A tribute: Dr. Charlotte Manye Maxeke 7 April 1874 - 16 October 1939

Dr. Charlotte Manye Maxeke was a person that I would have loved to have known. "Great" is an appellation applied to many people, none more deserving than Dr. Maxeke. She was an individual whose every action was expressive of her extraordinary intellect, diligence, determination, courage, dedication to the highest ideals and principles, and love of God. Because of gender, hers is a name sadly overlooked in the history of South Africa. This paper will try, in some small way, to remedy this oversight and to belatedly tell her inspiring story.

Dr. Charlotte Manye Maxeke

Charlotte was born on 7 April 1874 to Mr. and Mrs. S. Y. Manye, near Fort Beaufort, Cape Colony. As a young girl growing up in the Cape, Charlotte never allowed herself to become frustrated or discouraged at the real limitations imposed upon Africans in general and women specifically. Women in particular had severe traditional restrictions which imposed a limited home and village bound role upon them. Charlotte politely and with great dignity, considering her youthful status, rejected her traditional limitations. Fortunately, her enlightened parents recognized her latent talents and supported her in every possible way.

Her first hurdle was admission to formal education. At age 8, she began her primary school classes taught by the Reverend Isaiah Wanchope, a teacher at Uitenhage. Under his approving tutelage, Charlotte advanced rapidly and quickly out performed her older classmates. She was exceptionally talented in languages, mathematics and music. Her proficiency in English and Dutch was held in highest esteem by faculty and classmates alike. She spent long hours tutoring her less skilled classmates, often with great success. Reverend Wanchape credited Charlotte with much of his teaching success particularly with regard to languages.

But it was in music that Charlotte, as a young school girl, was forever remembered by those who knew her. "She had the voice of an angel in heaven" said Rev. Henry Reed Ngcayiya, a Minister of the United Church and family friend. Music would later become a most important and pivotal part of Charlotte's life.

Dr. Marshall Maxeke

From Uitenhage, Charlotte journeyed alone to Port Elizabeth to study at the Edward Memorial School under the approving guidance of Headmaster Paul Xiniwe. As usual, Charlotte excelled and completed her secondary school education in record time, achieving the highest possible grades. During this period, her family moved to Kimberley in quest of employment. It was to the great booming Kimberley township that Miss Manye returned to what could have been an intellectual dead end. But that was not in Charlotte's future. She was preordained for achievement and excellence.

Upon arrival in Kimberley, she embarked on two activities, tutoring and music. She very successfully taught fundamentals of indigenous languages to expatriate claim holders and basic English to African "boss-boys". Her true joy, however, was music. Her talent attracted the attention of Mr. K. V. Bam, a local choir master who was organizing an African choir to tour Europe. Charlotte's rousing success after her first solo performance in Kimberley Town Hall immediately resulted in her appointment to the Europe-bound choir operation of which was taken over from Mr. Bam by a European. The group left Kimberley in early 1896 and sang to numerous enthusiastic audiences in all of the major cities of Europe. Command royal performances, including one at Queen Victoria's 1897 Jubilee at London's Royal Albert Hall, added to their mounting prestige. At the conclusion of the European tour, funds were made available to tour Canada and the United States. The results were the same, packed concert halls and delighted audiences, hearing the unique harmony of an African choir and Charlotte's unforgetable solos, for the first time.

At the completion of the tour of the United States, the European organizer, without paying a single member of the choir, deserted it with all the funds and travel tickets, and could not be found. Charlotte Manye and the other choir members were left stranded penniless on the streets of New York City.

The story of the stranded African singers quickly appeared in United States newspapers from coast to coast. As usual, Americans from many walks of life came to the choir's financial rescue. One of them, Bishop Daniel A. Payne, of the African Methodist Church (AME) in Ohio, a former missionary in the Cape, recognized Charlotte Manye's name in the newspaper. He contacted her and offered her a church scholarship to Wilberforce University, the AME Church University in Xenia, Ohio. Charlotte gladly and wisely accepted the offer.

As usual, she excelled in all fields of academia and in the late spring of 1903, Charlotte Manye achieved two very memorable things. She became the first South African woman to earn a Doctorate in Arts and Humanities and she was betrothed to a fellow graduate, Dr. Marshall Maxeke, a Xhosa born on 1 November, 1874 at Middledrift, Cape Colony.

Upon her return to South Africa, Dr. Manye took up the post as the first African teacher at Pietersburg in the Transvaal, while opening the local missionary field for the AME church. Shortly thereafter, she and Dr. Maxeke were joined in marriage. Their's was a union based not only upon love, but also upon mutual intellectual and professional respect. They supported each other in all of their activities. When a son was born to them, both assumed a joint caring responsibility, unusual for an African man of that period.

