African Americans in South African-American Diplomacy: A Case Study in Race and Citizenship Debates, 1895-1925

By Vinson, Robert Trent | Negro History Bulletin, January-March 1998 | Go to article overview

African Americans in South African-American Diplomacy: A Case Study in Race and Citizenship Debates, 1895-1925


Vinson, Robert Trent, Negro History Bulletin


Present in southern Africa since at least the 1780s, African Americans became increasingly influential in the 1890s. In addition to Orpheus McAdoo's Virginia Jubilee Singers, black Christian missionaries associated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and the National Baptist Convention (NBC) also had noticeable impact in the region. Some African Americans in South Africa participated in the burgeoning gold and diamond mining in which American technology and expertise was so crucial. Others were independent traders, adventurers and sailors.(1)

The black American presence in the region sparked an ongoing American-South African diplomatic dialogue that sought to determine if South Africa discriminatory racial laws extended beyond Africans to include Americans of color. This essay examines this American-South African diplomacy primarily through the case study of African American missionaries, Herbert and Bessie Mae Payne and James and Lucinda East, who sought to proselytize in South Africa between 1910 and 1923.

By the time the Paynes arrived in South Africa in 1917 to replace the Easts who had been there since 1910, American and South African diplomats had been wrestling with the question of whether South Africa racial laws should extend to American blacks for almost twenty-five years. Before 1902, American consulates repeatedly sought to protect the citizenship rights of black Americans. For instance, in 1893, a white policeman in the Transvaal publicly whipped John Ross, a black American, for supposed "impudence." The United States State Department supported Ross in a claim against the Transvaal government for damages totaling $10,000. William Van Ness, the American consul at Johannesburg, demanded that the Transvaal government give the matter their "immediate attention," stating unequivocally that "the laws of the United States make no distinction in citizenship between white and colored (italics mine)."(2)

To prevent further outrages, the American government required all African Americans to register at the Johannesburg consulate, where they were issued American passports if they did not already have one. The passports gave black Americans "honorary white" status and exempted them from the Transvaal's racially exclusive laws that had a negative impact on Africans. Although some African Americans continued to complain, during an 1898 visit to South Africa, AME bishop Henry McNeal Turner asserted that there had been little trouble from the Transvaal government since "President Cleveland forced the Boers to pay $25,000 because they beat some black American," presumably Ross. Turner's "honorary white" status undoubtedly helped him to earn a meeting with Paul Kruger, the Transvaal president, who told the ebullient bishop that he had never shaken the hand of a "colored person" before. Turner maintained that black Americans had unrestricted use of railroads and hotels in South Africa and declaring that "prejudice does exist but it is not of the kind found in America. It is not race prejudice at all but prejudice of condition." American diplomats actively protected this "honorary white" status. For example, the American Consulate in Johannesburg protested several discriminatory incidents against African Americans whom white South Africans mistook for "natives."(3)

American diplomatic intervention extended beyond the Boer republics to the British colonies of Natal and Cape Colony. In Durban, the American consul intervened and had the British suspend prosecution proceedings against Richard Collins, a member of the McAdoo troupe whom police mistakenly thought was an African violating Natal's liquor laws. In the Cape Colony, African American sailor Harry Dean noted that "the American government, while not thoroughly honorable in all respects, will seldom endure . . . insults to its citizens" Given the available evidence, American diplomats clearly emphasized the American citizenship of American blacks, which effectively overrode South Africa's racially exclusive laws.

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