On 7 April 1874, Charlotte Maxeke was born. Activist. First Black South African woman to earn a degree. Leader of Bantu Women’s League which became the ANC Women’s League.
Her birthplace remains a bone of contention but Charlotte Maxeke’s legacy as a woman visionary is cemented in the annals of South African history. She was born Charlotte Mmakgomo Manye on 7 April 1874 in either Fort Beaufort in the Eastern Cape, or at Botlokwa Ga-Ramokgopa, in Polokwane District, in the Limpopo Province, South Africa.
She received a missionary education at Edwards Memorial School in the Eastern Cape in the early 1880s. After the discovery of diamonds, Maxeke moved to Kimberley with her family in 1885. While in Kimberley, she became a teacher.
As a dedicated churchgoer, Maxeke and her sister, Katie joined the African Jubilee Choir in 1891. Her singing talent attracted the attention of a Mr. K. V. Bam, a local choirmaster who was organizing an African choir to tour Europe. Charlotte’s rousing success after her first solo performance in the 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 unforgettable solos, for the first time. During this time Maxeke is said to have attended suffragette speeches by women such as Emmeline Pankhurst.
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 and penniless on the streets of New York City.
The story of the stranded African singers quickly appeared in United States newspapers. 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 Province of South Africa, 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.
She excelled in all fields of academia. She was taught under the tutelage of Pan-Africanist scholar and proponent Dr. W.E.B Du Bois, and received an education that was focused on developing her as a future missionary in Africa.
In the late spring of 1903, Charlotte Manye achieved two very memorable things. She became the first black South African woman to earn a university degree, and she was betrothed to a fellow countryman and graduate, Dr. Marshall Maxeke, a Xhosa born on 1 November, 1874 at Middledrift, Cape Colony.
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