Christians Who Changed Their World: James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey

Wherever the Gospel goes, schools and hospitals follow. The reason is simple: far from being an other-worldly religion, Christianity has historically valued life in this world, and Christians have cared about our minds and bodies. In particular, many of the most important leaders in education in the developing world were Christians and became involved in education because of their Christian commitments. One example is James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey.

Roots: Pagan and privileged
James Aggrey was born Anamabu, a village of the Gold Coast in modern day Ghana. His mother Abna Andu was the daughter of a traditional healer. His father, Kodwo Kwegyir, was 60 when Aggrey was born. Kodwo was a descendant of kings and a prominent elder in the royal court with a well-earned reputation as a warrior and a diplomat.

In 1883, Aggrey converted to Christianity and was baptized into the Wesleyan Church, taking the name James. He began attending the Wesleyan missionary school, where he excelled in his studies to such an extent that it soon became obvious to his mother and father that he was a born scholar. He eventually became the school’s headmaster.

In 1898, Bishop John Bryan Small from the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Barbados arrived in the Gold Coast looking for talented students to send to America for training as missionaries. Aggrey was an obvious choice, and so on July 10 of that year, he set off for the United States.

Amazing breadth of education
Aggrey arrived in Salisbury, North Carolina, where he began his studies at Livingston College. He studied a wide range of subjects and graduated in 1902. By this point, he had learned French, German, Latin, and ancient and modern Greek, along with English. The following year, he was ordained as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Salisbury.

From the beginning of his time in America, Aggrey impressed people with his command of English, particularly because of his race. One man is recorded to have remarked, “He is dark as dark, but very few in America can use English as he can.”

In 1905, Aggrey married Rose Douglas, an African-American woman from Virginia; they had four children. That same year, he also began teaching at Livingston College. He continued his studies, however, earning a doctorate of divinity degree from Hood Seminary theology in 1912 and a doctorate in osteopathy in 1914. He changed parishes, and in 1915 began additional studies at Columbia University, where he studied psychology, sociology, and Japanese.

Back to Africa
In 1920, Dr. Paul Monroe, a professor at Columbia and a member of the board of the Phelps-Stokes Fund, offered Aggrey the opportunity to join the otherwise all-white Phelps-Stokes African Education Commission to assess the educational needs in Africa. Aggrey agreed, and travelled to Africa in 1920-21. On this trip, he visited areas that are today in the countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, and South Africa.

One of Aggrey’s most famous illustrations came from one of the 120 lectures he gave in South Africa on this trip. He faced great trouble due to the racial climate in the colony, at times being prevented from entering the venue where he was to speak because of his color. Nonetheless, Aggrey took the abuse with humility and dignity and did his best to rise above it. In one of those lectures, he commented that you could play a melody of sorts with just the black keys on a piano; you could do the same with the white keys. But for full and perfect harmony, you need both. This illustration of the piano keys became an important symbol for racial reconciliation and harmony ever since.

Although Aggrey was proud of his race—he once said, “I am proud of my colour; anyone who is not proud of his colour is not fit to live”—but he steadfastly refused to view humanity in terms dictated primarily by race. True, race is a component of our identity and thus is to be valued. But our ultimate worth, according to Aggrey, is that we are made in the image of God, and thus we need to work to develop our fullest potential in honor of that greater identity.

He explained the problems in Africa with a parable:

A certain man went through a forest seeking any bird he might find. He caught a young bird, brought it home, put it among his fowls and ducks and turkeys, and gave it chicken's food to eat. Five years later, a naturalist came to visit the man, and noticed the bird. He said to the owner: “Look here, this is an eagle, not a chicken”. “Yes, you may be right,” said the man, “but I have trained it to be a chicken. It is no longer an eagle, it is a chicken, even though it is enormous.”

“No”, said the visitor, “it is still an eagle; it has the heart of an eagle, and I shall make it soar high to the heavens”. “No,” said its owner, “it is now a chicken, and it will never fly.”

They agreed to test it. The naturalist picked up the bird, held it up, and said loudly: “Eagle, thou art an eagle; thou dost belong to the sky and not down here. Stretch forth thy wings and fly”, and with that he hurled the bird up. The eagle turned this way and that, and then looking down, saw the chickens eating, and came to join them.

The owner said: “I told you it is now a chicken”. “No,” said the man, “this bird is an eagle. I shall come back to prove this to you.” The exercise was repeated three times, with the same result. The bird always came back to feed with the chickens.

The naturalist came back again, chose a hill, and held the bird aloft, pointing it to the rising sun, and shouted: “Eagle, thou art an eagle; thou dost not belong down here. Thou dost belong to the sky; stretch forth thy wings and fly.” The eagle looked round, trembled as if new life was filling it, and suddenly it stretched out its wings, and with the screech of an eagle, it mounted higher, and higher, and never returned. It was really an eagle, though it had been kept and tamed like a chicken!

My people of Africa, we were created in the image of God, but men have made us think that we are chickens, and we still think we are, but we are eagles. Stretch forth your wings and fly! Don't be content with the food of chickens.

When he returned to America, Aggrey toured the United States and Canada giving extemporaneous lectures followed by question and answer sessions. In one of these lectures in Canada, Aggrey made one of his most famous statements: “Only the best is good enough for Africa.”

In 1924, Aggrey again travelled to Africa with the Phelps-Stokes Commission, this time visiting Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Zanzibar, Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and in Ghana. A white South African commented after one of his lectures, “Damn his colour, the man is a saint!”

That same year, Aggrey was appointed the assistant Vice Principal of Achimota College in Accra, Ghana. (Apparently, the British objected to having a black appointed as the Vice Principal of a school which was originally to be named Prince of Wales College.) Aggrey designed the emblem of the school, which was built around his image of the black and white keys of a piano.

The father of African education
Aggrey became a critically important figure for African education on a tremendous number of levels, so much so that he has been called “the Father of African Education” and “the Booker T. Washington of Africa.” His educational philosophy was built around the idea that education was more than just intellectual development or learning a trade: “By education, I do not mean simply learning. I mean training in mind, in morals, and in hand that makes one socially efficient. Not simply the three R’s, but the three H’s: the head, the hand, and the heart.”

Further, he believed that women needed to be educated just as much as men. He was able to convince the colonial government to make the Achimota College co-educational, telling the governor, "The surest way to keep a people down is to educate the men and neglect the women. If you educate a man you simply educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family.”

In 1927, Aggrey returned to the United States to do a preaching and lecturing tour and to complete a book at Columbia University. Unfortunately, he contracted pneumococcal meningitis. He was admitted into the hospital, but died very quickly. He was 52 years old. In a mark of just how effective Aggrey had been at spanning the color divide in that racist era, his pall-bearers were all white citizens of Salisbury, North Carolina.

Next Steps

What’s your philosophy of education—do you believe that it’s simply  mastering knowledge, or that it’s “hand” and “heart” as well? How is your philosophy reflected in the way you teach the Bible?


Further Reading:
Do you believe that faith belongs in education? If so, see “True Knowledge Is Made Possible by True Religion” in the Colson Center Library. For more in-depth reading you can purchase Christian Education: Its History & Philosophy at the Colson Center Store.

(1 Pet. 3:15).


Republished from March 5, 2010

Next Steps

Make it your mission to re-enchant the world, at least that part of it that you occupy week-in and week-out. You may be surprised to find that your enchanted lifestyle has begun to enchant some of your disenchanted neighbors and friends.

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