Now through September 29, the Amistad Research Center’s manuscripts and art gallery features an exhibition on the origins, outreach, and influence of Operation Crossroads Africa (OCA), including OCA’s direct connection to the establishment of the Peace Corps.
The burgeoning independence of many African nations in the 1950s led OCA founder James Herman Robinson to Africa in the summer of 1954, where he spent three months visiting eleven sub-Saharan countries. While on this trip, Robinson conceived of the idea for a project where young Americans would be exposed to the life and culture of the peoples of Africa while also volunteering their services to help build infrastructure, whether educational, agricultural, or medical. Established in 1958, Dr. Robinson – an influential clergyman and community activist based out of Harlem – foresaw Operation Crossroads Africa as a “clear, honest, hard-hitting program” in which young North Americans would work at the grassroots level with young Africans. OCA’s chief program is the summer service program, which has sent over 11,000 young people to Africa to engage in community and public works projects in over thirty countries throughout Africa.
In 1961, when President John F. Kennedy eloquently called young people to action to fight tyranny, poverty, ignorance, and disease, the Peace Corps was a quickly-germinating notion. Executive Order 10924, issued by President Kennedy on March 1, 1961, established the Peace Corps, with Sargent Shriver serving as its founding director for five years. Acknowledged by President John F. Kennedy as the “progenitor of the Peace Corps,” Operation Crossroads Africa predates the Peace Corps by three years and served as its model both in terms of design and ethos. Dr. Robinson himself served as an integral member of the Peace Corps National Advisory Council since its first month of inception in March 1961 through the administration of Lyndon Johnson.
The comprehensive exhibition includes photographs and photo albums, travel journals, printed ephemera, and correspondence. The exhibition is ordered thematically, and features the OCA’s public works projects, the life and career of Dr. Robinson, the development of the famed Eastern Clinic in Sierra Leone, the interrogation of Dr. Robinson before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and other programs of OCA such as the Singing Crossroaders. An exhibition checklist can be found on the Center’s website.
Posted by Andrew Salinas
(Images from the James Herman Robinson Papers and the Operation Crossroads Africa Records. May not be reproduced without permission.)