The Business of Black Internationalism: Opportunities Industrialization Centers International (OICI) and American Capitalism in Africa, 1969–80

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:40 AM
Virginia Suite C (Marriott Wardman Park)
Jessica Ann Levy, Johns Hopkins University
In January 1966, Rev. Leon Sullivan received a letter from Dr. Folorunsho Salawu, a Nigerian physician, inquiring about the possibility of opening an Opportunities Industrialization Center in his home country. Founded in 1964, Opportunities Industrialization Centers (OIC) offered vocational and entrepreneurial training to black and brown people for a new economy—an updated version of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. By the time Salawu wrote Sullivan, OIC was well on its way to becoming one of the largest black “self-help” programs in the United States having established chapters in several dozen cities across the country. The shift to Africa, however, created a number of challenges for Sullivan’s fledgling black empowerment program, not least of which was adapting the program’s model to the economic and social realities of newly independent African countries. Despite various rhetorical appeals to racial solidarity uniting African American and their African brothers and sisters in a joint project to develop a trans-Atlantic black economy to compete with the growing international reach of white-owned American companies, OIC quickly found itself in conflict with locals on a number of fronts. Many African governments proved unable and/or unwilling to financially support OIC, preferring to develop their own national programs. As a result, OIC increasingly relied on assistance from the United States government, including USAID and American corporations operating in Africa, to support its job-training and economic development programs. This paper examines the rise black empowerment organizations like OIC in Africa during the 1970s and 1980s. Building on work by scholars like Brenna Greer and Juliet E.K. Walker, it further addresses the changing nature of black internationalism during the late twentieth-century by revealing the crucial work performed by black American entrepreneurs in promoting free-enterprise in pursuit of black economic power.
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