Both partners labored together as dedicated missionaries, not only preaching and teaching the Gospel, but also advocating education as the only route to a prosperous and fulfilled life for the Africans of South Africa. Together, the Maxeke's founded the Wilberforce Institute in Evaton which prospered as a primary and secondary school. During that period, they collaborated on the compilation and publication of the first AME Church Hymn Book in Xhosa.

In 1926, the church called them to Idutywa where Marshall was appointed pastor and principal of Lota High School. Charlotte was appointed Head Teacher and there they both continued their outstanding work on behalf of their students until tragedy struck in 1928. Sadly, this exciting and fruitful partnership ended with the untimely passing of the Reverend Dr. Marshall Maxeke at the age of 53.

After a period of mourning, Charlotte responded to a call by the South African Ministry of Education to testify before several government commissions in Johannesburg on matters concerning African education, another "first" for an African of any gender. Her brilliant and creative responses to the questions put to her resulted in a number of racial boundary crossing job offers, the first of their kind ever made by the white government to an African. Dr. Maxeke deliberated and prayed long and hard before accepting a post that she felt would have the greatest impact on young Africans, particularly those in trouble. Charlotte Maxeke was employed in the dual role as a Probation Officer and Court Welfare Officer to Johannesburg's Juvenile Magistrate.

It was in the latter role that her path was to cross in a most extraordinary and fortuitous way with a very young man by the name of Hastings Walter Kamuzu Banda. Young Kamuzu was attempting to secure a passport to enable him to journey to the United States to take up his AME church scholarship to Wilberforce Academy. He presented himself before the Magistrate in Johannesburg on 12 February, 1925.

Here following, is the verbatim text from Dr. Banda's Gwelo Journals, in which he describes the incident, its results and his feelings about Dr. Maxeke.

"At the Magistrate's office, things were made easier for me by the presence of Dr. Charlotte Maxeke, the first African woman in South Africa to hold the degree of Doctor of Arts and Humanities. She was a Probation Officer and Court Welfare Officer for Africans, working with the Magistrate.

Hastings Walter Kamuzu Banda

I am not certain the Magistrate would have recommended me for a passport, had Dr. Maxeke not been working with him and had she not, herself, been interested in me and in my plans or desire to go to America. I was young and, most likely, looked younger than I was. Naturally, the Magistrate wanted to know many things.

Mrs. Maxeke made things extremely easy for me. She was a prominent member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and she was, personally, interested in my going to America. It was to her old University, Wilberforce University, to which I was going. It was to the Academy or Secondary School section of the University, I was planning to go, it was true. But it was to her old University just the same. It was to the place and campus of her girlhood, a place where she met and was engaged to the man she married, a place of all the sweet memories of youth on which most of us live when youth deserts us and middle age or old age descends on us with slow and inexorable vengeance. And there were messages, personal messages, she wanted me to carry to her old school-mates and friends in the states.

With the self assurance and authority that comes from solid personal experience, Mrs. Maxeke asked the Magistrate to approve and sign my application for the passport.

In those days, Charlotte Manye Maxeke was the only educated African woman in South Africa. Her name was widely known and highly respected, both by Africans and Europeans alike. Her word counted even to Europeans and to the Magistrate that day, it counted very much in my favour. My application was approved.

The story of Dr. Charlotte Manye Maxeke has always fascinated me. It has had an influence on my life in no way smaller than the story of Booker T. Washington or of Dr. Aggrey himself."

Dr. Charlotte Manye Maxeke's achievements, while of legendary proportion, have very sadly received little or no historical acclaim. During her years in Johannesburg, she was the co-founder of the Widow's Home and Foreign Missionary Society with the Rev. Mangena Mokone. She was the Founder of the AME Church's Widow's Mite Society. These two groups were responsible for funding and educating literally thousands of young Africans, many in the United States and Britain, and also for caring for the sick and indigent Africans at home.

Dr. Maxeke was an early and very active member of the African National Congress and one of the first female members. She authored most of its earliest literature and was an outspoken supporter of human rights and dignity. Her uplifting speeches on behalf of African liberty were described as "electrifying, passionate and fiery, yet not inflammatory. Charlotte spoke from her soul with great feeling for all, and everyone listened. It can be said of her, that she cared deeply for all mankind."

Dr. Charlotte Manye Maxeke passed away, joining her husband and her God, on 16 October 1939 at the age of 65. At her funeral at Klipstown, her eulogy ended with the words "She was everyone's friend and no one's enemy".

Great Epic Books is honored to bring great people like Dr. Charlotte Manye Maxeke to the attention of our many friends around the world. It is our intention to share our research into their extraordinary and unique lives regularly through our Great Epics Newsletter.

• Â© Great Epic Books? - Volume 2 March 1998 Number 3

Last updated : 27-Sep-2011

This article was produced by South African History Online on 04-Apr-2011