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The (African) American Missionary Movement in Africa in the Early Twentieth Century

This image shows a group of men who appear to be African standing with several pieces of furniture. Some hold carpentry tools.
Source: Voice of Missions (June 1931): cover page. The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York. Courtesy of Dr. Johnny Barbour, President/Publisher AME Church Sunday School Union, Nashville, TN, and Dr. George F. Flowers, Executive Director of the AME Church Department of Global Witness and Ministry (Mission), Charleston, SC.

Philanthropic work in Africa today is primarily associated with international developmental aid and the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but many of its themes and fields of application were preconceived by Christian missionaries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Attempts to Christianize Africans involved, often by necessity, the development of broader charitable programs in education, medical care, and food supply, to enable communication and sustained interaction. While North American missionaries began to contribute to this cause in the early nineteenth century, their involvement in Africa peaked, like most European missionary efforts, during the heyday of European colonialism between the partitioning of the continent in 1884-1885 and the onset of decolonization in the 1960s. Unlike their European counterparts, however, American foreign missionaries saw Africa’s problems through the lens of the African American population in the United States. Distinct understandings of racial capabilities and the notion that African Americans should play an active role in the desired “regeneration” of Africa not only distinguished their philanthropic agendas, but also shaped some of the first collaborations between American philanthropic organizations and European colonial governments.

An adult woman stands next to 6 young children. The woman holds a chalkboard with the following text: A, B, C, D, 1, 2, 3, 4, Jesus.

Source: Emily T. Vernon, South Africa: An Open Door, A Story in Pictures [n.n., [1925?], 10. Bishop William Tecumseh Vernon Collection, Kansas Collection, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries. Courtesy of Dr. Johnny Barbour, President/Publisher AME Church Sunday School Union, Nashville, TN, and Dr. George F. Flowers, Executive Director of the AME Church Department of Global Witness and Ministry (Mission), Charleston, SC.

The nucleus of this collaboration lay in the rise of the independent African American missionary movement in the late nineteenth century. Pioneered by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), black America’s oldest independent institution, several African American mission boards began to send their workers to colonies in West and South Africa. Their activities followed the turn-of-the-twentieth-century idea of the so-called “providential design” according to which African Americans inherited a special duty to uplift Africans based on their own experience of rising from slavery to freedom. A key element of this program was the philosophy of industrial education. Often modeled upon Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, founded in 1881, black American mission schools offered training in manual labor such as crafts and agriculture as a path for Africans to achieve self-help, self-improvement, and self-determination.

During the decades around the turn of the twentieth century, most European-American missionaries despised the African American missionary presence in Africa, for it tended to draw large amounts of disciples from their congregations and facilitated the uncontrolled rise of independent African church movements. Colonizers too scorned the work of African American missionaries due to the suspicion that they promoted strivings for African liberation, or attracted Africans to the Pan-African movement grown in the United States in the 1920s around the black anticolonial agitator Marcus Garvey. However, European-American missionaries and colonizers also found that there were elements in the black American missionary movement that were to their liking. Black American missionaries, they observed, reached Africans with great ease; and Tuskegee-style education, they presumed, could also help orient Africans’ ambitions to improve their working skills into directions that benefitted white supremacists’ interests.

The debates about the ambiguous role of African American missionaries in Africa concretized in the 1920s in recommendations and resolutions that defined the place the African American experience was to have in missionary-colonial government collaborations. The first proposition in this regard was made by the Phelps-Stokes Fund, an American philanthropist organization focusing on “Negro education.” In 1920 and 1924, the fund sponsored two commissions to survey schools in Africa in order to advise the British Colonial Office as to where the existing education needed adjustment. The key recommendations were that the traditional literary education should be marginalized in favor of industrial and agricultural training, as preconceived by Tuskegee, and that missions and governments should more closely coordinate their educational activities in this respect.

The second proposition to forge missionary-government collaborations through African Americans originated at a conference on “The Christian Mission in Africa” held in Belgium in 1926. The conference was convened by the International Missionary Council (IMC), the institution that aimed to coordinate worldwide missionary endeavors, to assess opportunities of cooperation among the diverse groups of people interested in the regeneration of Africa. One such group, the conference argued, was that of “American Negroes” who displayed a “zeal to render unselfish service, and aiding in a natural and important way the cause of African evangelization, education and general welfare.” By consequence, an official resolution was drafted to obligate missionary societies and colonial governments to jointly promote the involvement of the “educated Negro” in missionary efforts in Africa.

Interestingly enough, none of these initiatives resulted in enlarging the African American missionary presence in Africa. Estimates have it that their number totaled about 600 between 1820 and 1980, which is exceedingly small if compared to the about 30,000 American missionaries who worked in Africa in the same period. Among their most durable and graspable manifestations were the creation of the British Advisory Committee on Native Education in Tropical Africa to “adapt” schooling locally, and a revision of British immigration regulations to ease African American missionaries’ access to African colonial territory.

On a broader scale, the early-twentieth-century proposition to make the African American experience the starting point of thinking about philanthropy in Africa placed new themes not only on missionary and colonial agendas. Acknowledging this longstanding interest in industrial education and ideas of the “American Negro” as a missionary among American missionaries and colonial governments helps historians to challenge the often implicit presumption that the ideas and people that the Western missionary movement circulated were—or were thought of as having to be—white. That the African American origins of missionary philanthropy in Africa are largely unknown today testifies to the ongoing dominance of the prior discourse. We might thus have to explore further the racial divides that were drawn by various historical actors on behalf of a good cause that, now and then, so often has to do with the well-being of Africans.

Dr. Elisabeth Engel is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC. Her research explores interconnections between U.S. and European colonial history in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, focusing in particular on the involvement of African Americans in the Western missionary movement and processes of colonization in Africa.