At the stroke of midnight on March 6, 1957, as the new day began, so, too, began a new nation. It was the moment at which the Union Jack was replaced with a flag of red, gold and green with a distinctive black star at is center. The British-ruled Gold Coast was now a self-ruled country, Ghana — the first sub-Saharan nation to claim its independence from colonialism.
It was a historic event, heralded as the force that urged other sub-Saharan African nations forward in their quests for liberation. What is not as widely discussed is the impact that Ghana’s independence also had on America’s civil rights movement, or the impact that black America had on Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the man who would ultimately lead his country to freedom.
Most African intellectuals of that era completed their tertiary and postgraduate education in Europe. It was customary, if not expected. Ever the visionary, Nkrumah set his sights on America. He enrolled in Lincoln University, which has the distinction of being one of America’s oldest historically black colleges. There he studied economics, sociology and theology; he also received an informal education in the politics of race and the plight of black people in America.
When Nkrumah was not in school in Philadelphia, he lived in Harlem, N.Y., where he earned a meager living by working such odd jobs as selling fish on the streets and waiting tables on merchant ships. Nkrumah frequented black churches in Harlem and Philadelphia. He aligned himself with black political organizations such as the NAACP, where he met and began working with the scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, who quickly became a mentor to Nkrumah.
Upon completing his studies at Lincoln University, Nkrumah attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned master’s degrees in education and philosophy. It was there that an already politicized Kwame Nkrumah began to shape his ideas of Pan-Africanism as well as his vision for a liberated and unified continent, a place to which all people of African descent in the Diaspora could return, and a place they could consider home.
Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican activist who advocated black self-reliance in the United States, was another instrumental figure in Nkrumah’s life and education. “But I think,” Nkrumah noted in his autobiography, “that of all the literature that I studied, the book that did more than any other to fire my enthusiasm was Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey. Garvey, with his philosophy of ‘Africa for Africans’ and his ‘Back to Africa’ movement, did much to inspire the Negroes of America in the 1920s.”