The vanguard of Black American transnationalism in Zimbabwe

Tommie Sankange was the first black American public figure permanently residing in Zimbabwe who was not a missionary. Why don’t we know more about her?

A police officer talks with a motorist at a checkpoint. Bulawayo, April 2020. Image credit KB Mpofu for the ILO via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Occupying less than half a page of historian Terence Ranger’s Are We Not Also Men?—a history of three male members of one of colonial Zimbabwe’s elite families—is a passing mention of Dr Tommie Marie (Anderson) Samkange. Samkange’s cameo features courtesy of her status as the American wife of the best known of the three, the late Stanlake, who is widely regarded as one of Zimbabwe’s leading intellectuals.  However, Tommie made significant contributions to Zimbabwe in her own right.

Described by Ranger as a member of the “Afro-American educated ‘aristocracy,’” Tommie Samkange was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1932.  She met Stanlake when she was a PhD candidate in Psychology at Indiana University in the US midwest, where he was a Master’s student.  Following their marriage, she moved to what was then Southern Rhodesia in 1958. Stanlake died in 1988. Sadly, the passing of Samkange in January 2021 failed to garner much public attention.  I only learned of her death two years after the fact.

Black America’s transnational connections to decolonizing Africa have received a surge of interest in recent years. This attention has largely centered around coastal West and East African nations, as well as South Africa. However, before Southern Rhodesia’s white settlers illegally issued their Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, the colony’s capital, Salisbury (present-day Harare), served as something of a modest hub for two-way traffic between blacks in the US and the future Zimbabwe.

Adelaide Cromwell, co-founder of Boston University’s African Studies Center, created a stir in Salisbury in 1961 when she compared white Rhodesia to Apartheid South Africa. During this time, black Zimbabweans visited the US in modest numbers. Herbert Chitepo, the first black Rhodesian lawyer, met Thurgood Marshall, subsequently America’s first black Supreme Court justice, in the US.  Herbert Munangatire, a Zimbabwean journalist, encountered the American black radical, Malcolm X, while on a US State Department visitor program.

However, Samkange was undoubtedly the focal point of these emerging connections.  When I spoke with her, she noted that she considered herself the first black American permanently residing in Zimbabwe who was not a missionary. She and her husband co-founded Nyatsime College, a vocational school roughly inspired by Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee (it was opened by the Tuskegee President, Luther Foster in 1962). In November 1960, Louis Armstrong visited Rhodesia and Samkange helped organize his participation in fundraisers for the college.

As a white American and budding historian half a century her junior, my two meetings with Samkange, both lasting for hours at her “Castle” residence in Harare’s Hatfield suburb, were priceless. On the second visit, I was privileged to share a steak dinner in this impressive edifice the day before her 86th birthday.

Most of our conversations centered around the period from 1958–1964, the emphasis of my then ongoing PhD research and when Samkange first lived in Zimbabwe. I found in her a charming personality with an aptitude for recalling enlivening anecdotes that painted a picture of Rhodesian society written sources failed to capture.

Samkange told me that there was a moment following her arrival when she took stock of the lower levels of development around her and thought to herself “what have you done?”  However, she had limited time for self-reflection. Samkange’s arrival in Salisbury was front-page news in the colony’s black press. Throughout the colony, Zimbabweans anxiously awaited the opportunity to meet her. An array of social functions in her honor required her to crisscross the colony for almost a year.

Most wearisome however was the colony’s strict racial segregation. She told me that having grown up in Mississippi, “segregation was not a new thing for me [but] I was a bit taken back that this was happening in Africa too.”

In an anecdote illuminating America’s ignorance of Africa, she told me that she generated controversy, mostly with her black peers in the US, when in an interview with a US reporter around 1959, she was asked which country had better living conditions. She answered the US, if only because American laws were generally better on paper. This resulted in a stream “of [angry] letters from America because they couldn’t understand why a black person would prefer America to Africa at that time.”

Life in Rhodesia for Samkange was one of comparative privilege, but replete with injustice and discrimination. Her husband negotiated her access to one of the otherwise whites-only supermarkets downtown, but she often found that the attendants were either not aware of the arrangement, or purposefully attended white customers before her. She experienced similar problems at the posh Barbour’s department store, where she could shop, but was not allowed to use the dressing room.

Her husband wanted the family to attend the predominantly white Trinity Methodist Church.  She nixed the idea when on one of their first visits, other white congregants refused to sit beside them. An anticipated job at the newly established University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland failed to materialize.

Aside from this repressive racial atmosphere, she encountered more general problems of acculturation. On an overland trip to Malawi (via Mozambique) with her husband, she was shocked at the conditions she found, with chickens scurrying around the border post. She asked her husband if this was “darkest Africa” to which he deadpanned, “we’re getting into it.”

In 1964, as white Rhodesian reactionary tendencies flared and factional infighting in the nationalist movement escalated, the Samkange’s returned to the US.  Tommie Samkange lectured at Tufts and Harvard, among other American universities. They returned to Africa in 1978, shortly before Zimbabwe attained independence. She subsequently took a job as a psychologist with the Ministry of Education.

We first met weeks after the coup that removed Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe from office after 37 years in power. Unprompted, she critiqued both the deposed leader as well as Ranger’s book about the family she married into. I originally thought that she found the environment around Mugabe’s ouster emboldening. This was true for others I met at the time. Upon further reflection however, I realized that it should have been immediately evident from her remarkable life that she needed no external prodding to display valor.

Her passing marks the end of an era.

Further Reading

Red and Black

Yunxiang Gao’s new book takes a fresh look at connected lives of African American and Chinese leftist activists, artists and intellectuals after World War II.

A Black woman in Bali

During the COVID-19 pandemic many people who work online were able to set up shop in lands far away from their pre-pandemic homes. But, for whom is the digital nomad lifestyle?