«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Weiss: Peter was one of the organizers of, and eventually president of, the American Committee on Africa [ACOA]. And then the first year or two— Q: Which had been founded in support of the liberation movements in Africa, especially the antiapartheid, am I correct?
Weiss: Apartheid came later.
Q: Apartheid came— Weiss: It was in support of the anti-colonial movements.
Weiss: The liberation struggles. So it's Algeria, Ghana, Gold Coast, Mozambique, Kenya, Tanganyika, now Tanzania. So, I was a volunteer at ACOA. It was a wonderful group. The
become a big, important organization. So, we were always a small, struggling organization, which probably was better. There was no corruption. We depended on volunteers. So, I was a volunteer. I did a lot of things that were interesting.
Q: Like what?
Weiss: Well, we had Africa Freedom Day every April 15th at Town Hall, Carnegie Hall. We would bring African leaders, liberation struggle leaders, to speak. I helped to organize those. One day, we invited a man named Tom Mboya, M-B-O-Y-A, who was both a liberation leader and an economist. I mean, he was brilliant. He was a labor leader.
Q: Connected to unions. Yes. Yes.
Weiss: I would say, yes. He was a labor leader.
Weiss: So, he was a labor leader and a liberation leader. He came to New York because the Brits were going to leave. Arrangements for independence were on the table. They would be free, an independent country, in 1963. The Brits were going to take everything. The expression was that when the French left the French colonies, they took the light bulbs.
Weiss: The Brits took all of the civil servants so that there would be nobody to run the Customs, the docks, and everything that's run by a civil servant class, the entire administration of a country. There were no schools of higher learning. Makerere College was the technical school in those days. There was no other university. So, either you were rich and you could get out, or you were picked and you could go to London.
Weiss: Or, you were picked up by the Russians to help build their interests, and they would give scholarships for students to go to Moscow. I don't know if anybody went to China yet, to Beijing. I think it was mostly Moscow and London. That didn't satisfy Tom, who had already gone to Ruskin, in England. He came to America to speak at one of our events, and he said, "This is where our students should come and get an education and come back and become the civil servants, and the nation builders." So, we put him on a speaking tour of colleges.
Q: He had come under the auspices of— Weiss: Of the ACOA. Instead of picking up money as a speaking fee, he asked for scholarships.
He must have gotten scholarships from 150 colleges in this country. He went home, and he said, “Let's start an airlift, because the kid who could get into the college has no way of getting there.” He came back a second time and we sat around the table, and he went, bing bing bing, you be the
job. I was the executive director, unpaid, and a member of the board of directors, an officer of the African American Students, plural, Foundation, which ran the airlift, Africa airlift.
Q: Now, this is a foundation that was actually incorporated, or just— Weiss: Incorporated.
Q: Oh, really?
Weiss: We had a wonderful lawyer, who died just a few years ago, [Arthur] Borden, B-O-R-D-E-N. We were incorporated, we were legal, and we had no money. So, we had to raise money. The first thing that happened was that the man who owned Lassie, the dog, the famous Hollywood dog, he owned the name. There were many dogs all called Lassie, and the more the Lassie dogs, the greater his income. His name was Milton Gordon. He had an office in one of the first glass skyscrapers in New York, which was Seagram House on Park Avenue. He generously gave us a room. So we took the room, high up. We couldn’t wear skirts, but we had no alternative. So we couldn't walk up to the window because it was glass ceiling to floor, and the guys below used to love looking up!
Q: Right. [laughs] Weiss: I had a Japanese woman assistant, Mary Hamanaka, who was raised in the internment
camps. They had an enormous empathy for the students coming from Africa under colonialism.
They could relate to them. Then I worked with another gentleman who also lived in Riverdale, and we were all Riverdalians around this. Ted [Theodore W.] Kheel was on the board. He lived in Riverdale. He was the labor lawyer for New York, or for the trade unions.
Weiss: And Frank Montero. So, Frank and I used to drive in every day to the Seagram Building.
Q: He was a lawyer?
Weiss: No, he was a PR [public relations] guy.
Weiss: There was the U.N., and Frank said to me, "You know, nobody in this country has a stamp from the United Nations. Let's send out a fundraising letter with a U.N. stamp on it." That was brilliant! Now, who are we going to get to sign the fundraising letter? We got Harry Belafonte, Jackie Robinson and Sidney Poitier.
Q: I saw that! How did you get them?
Weiss: You get it done! They signed a gorgeous letter, which Frank wrote. He was a great writer.
Frank and I addressed and stamped—licking stamps, there were no stick-on stamps then— hundreds of envelopes and carried them to the United Nations, which had a post office in the basement. We mailed them with return addressed envelopes. One of them ended up in the post office of our district in the Bronx, our post office, I guess, for our zip code. Well, there were no zip codes. This was before zip codes.
Weiss: We have a thin carbon paper letter with about twenty names of postal workers on it; their name, their address and their contribution—$1, $2—I think five was the highest of any of them.
That's one of the most moving contributions we received. It was wonderful! Anyway, we did that, we brought the students over on the airlift, the first plane had eighty-one students, of which 13 were women; ‘girls’ we called them then, which I now realize, in retrospect, how remarkable that was. It didn't occur to me that it was remarkable, then. We were pilloried—pilloried—not by corn husks and tomatoes and potatoes, but by the establishment. We were lowering the standard of education by bringing so many kids from the “bush.” How did we know that they would go home, ever? They don't have enough money to survive in this country—just every possible
Q: Who were these people, were they— Weiss: Well, the African American Institute, the Institute for International Education. The established organizations.
Q: Right, yes.
Weiss: At that time, only children of the elite came from other countries.
Q: That's right.
