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African-American Historical Linkages with South Africa

The Historical Relationships of African Americans with South Africa

The relationships between African Americans and Africans in South Africa are especially intriguing because most African Americans trace their ancestry to societies in West and Central Africa, not southern Africa, and because there has not been a large migration of blacks from South Africa to the United States. From the late eighteenth century, the exchanges began to flower as African Americans made their way to South Africa under different guises. The earliest visitors were sailors who crewed American whalers that docked in ports such as Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban. Some of these sailors, along with West Indians, settled permanently or for extended periods. They became key intermediaries for spreading ideas from the black diaspora back to Africa.

Other African Americans moved into the South African interior, setting up small businesses or seeking work and adventure as the diamond and gold fields opened up in the late nineteenth century. A notable case was Yankee Wood, a ship steward who turned up in Port Elizabeth during the American Civil War. After building up a nest egg on the diamond fields, he opened up hotels in Kokstad and Johannesburg, and he staked out gold claims.

Yankee Wood

Yankee Wood, a former ship steward, settled in South Africa after the American Civil War. He participated in the gold rush on the Witwatersrand in the 1880s and owned hotels in Johannesburg and Kokstad.

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In the arts African Americans made notable contributions to South African African music. Between 1890 and 1898, Orpheus McAdoo's Jubilee Singers spent five years on three separate trips touring South Africa. These troupe's performances of spirituals, folk songs, minstrel shows and dances left an indelible impression on African choirs, social clubs, and music styles as well as independent church leaders. The absorption of American jazz and ragtime, dance and recording styles in South Africa in this century has resulted in distinctive urban African music styles such as marabi, a mix of traditional and borrowed forms. In the last decade, marabi and its variants have made their way to the United States and influenced popular music.

Herbert Payne

Herbert Payne, a Baptist missionary, was stationed at Middledrift in the eastern Cape from 1917 to 1922.

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The Jubilee Singers were circulating through South Africa at about the same time as African American missionaries began to arrive. The National Baptist Convention founded a mission station in 1894 in Cape Town and the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and a lesser known body, the Church of God and Saints of Christ, followed. Motivated by a desire to redeem and uplift Africa, they attracted many African Christians into their folds who were disenchanted with European mission Christianity. They influenced black education thought through their schools and religious philanthropies. As a result of these ties, possibly as many as several hundred Africans from South Africa journeyed to the United States for higher education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and forged close ties with African Americans. Many were sponsored by the AME, and most found places at black colleges such as Wilberforce, Tuskegee, Fisk, Hampton, and Lincoln. Alarmed at the prospect of African students being influenced by radical political ideas at black colleges in the United States, in 1916, the South African government founded Fort Hare College exclusively for black students.

Lincoln Football Players

Livingstone Mzimba (left) and Harry Mantenga (right), students from the eastern Cape, were ends on the Lincoln College football team in 1907 when this photograph was taken. After graduating, both returned to South Africa and became Presbyterian ministers. (Lincoln University Archive)

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Booker T. Washington's self-help and industrial education ideas also had a major impact on black (and white) educational circles in South Africa. His ideas were copied in schools such as John Dube's Ohlange Institute at Inanda and the AME Wilberforce Institute in Evaton. Washington's Tuskegee model of self-reliance in agriculture had special significance for African farmers who were attempting to survive on the bits of land left after European conquest in the nineteenth century.

For most of this century, the South African government tightly controlled the number of African Americans allowed into South Africa. Most were either teachers, such as Janet Jackson in Cape Town, or missionaries. On rare occasions African-American scholars secured visas and traveled around South Africa for short periods. The most notable were Eslanda Robeson, who stopped over in South Africa for three weeks in mid-1936, and Ralph Bunche, who journeyed around South Africa for three months in late 1937. In addition, black sailors in the U.S. Navy stopped off for shore leaves in port cities like Cape Town and Durban.

The journeys of Bunche and Robeson were mirrored by the ventures of Africans who traveled around the United States. Most of these travelers came to study American education, but some, such as Solomon Plaatje, had explicit political agendas. All of them sent back letters or wrote essays about the differences and similarities they observed between race relations and segregation in South Africa and the United States.

Although person-to-person ties were important, it was in the realm of ideas and images that African Americans had an effect on Africans in South Africa that far outweighed their numbers. African Americans became a potent political symbol for Africans. For instance, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois had their own circles of educated followers in South Africa who applied the African-American experience of struggle to their own predicament.

The figure who most captured the imagination of a mass audience in South Africa was Marcus Garvey with his message of race pride, unity, and self-determination for Africa. After the First World War Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association set up branches around South Africa and the Garvey message took on a life of its own as African politicians shaped it to serve their parochial needs. For example, in the 1920s, Wellington Buthelezi, leader of a Garvey offshoot in the Transkei and a Zulu who claimed to be an African American, tapped into a wellspring of millennial fervor and recast African Americans as liberators who were coming to free South Africa from white oppression. This image of an African-American savior lingered on long after Buthelezi's eclipse.

African Americans became a metaphor for progress and success. Africans saw them as survivors of slavery who were now advancing themselves in an industrialized and westernized society similar to their own. Though the achievements of African American professionals, politicians, and businessmen were sometimes exaggerated, Africans closely followed African American male musicians such as Paul Robeson, Fats Waller, and Duke Ellington and sports figures such as Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, and Henry Armstrong. On the other hand, male Africans regarded professional African-American women who engaged themselves in public activities with suspicion because they symbolized female autonomy and challenged male control of the household.

Finally African Americans were involved as advocates of political change in South Africa. The Council on African Affairs was founded in New York in the late 1930s to educate the American public about first segregation and then apartheid in South Africa and to influence American foreign policy. Its most prominent spokesman was Paul Robeson, who was already well known in South Africa. Max Yergan was another key figure. In 1921 the YMCA had dispatched him to Alice, the home of Fort Hare College in the Eastern Cape. During his 14-year sojourn as a missionary, Yergan became increasingly radicalized by his experiences with conditions in South Africa and he influenced Fort Hare students such as Govan Mbeki to move to the left politically. When he returned to the United States, he helped establish the Council. But his later shift to the right provoked a dramatic break and he ended up as an apologist for the South African regime.

The Council was the forerunner of the American anti-apartheid movement. As the Council on African Affairs was declining and under attack from the US government, the American Committee on Africa was founded to support the ANC's Defiance Campaign in 1952. Other organizations such as the American Negro Leadership Council and the Organization of Afro-American Unity were also established in the same period and maintained communications with South Africa.

In the 1940s, South African political groups such as the ANC and the South African Indian Congress sent delegations to lobby at the United Nations. During the 1950s ANC leaders corresponded with African-American civil rights leaders about their respective struggles. Through the exchanges a friendship was forged between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Albert Lutuli. These two prominent advocates of non-violent tactics were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

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