This week I want to look at the contribution of Dr James Aggrey towards African Nationalism. Dr Aggrey was a champion of education in Africa and an exponent of inter-cultural and inter-racial unity. Aggrey was born at Anomabo in the former Gold Coast now Ghana on the 18th of October 1857. His father was a chief in Anomabo and he also worked as an agent for various merchants. In 1884 Aggrey’s family was converted to Christianity through Methodist missionaries in Ghana. Aggrey started attending the local Methodist school and for the five years that he was there, he showed an aptitude for learning. As was customary in those days for promising students, Aggrey was sent to go and live with a missionary family at the mission house in Cape Coast when he was 13 years old. After two years he left to become a teacher at Abura Dunkwa. In 1892 he returned to Cape Coast Methodist School to become an Assistant Teacher. He later passed the Teacher’s Certificate with distinction and also received the Gold Coast Legislative Council Prize for his studies. He later joined the Telegraph Corps of the British expeditionary force to Kumasi as an interpreter. He remained in this post until 1896 when he was appointed Headmaster of his old school. While Headmaster, he was also involved in the translation of the Bible into his language (Fante) as well as editor of Gold Coast Methodist Times.
In 1898 he was awarded a scholarship by the African American Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ) to study religion at the Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina in United States. This was so that he can continue effectively his missionary and educational activities in Ghana. He graduated from the College in 1902 with distinction gaining a BA degree in Religion. He did not immediately return to Ghana as he stayed working at the College, first as a registrar and later as a financial secretary and lecturer. He also continued studies at the Columbia University at Morningside Heights, New York. He later enrolled at the Hood Theological Seminary at Charlotte, North Carolina from where he graduated in 1912 with a Doctor of Divinity degree. While studying for his doctorate degree he was working part-time for AMEZ publishing house in Charlotte. In addition to working at AMEZ publishing house, he was ordained as an AMEZ minister for his devotion and calling. During the next few years he continued teaching at Livingstone College and was even considered for the position of president of the College in 1917. It was decided that he was not eligible because of his nationality.
In 1920 he became the only African member of a commission of inquiry into Education in Africa under the auspices of the Phelps-Stokes Funds. While serving on this commission he travelled to different places such as Britain, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, the Congo, Nigeria, Angola and South Africa. This gave him insight into the educational needs of Africa. He became so successful in his mission of African education that he was offered the position of Professor of Sociology at the College of Fort Hare in South Africa (this is one of the first Colleges in Africa). Aggrey turned down this position as he wanted to further his own studies and participate in the development of new educational facilities on the continent. The findings of his commission were published in 1922 and this led to the establishment of educational programmes by the British government in Africa. Mean while Aggrey returned to the States to further his education by gaining an MA degree and a Diploma in Education from Columbia University.
Another Phelps-Stokes Commission led him to investigate education in East and Southern Africa. This led him to travel to Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Northern and Southern Rhodesia, Tanganyika, Nyasaland and South Africa. This travels aided his international prestige as he became a kind of an ambassador of education in Africa.
In 1924 he travelled back to Ghana and helped establish a College of Higher Education in Accra. He became the Vice-Principal of this institution. He worked tirelessly until 1927 in helping African Nationalists in overcoming their suspicion as to the British government motives for setting up this College. He was able to articulate effectively the need for the establishment of higher education institutions for Africans in Africa. This College is the famous Achimota College which some have described as the Eaton of Africa. The emblem of the College is the symbol of Black and White of the piano keys. This was in reference to Aggrey’s comment about Black and White partnership that although the different coloured keys could played on their own, they had to play together to achieve perfect harmony. Shortly after the opening of the College, Aggrey travelled briefly to England and spoke at a conference on Africa held at High Leigh in Hertfordshire. Part of what he said was that, “No first class educated African wants to be a White man……………..Every educated Negro wants to be a first class Negro, not a third class European……….The superiority complex is doing a tremendous mischief in Africa………..When I am worried, I go on my knees and I talk to God in my own language…………” He also travelled to the States to visit his family and complete his PHD thesis titled, “British Relations with Africa” at the Columbia University. After a brief period in the States he fell ill and died on the 30th July 1927 at Harlem Hospital. Dr James Aggrey will be remembered as one of the African Nationalists who saw the role of education as very crucial to the development of the continent. This was his lifelong passion which he faithfully executed.