Weiss: Most of them, well, I don't know most, but many of them from India and Africa didn't go back because there were no jobs. We had the possibility of saying, you're going to be the first educated generation, and there, there's nobody to run the country. You're going to become the nation builders. So, ninety-seven, ninety-eight percent of them went home. The ones who stayed married and had families.
Q: Well, what kind of schools would they go to?
Weiss: Everything. The ones who started in the south, Philander, white Christian colleges that wouldn't take American Blacks, called Negroes then, but would take Africans because they were
Q: Like old missionary schools, almost.
Weiss: Exactly. Which is what they had in Africa.
Weiss: But these were their colleges. The college level. I maintain, and I haven't been disproven on this, that the African students were the wedge that opened the door to African Americans in southern white colleges. I think that can be pretty well established. The kids who went to schools in the south worked their way north, almost to a student, they graduated from northern schools.
Some of them came for high school, which took a lot of courage to leave your family, and you were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen.
Weiss: So, in the end, after three years and a huge story involving [phone ringing] the Kennedy Foundation and John F. Kennedy running for president, which I'll tell you in a minute. But in the end, we had 778 students, mostly from Kenya, but also from what was then Rhodesia, southern Rhodesia, Tanganyika, other eastern countries.
Weiss: Yes, East African countries. But, go back up for just two seconds. In 1961, Tom Mboya came again for another tour to raise college scholarships. Somebody had the idea, why don't we introduce him to Jack Kennedy? –who was running for president, who was then in the Senate, and who was the chair of the Africa sub-committee. It was because of that chairmanship that we felt they should meet. So, Tom flew to Hyannisport, Kennedy was there. The conversation got to Tom saying to the senator, "We need to bring three planes over this year. We need $100,000."
The senator picked up the phone and he called his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, who ran the Kennedy family foundation in Chicago, and said, "I have a brilliant, wonderful, ambitious young man here," and they were very close in age. They both shared ambition for political leadership.
He said to Sargent Shriver, "We need $100,000." Sarge said, "I can give you five." He said to Tom, "He can give you five." Kennedy said to Sarge, "We need a hundred." Sarge said, "I can give you five." And a third time, Kennedy said, "We need a hundred." A third time Shriver said, "Five." Tom Mboya jumped with joy and said, "We've got $15,000!" [laughter] Anyway, in the end, obviously, Kennedy got us $100,000 from his family foundation. That paid for the charter of three planes that came in '61. On that, one of those planes, was a woman named Wangari Maathai. Fast forward, in 2004, she gets the Nobel Peace prize. On the first plane in 1959, there was a woman named Pamela Odede. Fast forward, she becomes Tom Mboya's wife. They were wonderful people. To a person, they really were the nation builders of post-colonial East Africa.
There were two or three Indian women, which I thought was quite courageous for these—the thing was run by African men over there. Here, we were a mixed lot.
Weiss: Black and white, and men and women. There it was African men. They put thirteen women on the first plane, of whom at least two were Indian women. That was a remarkable— Q: These were Indians from Africa?
Q: Yes. Yes, yes. Yes.
Weiss: There were large Indian communities there.
Weiss: That was a great adventure in my life. In 2007, I was a delegate to the World Social Forum, which was held in Nairobi, and went to speak. Peter was also a speaker there, I think. I called a couple who were very good friends, who lived with us for a while. A lot of the students lived with us for a while. You could walk around Nairobi and people would come up and say, "I slept on your living room floor," and said, "We should have a reunion." Pamela Odede Mboya and I cohosted a reunion in a hotel that was managed by, or among the management was, the daughter of one of our airlift student couples, a man and a woman who got married here. It
country. They all had stories, each one had a story to tell. Wangari Maathai was there. She was sort of the queen of the group, because in '07, she had already gotten her Nobel.
Weiss: She had the Green Belt Movement and she was planting trees everywhere, and she was remarkable! We had a wonderful reunion.
Q: Was any of that ever picked up by any of the mainline foundations? I'm trying to— Weiss: No.
Weiss: What the mainline foundations did, I think three or four of them, four at Carnegie, I can't remember. It may be Hewlett, I'm not sure, so I can't say—decided to adopt libraries in Africa— Q: Oh, this is was a much later— Weiss: Of course.
Weiss: Under Vartan, exactly.
Weiss: Some of them sent money for graduate or post-graduate work. Ford established an office in Nairobi.
Q: Right. Yes, that's why I was thinking that she would—quite natural for them to— Weiss: But they didn't—the idea of a large number of students coming to fulfill a real need just never happened again, anywhere.
Weiss: But now, of course, China has sent thousands of students to this country to study, and they're full-paying, the colleges love it. Obama has asked for 100,000 American students to go to China to study; it hasn't happened. We did a unique thing. To his credit, Tom should be forever thanked for having the vision and the group of people around him.
Q: Yes. His assassination was a real loss.
Weiss: But I have pictures of lots of liberation leaders in Africa, each of whom was assassinated.
Weiss: [Amicar] Cabral, [Eduardo] Mondlane.
Q: Right. So, before we went on this detour, we left you leaving the social work school, going to Riverdale, raising children?
Weiss: Bing bing bing, one, two, three!
Q: One, two, three. In what ways did your life resonate, in what ways did it not resonate, with the Feminist Mystique and Betty Friedan? Were you a suburban housewife chafing at the bit? Or, what? How did that fit?
Weiss: You know, that's an interesting question that I've thought about a lot. I didn't read Betty's book. I was not a member of the CR [consciousness-raising] clubs that came up, with mostly women. But I was an independent feminist woman. I'm not sure I know why. So, my life sort of ran parallel with the feminist movement. I have photographs that remind me that not only I, but Peter and Seymour Melman, even, were marching in the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment]
Q: At that time?