Exporting the American Dilemma: Black American Technicians and Washington’s Aid to Africa

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 9:40 AM
Room 313/314 (Hilton Atlanta)
Hannah Higgin, University of Cambridge
At the behest of historically black college and university (HBCU) leaders, HBCU personnel peopled Washington’s systematic aid efforts in Africa from the inception of such programs in the mid-twentieth century. The lone black member of the Technical Cooperation Administration’s first advisory board— himself the head of an HBCU— suggested drawing technicians from Negro land-grant colleges. Those institutions housed a wealth of qualified and willing technicians, he argued. Moreover, placing blacks in instructional positions could assuage potential recipient nations’ doubts regarding Washington’s commitment to racial equality, particularly critical in fostering relations with developing nations. Combined with the fact that posts in developing countries were unpopular among white careerists because they were dangerous and considered low-prestige, such posts, especially in Africa, presented black Americans a unique opportunity for high-level federal employment.

Many HBCU-trained technicians who became aid careerists cut their teeth working for the Agricultural Extension Service, referred to in a 1958 Tuskegee report as “the most rigidly segregated agency identified with the federal government.” Already used to working in “underdeveloped” areas in United States, federal employment opportunities in Africa offered black technicians unusual career mobility. Segregation, however, remained through the 1960s, though in permutated form: with black Americans ranking among top in-country aid personnel in Africa from the 1940s, African aid enclaves were largely ghettoized, and those in top ranks in Washington were white. Though Washington’s aid agency— called the Agency for International Development (AID) from 1961— took a more rigorous approach than its predecessor agencies in providing opportunities for black Americans to rise in the ranks of government employ, AID initiatives were decidedly less engaged with and successful in furthering integration.