Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Back at the archives

Back at the archives after a layoff, I am finding some more valuable materials. I found a report from a 1922 London meeting between Protestant missionary leaders and the Belgian Governor of the Congo in which the Governor specifically insisted, among other things, that the missions work to maintain white supremacy in Congo. For example, one of the particularly vehement requests was that no “natives” be empowered to perform baptisms. Providing black people with any sort of authority would undermine Belgium’s regime. This extended to the few remaining African American missionaries. During this meeting, the governor agreed not to interfere with any serving missionaries, but told everyone present that the Belgians would not authorize any future black missionaries, a promise which they managed to keep, to the best that I can tell, until 1957. Another cache of materials from the same time frame includes references to Marcus Garvey. The Belgians were aware of Garvey and concerned that the African American missionaries were Garveyites, which was deemed a potential threat to colonial power. Regardless of how scholars today characterize Garvey and his politics, this part of the story--that Garvey was considered a threat to European colonialism in Africa--can not be ignored.

Another folder of materials discussed an earlier case from 1905 in which a white male missionary from Scotland apparently made romantic overtures (though not an actual marriage proposal) to a black female missionary from Alabama (which included sending a friendly letter to her father). This proved a scandal and the near dismissal of the man. There are letters between the missionaries in Congo, the mission board in Nashville, and others discussing how important it was to prevent this union from happening. The correspondence record is incomplete, so it is hard to get a full picture. One observation—the woman here is represented as the less culpable party. To what extent this assessment was based on racial or gender perceptions remains unclear to me.

What does all of this mean? These materials point toward the concrete connections, which so fascinate me, between the racial politics of the US and imperialism.


Two more days in the archives, then I am off to visit a friend in Mexico City.

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