As part of a series on the heroes honoured in eThekwini’s new street and building names, Andile Mnyandu profiles Charlotte Maxeke

Charlotte Maxeke Street Formerly Beatrice Street Multi-Talented Charlotte Maxeke blazed a trail for women in academics, teaching and the clergy in the early years of the 20th Century, a time when white men dominated these professions. She was born Charlotte Manye on 7 April 1874 at Ramokgopa, Pietersburg. Her mother was a teacher and her father a roads foreman and Presbyterian lay preacher. She attended primary school in Uitenhage and high school in Port Elizabeth, excelling in mathematics, languages and music. Her dream from an early age was to be a teacher and helped tutor many classmates after school.

After her family moved to Kimberly in search of work, Maxeke, a gifted singer, earned a place in an overseas-bound choir thanks to a a solo performance at the town hall. The choir left for Europe in 1896 and performed across nthe continent and the United States. But at the end of the US tour, the European organisers deserted without paying the choir, leaving them on the streets of New York City, penniless and without tickets home. Fortunately, a bishop of the US Methodist Church recognised her name in a newspaper report on their plight and offered her a scholarship to Wilberforce University in Ohio. In 1903 she became the first South African to earn a doctorate in arts and humanities. After her return to South Africa, she became the first African teacher in the Transvaal and married the Rev Marshall Maxeke.

Pivotal role

In 1908 the Maxekes established the Wilberforce Institute for the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Amec) at Evaton in the then Transvaal and she played a pivotal role in the amalgamation of the church with the Ethiopian Church. In 1912 the couple accepted an offer by Chief Enock Mamba from Abathembu to nestablish and run a college on his farm. In 1918 Maxeke formed the Bantu Women’s League, which later became the ANC Women’s League, of which she was President for many years. In 1928 she returned to America as a delegate to the Amec Conference, an event she attended regularly over the years. She also earned a reputation as a journalist and was the first South African woman probation officer. She died in Johannesburg in 1939 at the age of 65. Dr AB Xuma, a president of the ANC in the 1940s described her as, “The mother of African freedom in this country.”

mnyandua@durban.gov.za