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The late Charlotte Maxeke is not a well-known figure outside her homeland of South Africa, but on this day in 1901 she made a significant mark. The activist and religious leader became the first South African woman to obtain a degree and according to some accounts the first native African to earn a degree in the United States.

Then known as Charlotte Manye, the avid churchgoer was a part of the African Jubilee Choir and toured abroad in England. In the 1890s, the choir was touring in the United States when the European organizer left them stranded in New York. News of the choir’s plight began to spread and people organized to assist the group. An A.M.E. bishop recognized Manye’s name in the paper due to missionary work he did in South Africa and reached out.

Maxeke was able to find her to Wilberforce University in Ohio, studying under W.E.B. Du Bois and earning her Bachelor of Science degree. She married fellow Wilberforce student, Dr. Marshall Maxeke, and returned to South Africa becoming a missionary for the A.M.E. Church. Maxeke was responsible for bringing the denomination to her nation. She went on to lead the women’s missionary group, and then the Bantu Women’s League. The group went on to join the African National Congress Women’s League.

In Johannesburg, a hospital is named after Maxeke, as are a pair of naval vessels. She is affectionately known as the “mother of South African freedom” for her activism and efforts to bring forth equal rights for women.

PHOTO: Public Domain

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