes Holy Cross Church, put me in touch with Davis when I met him while he was attending a special event at the Trenton City Museum: The Blessing animals of St. Francis.

“These clothes are dresses, which are free, long dresses with scarves to tie their heads. It is primarily worn for weddings and special occasions, ”continues Davis.

“Another outfit is the lappa costume which is wrapped around a call bubbas top and matching headwear. It is made of Ankara wax, bazan and lace. The meeting must especially have the head that envelops, especially married women. “

Davis is one of hundreds of Liberians who live in Trenton or the Greater Trenton area and attend churches in Trenton.

In addition to the former Holy Cross Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer on South Broad Street is another gathering place. Its pastor is Reverend Raymond H. Kolison, born in Liberia, with whom I spoke before the pandemic.

It is not known how many Liberians are in Trenton and appeals to local and regional Liberian associations have gone unanswered, but Liberians are contributing to Trenton’s status as an immigrant town.

In fact, the city has lively links with Central America, Eastern and Western Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa.

While the nation and culture of Liberia may seem alien, it is actually a product of the United States and has a major connection to the region.

The Republic of Liberia is located on the West African coast and borders the Atlantic Ocean as well as Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire. It is populated by around 5 million people from 16 ethnic groups.

Although the leaders of the region met with European traders, there was no slavery. However, American slavery was factored into the founding of Liberia through the American Colonization Society.

The ACS was designed in 1816 by the Rev. Robert Finely, a Presbyterian minister from Basking Ridge, New Jersey, to solve various problems related to free blacks and recently freed slaves by creating a new African nation where they could reach their full potential.

Finley traveled to Washington and met with several influential lawmakers, including Henry Clay, who is linked to the founding of the ACS. However, it was the support of US President James Monroe that made the African colony a reality.

Monroe, who waved the flag behind Washington at the Battle of Trenton on Christmas Day, ordered U.S. Navy Captain Robert Field Stockton to take ACS representatives to Africa and help negotiate the acquisition of land to establish the colony.

Stockton, the grandson of Declaration of Independence signatory Richard Stockton, was born in Princeton in 1795 and lived in the Stockton family mansion, Morven, now a museum.

He joined the United States Navy at the age of 16, served in the War of 1812, and later served as a captain of American ships sailing the African coast.

In 1821, Stockton traveled to Sierra Leone where he allegedly forced – allegedly at gunpoint – the king of the region to cede a 36 mile by 3 mile strip of land in exchange for $ 300 worth of goods, guns and rum.

The ACS called the colony “Liberia”, in Latin for freedom, and named its capital Monrovia, in honor of President Monroe, who incidentally received an honorary degree from Princeton University in 1822.

While an estimated 3,000 black Americans emigrated to Liberia between its founding and 1831, interest in the movement fluctuated, until American settlers declared independence from the ACS in 1847 and attracted several thousand. ‘others, in part because they are one of the only Western-style nations in Africa.

Government was modeled after the American government, English became the official language, and Black and South American culture mingled with native music, art and culture – including dress practices originating in Africa, reimagined in America, then returned to Africa.

The United States-linked minority population for which the nation was created also became the dominant order in Liberia and ultimately led to civil strife and civil wars.

The latter led Liberians to immigrate to the United States and carry on the traditions that had been shaped by African and American culture. This includes religious practices which mix Christianity with African practices which inform gospel music.

Describing his trip to the Trenton area, Davis says, “My family won the Diversity Visa Lottery and we were fortunate to come to the United States as immigrants in the year 2000. My Country was going through a civil war and the United States, under Bill Clinton’s administration, organized this program.

New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia have become centers for Liberian populations, and Davis’ family has come to the area where her mother, Lucy Davis, is caring for her. Her father, who had worked in the Liberian Special Security Service, died in 2015.

She says her Hamilton-based family and other Liberians attended two churches in Trenton that had been sold or closed and in 2018 found a home at Holy Cross Church, which hosts regular “evangelistic service” as well as events. traditional and Polish services.

The mother of two boys and a girl says that she and her husband, Francis Kollie, are both involved in the church.

“I am also the president of a group of women in the church called Ladies Auxiliary and the leader of a group of women in the community called Women of Success which also cares for women in the United States and Liberia.”

Her husband, a social worker, is the Supreme Secretary of the Knights of St. John International and the President of the Liberian Community Association for Central New Jersey and Metropolitan Area.

“I’m a preschool group teacher and certified behavior specialist,” Davis explains of her own background. “I have just completed a double master’s degree in early childhood education and early childhood special education, and I am currently working on my bachelor’s degree to be a principal teacher.

Davis focuses her attention on her full costume which includes shoes, dress and scarf.

She says she bought it in Liberia a few years ago. “We usually take turns visiting every two years, but due to COVID none of my family has left (since the pandemic). My mom and oldest son are planning to go early next year.

Davis says if she didn’t return to Africa, she would go to some of the local African shops that import them in order to keep her own tradition.

“As a little girl, I have always admired the different customs (related to dress) and I wanted to wear them one day, in particular by learning to tie the headband. I urge little girls to be proud of their traditional clothes and to be proud to wear them.

As for her Christmas dress, she said, “the gold design shows our rich culture, and we mainly wear them on occasions like holidays, weddings, special functions. (But) you have to wear it with the headband because it shows respect that you don’t expose your whole body.

Thinking about the New Year afterward, she says, “My goal for 2022 is to work in my women’s organizations and help less fortunate women help themselves. This year, we were able to sponsor five girls to attend a vocational school specializing in sewing, baking, interior design and beauticians. I would love to have donors or a partnership with any organization that would be helpful. My dream is also to open a vocational school for young girls who do not have the possibility of going to university but who can learn a trade and help their families “- and, in her own way, brighten up more than the streets of Trenton.

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