In the History of African Studies class I taught, I pointed out that the vast majority of Africans who resisted European colonialism with force, as well as those who became leaders after most nations achieved independence peacefully in the 1960s – they had graduated from schools founded by missionaries. Most of the missionaries were Roman Catholics or Protestants from Europe and the United States – many from the same nation that colonized the region of Africa where they had missions.
In the country of my research, Gabon, the French built their fort in 1849* at about the same time as the arrival of French Catholic missionaries. When indigenous groups began to resist peacefully, the French blamed missionaries, who came from the United States in 1842, suggesting that these Protestants were spreading “the spirit of 1776″ in this western equatorial area of what came to be called the ” French Congo”. The American missionaries who had opened a school in 1842 noted that the resistance came mainly from their students whose skills enabled them to read about the world in which they lived and to share their ideas with their parents. Some of their instructors were Liberians who shared stories about their country’s history.
What surprised the class the most was my trip to the United States to observe the role played by our early universities. Most were founded by Christians who had fled persecution in Europe. The oldest was Harvard, founded in 1636 by Unitarians. The next was Yale in 1701, by the Congregationalists; then Princeton by the Presbyterians in 1746, and Brown by the Baptists in 1764. The list goes on, but what I mean is that the graduates of these early universities initiated and reinforced “the spirit of 1776.” King George III is credited with calling the uprising in their colonies a “Presbyterian revolt”! The Battle of Princeton took place in 1777.
Then I continued in my class with another part of US history that began about 150 years before 1776 – the brutal Atlantic slave trade and how it affected the United States. The education of African slaves in the United States was illegal, even for some free blacks. For slave owners, the education of slaves was a serious threat. Ironically, some exceptions were made for religious institutions such as Sunday school in the hope that religion would make slaves more submissive. The opposite was often the case since the Hebrew and Christian scriptures** can be interpreted as supporting liberation from tyranny at a time when Greek and Roman colonialism/imperialism prevailed in what we now call the Middle East.
Shortly after the Civil War in the United States, dozens of black colleges and universities were founded, called “Historically Black Colleges and Universities” (HBCUs). Some were public and others founded by churches. This editorial started in Africa and now we end in Africa by pointing out that the first Prime Minister and later President of Ghana*** was Dr Kwame Nkrumah. He attended a Roman Catholic primary school in the Gold Coast and at one point considered becoming a Jesuit. He came to the United States in the 1930s to study at an HBCU which was founded before the Civil War, in 1854 –Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Segregation did not end until the 1960s, it had to attend an HBCU. He earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology and then a degree in theology from Lincoln Seminary. On weekends, he often visited black churches in Philadelphia and New York.
From Africa in the mid-1800s to the United States in the early 1600s, and back to Africa in the mid-1900s, education played a key role in freedom, independence and the pursuit of happiness !
*Many West African and European traders were already established in the Gabon estuary.
**Often referred to as the Old Testament and the New Testament.
***The British colony of Gold Coast was among the first to become independent (in 1957) and was called Ghana. Most of the colonies of England and France were granted freedom in the early 1960s. President Nkrumah addressed the University College of Legon (now a northern suburb of the capital, Accra) during the academic year 1960/1961. His presence at the university and his presentation highlighted the importance of education at a time when other colonies were on the verge of being free.