By Molly Fosco
As she toured the UK and the US, Charlotte Maxeke (pictured) sang African jubilee music to packed theaters, her beautiful voice ringing out onstage. When Maxeke sang, people listened. When Maxeke talked, people listened too — though it was her fellow Black South Africans whose ears perked up, not the white Brits and Americans at her concerts, as she spoke of change, equality and human rights.
Once described as “the mother of African freedom” by former South Africa President Jacob Zuma, Charlotte Maxeke was part of an early generation of female intellectuals in 1920s and ’30s South Africa. She was an activist, a social worker and a choir singer who traveled the world at a time when most women, as well as most people of color, were prohibited from doing so. Maxeke’s legacy was defined in many ways by an apartheid government that took power shortly after she died, but her contributions live on. She was among the first to parlay the rights of isolated Black women into a national conversation.
Charlotte Manye Maxeke was born in 1874 near Beaufort West, South Africa, according to the African Yearly Register of 1931. Little is known about her upbringing, but she learned strong Christian values at mission schools in Uitenhage and Port Elizabeth, and she carried them throughout her life, writes author Cherryl Walker in the book Women and Resistance in South Africa. Later, Maxeke and her family moved north to Kimberley, where Maxeke was invited to tour England as part of the Jubilee African Choir, and, later, the U.S. and Canada as well. This amount of traveling was a rare opportunity for a Black woman in the 1890s. In the U.S., she received a scholarship to attend the segregated Wilberforce University in Ohio — the first college to be owned by African-Americans.
Her political and cultural ideologies began to take shape in America. Maxeke was influenced by the ideas of civil rights leaders Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois, who had opposing thoughts on how to advance the cause of Black equality … but both believed it was possible. Maxeke agreed. At the same time, she joined the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, founded in the U.S., where the belief that Black people deserved equality was accepted and perpetuated. Armed with an education and an agenda, Charlotte returned to South Africa, married Rev. M.M. Maxeke, an AME minister, and went to work disseminating the word of the AME church. In 1928, she returned to the U.S. to represent the AME church at a general conference and continued to speak at Christian gatherings and events throughout South Africa.
In 1931, Maxeke established and became the first president of the Bantu Women’s League, the women’s arm of the ANC. A top priority of the league was to relax the Free State pass law, an internal passport system that served to further segregate the country of South Africa. Although she was certainly politically active, Maxeke’s motives were primarily social. Later, in Johannesburg, she became president of a missionary association and focused primarily on social and church work. Many of Maxeke’s contemporaries considered her quite brave, says Jill Kelly, associate professor of history at Southern Methodist University. “She talked directly to South Africans and highlighted their inequality,” Kelly says, something that not many people, let alone women, were doing at the time.
After 1931, the trail of Maxeke goes somewhat cold. She died in 1939 at age 61, though it’s unclear how. While she never enjoyed the same rights as men or White people, Maxeke did lead a remarkably different life than most Black women of the early 20th century. “She was one of the first African women that defined what it means to be a politically active Black woman,” says Holly McGee, assistant professor of history at the University of Cincinnati.
Maxeke did not reject the idea that the primary role of women was domestic, Walker writes in her book, but she urgently put forth the notion that women and Black people should be treated with dignity and respect. Little did she know that an apartheid South Africa would soon defy these ideals and tear the country apart for decades. “She was at the forefront of resistance when Black South Africans weren’t aware that apartheid was coming,” says Kelly.
While Maxeke did not directly impact legislation in the country, she is celebrated in a post-apartheid South Africa today. The hospital formerly known as Johannesburg General Hospital is now the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, and the South African Navy submarine is named SAS Charlotte Maxeke.
Still, many argue that she is not sufficiently recognized. “I’ve been a bit disappointed at how her legacy has played out,” says McGee. “Sure, she has a few things named after her, but that doesn’t really pass along her teaching.”
But as South Africa struggles to overcome the lingering effects of apartheid, small changes are taking place. At the University of Johannesburg, philosophy students are beginning to insist that African philosophers become a primary focus of the curriculum, rather than their White, male counterparts alone. With movements like this beginning to take shape, Charlotte Maxeke’s story might be given the recognition so many South Africans believe it deserves. – ZY