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
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 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
Xuma died of cancer in 1962, just weeks before his
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).