The Hayti Heritage Center this week will highlight an enduring, lifelong friendship between two North Carolina women who were global activists and supporters of South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) before and during the nation’s brutal apartheid period.
The Heritage Center on Sunday, in partnership with the Durham County Public Library, will host “Mother Of The Nation: Madie Hall Xuma And Black Women’s Global Activism During Jim Crow & Apartheid.”
The event, scheduled to begin at 3 p.m., will also spotlight the activist “she-roism” of Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Charlotte Maxeke, a pioneering South African activist.
Still a goodly part of the event will focus on the friendship of Madie Hall Xuma, the daughter of H.H. Hall, Winston-Salem’s first Black physician, and Lyda Moore Merrick, the daughter of Durham’s first Black physician, Aaron M. Moore, who co-founded the Lincoln Hospital on Fayetteville Street and the NC Mutual Life Insurance Company.
Madie Hall Xuma became president of ANC’s Women’s League and “worked to replenish the broken coffers of the ANC by staging expansive theater productions and musicals in Johannesburg [by] using the African American story as the backdrop,” Carter Cue, a Stanford L. Warren librarian wrote in an email to the INDY. While living in Johannesburg, Xuma’s staged American Negro Review: The Progress of a Race, whose cast members included the opera singer Marion Anderson
“Interestingly enough, people like Lyda Moore Merrick were raising money in Durham to help her good friend Madie Hall Xuma’s efforts in South Africa,” Cue added.
Following the death of her husband in 1962, Xuma—who died in 1982—returned to Winston-Salem in 1963.
Merrick, by birth and marriage, was connected to two of the state’s most influential families. Her father in-law, John Merrick, was a co-founder of NC Mutual and an early developer of the historic Hayti District.
In addition to giving private piano lessons, Merrick was a member of the Federation of Negro Women’s Clubs, and founded the Negro Braille Magazine, which later became the Merrick/Washington Magazine for The Blind, according to the Hayti Heritage Center website. The center’s Lyda Moore Merrick Gallery is named in her honor. She died in 1987.
The centerpiece of Sunday’s event will feature a conversation with WUNC Radio’s journalist Leoneda Inge and Wanda A. Hendricks, the author of The Life of Madie Hall Xuma: Black Women’s Global Activism during Jim Crow and Apartheid.
The Triad-born Xuma was “revered in South Africa as an African American ‘Mother of the Nation,’” according to a Hayti Heritage Center press release.
Hers was an “extraordinary life immersed in global women’s activism in South Africa while also combatting Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. South,” according to the release.
Meanwhile, Merrick’s friendship with Xuma served as “a primary link between African Americans and South Africans in their fight against apartheid and Jim Crow,” Cue says. “She worked subtly and behind the scenes.”
Xuma’s life of global activism began on May 17, 1940, when she arrived in South Africa’s Cape Town, where she was welcomed by Alfred Bathini (AB) Xuma, who was president of the outlawed ANC from 1940 to 1949. The ANC’s members included anti-apartheid Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison before his release in 1990. Mandela’s election in 1994 as the country’s first Black president signaled the final death knell for apartheid.
According to a South African newspaper account, Madie Hall and AB Xuma married the next day before taking a train to Johannesburg where they resided. Hall met Xuma, who like her father, was a medical doctor, while she was a student at Columbia University.
One year after her marriage, Madie Xuma started the Zenzele African Women’s Association “to meet the women of Africa,” according to the newspaper account. She was also the first president of the ANC’s Women’s League.
Soon after her arrival in South Africa, Madie Xuma, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Winston-Salem Teachers College—now the historically Black Winston Salem State University— studied social anthropology and African laws and customs at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Xuma, while being among a cadre of activists firing the first shots to dismantle apartheid, continued her fight to end Jim Crow in America.
A digital archive housed at the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Southern Historical Collection that features a series of oral history interviews in 1979 with Xuma and Merrick in Durham.
Both women led privileged lives during the Jim Crow era as the daughters of pioneering medical doctors, whose family incomes were bolstered by business interests: Xuma’s mother, Ginny Cowan Hall, was a real estate entrepreneur. In addition to NC Mutual, Merrick’s father founded the Lincoln Hospital, with the support of Washington B. Duke, the tobacco titan and philanthropist, and community members.
Their fathers were schoolmates at the former Leonard Medical School at Shaw University in Raleigh. The two women met while attending summer school at Columbia University.
“I heard about her before I met her,” Merrick says about Xuma.
The oral history interview took place at Merrick’s Durham home, where she had hosted some of the giants of the Black experience in America: the famed educators W.E.B. Dubois and Charlotte Hawkins Brown, who attended her wedding, and A. Phillip Randolph.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other,” said Xuma, who was on a first-name basis with Mary McLeod Bethune, DuBois, Randolph, and Kwame Nkrumah. Merrick, Xuma said, was an “old and dear friend. It’s a happy moment for both of us.”
“We found out we had a lot of common interests and developed a love for each other,” Merrick said. “I admired her courage and determination.”
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