University of Minnesota Alumni Association


The Man Before Mandela

U of M alumni have created change in the world since the University was founded. Alfred B. Xuma, class of 1920, helped forge history in South Africa.

Few alumni know this, but one of South Africa’s most important civil rights leaders is part of the University of Minnesota family. One hundred years ago, Alfred B. Xuma (B.S. 1920) graduated from the U of M.

The first western-trained Black physician to practice medicine in Johannesburg, Xuma (1893-1962) also became one of the most prominent Black political leaders in South Africa in the 1940s. He called for racial equality at a time when South Africa’s white minority ruled the country with an iron grip. As president of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1940 to 1949, Xuma recruited a new generation of Black South Africans into the struggle for racial equality, including Nelson Mandela.

Born in 1893 to a Xhosa-speaking family in South Africa’s Transkei region, Xuma attended Christian missionary schools as a boy. He wanted to continue his education overseas in an era when higher education was closed to Black South Africans. In 1913, Xuma enrolled at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which was led by Booker T. Washington. He would graduate third in his class at Tuskegee and earned his high school diploma in 1916.

Nelson Ricks, an instructor at Tuskegee, encouraged Xuma to continue his studies at the U of M, where Ricks himself had graduated.

Xuma arrived in St. Paul in late 1916 and was admitted to the College of Agriculture in early 1917. He found himself in a predominantly white environment for the first time in his life. In this era, Black people numbered less than half a percent of Minnesota’s total population, and very few Black students attended the University. In 1917-18, the University had only two students from Africa.

Xuma could barely afford tuition after he decided to major in animal husbandry. He worked as a part-time custodian in exchange for accommodation in an attic room and washed dishes in a campus cafeteria in exchange for meals. In fact, the then-dean of the College of Agriculture gave Xuma extra clothing when he needed it.

Xuma’s closest mentor at the University was a man named William Riley, the head of the Department of Entomology and Economic Zoology in the College of Agriculture. He hired Xuma to be his lab assistant and also helped him find additional financial support. Xuma’s heavy workload took time away from his studies, but thanks to a combination of determination, hard work, and intellect, he progressed steadily through his coursework.

Xuma’s time at the University was not all work. He participated in Christian-affiliated events on and off campus and joined the College of Agriculture’s debating society. He also joined Alpha Phi Alpha in 1919, a nationwide Black fraternity. The fraternity had just been established at the University and Xuma thus became a charter member.

While a student, he lived in St. Paul’s Rondo district, the city’s predominantly Black neighborhood. He befriended Roy Wilkins at St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Paul. Wilkins, who died in 1981, was destined to become an important Civil Rights leader in the United States and would serve as the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1955 to 1977. He and Xuma would maintain their friendship through correspondence and personal contact long after Xuma returned to South Africa.

Xuma graduated from the University in June 1920, earning a bachelor of science degree from what was then the College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Home Economics. He was one of only two Black students in his class, and joined an elite group of Africans by earning a university degree from the United States; it was particularly unusual that he did so at a predominantly white institution.

Xuma went on to earn his M.D. in 1926 from Northwestern’s medical school. He returned to South Africa in late 1927 and settled in Sophiatown, one of the few neighborhoods in Johannesburg where Black people could own property. South Africa’s system of white minority rule severely restricted the rights of the country’s Black residents. They faced segregation and discrimination in education, job opportunities, land ownership, and housing and had virtually no political rights. And because of the “pass” laws which restricted movement, they could not travel about freely in their own country.

Xuma initially focused on building his medical practice and limited his political involvement. Although he was a member of a small educated African elite, he identified with his fellow Black citizens because of their shared experience of pass laws, discrimination, voter suppression, and police harassment.

In 1932, Xuma contacted a group at the U of M called the International Relations project, and appealed for alumni to donate books for a library he proposed to establish for Black South Africans who were barred from using the Johannesburg Public Library. He wrote the note below in Minnesota Alumni Weekly in February 1932:

“On looking back upon my student days, I have but sweet memories of Minnesota University [sic], and its people. ... I am now here in South Africa, a land of acutest color discrimination. ... I thank God for America and its people who opened the doors of education to me who had been denied such opportunities in my own homeland on account of color ... I hope to turn my difficulties and restrictions here into opportunities because there is service to render and a man’s job to do."

Xuma, circled at upper right, as part of a U of M debating society.

Xuma was elected president of the African National Congress in 1940. Small, weak, and virtually bankrupt when Xuma took over, the organization blossomed over the next few years. Xuma opened a national headquarters, hired organizers, raised funds, and recruited women into the movement. He also spoke out more forcefully for racial equality than had most of his predecessors.

In 1946, he traveled to the United Nations to speak out against South Africa’s attempt to annex neighboring South-West Africa (Namibia). In so doing, Xuma received support from prominent African American leaders such as historian and writer W.E.B. Du Bois and singer-actor Paul Robeson. The UN ultimately rejected South Africa’s annexation proposal, thanks largely to Xuma and his colleagues.

In 1948, a new white minority government took power in South Africa, promising to intensify white supremacy with the policy of apartheid (“apartness”). The new ANC Youth League urged Xuma to launch more militant forms of protest, such as strikes, boycotts, and civil disobedience. When Xuma deemed the plan too hasty and refused to endorse it, he was replaced as ANC president a year later.

In the 1950s, the apartheid government ordered Xuma and his wife to vacate their spacious home in Sophiatown, which had just been rezoned for whites only. The U of M’s then-alumni magazine reported on the Xumas’ plight in 1955: “As far as is known, Dr. Xuma is the only Minnesota graduate ever to have been evicted from his home in a non-Communist country.

Xuma died of cancer in 1962, just weeks before his 69th birthday.

During his public life, Xuma was a role model. He energized African protest politics at a pivotal moment in South Africa’s history. He consistently called for a democratic South Africa in which all citizens would enjoy equal rights and opportunities, regardless of race. Thirty-two years after Xuma’s death, Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president and formed an ANC majority government. He knew that without earlier leaders such as Xuma, ending apartheid would not have been possible.

As Mandela said in a 1991 interview, “[Dr. Xuma] was highly respected by intellectuals, educationists, traditional leaders, and workers.” Thanks to Xuma, the ANC “became a powerful organization with a tremendous impact.” Xuma didn’t live to see it, but his dream of a democratic South Africa finally came true.

Steven Gish is a professor of history at Auburn University at Montgomery, Alabama. He is the author of Alfred B. Xuma: African, American, South African (New York University Press, 2000).

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