The First Pan-African Congress

Political Emancipation

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 3

The first half of the twentieth century saw various black intellectuals from across the world come together to push the agenda of African political liberation. The first of these gatherings, the Pan-African Conference of 1900, was followed by a series of Pan-African Congresses, the first of which taking place in 1919.

The First Pan-African Conference, which we will discuss in more detail in a future edition, was organised by Trinidadian lawyer and Pan-Africanist Henry Sylvester Williams.

The conference was attended by over 30 delegates, including American intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, who is said to have taken a leading role in the conference, drafting a letter to foreign leaders titled 'To The Nations Of The World'.

Du Bois opened with:

"In the metropolis of the modern world, in this the closing year of the nineteenth century, there has been assembled a congress of men and women of African blood, to deliberate solemnly upon the present situation and outlook of the darker races of mankind. The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line, the question as to how far differences of race - which show themselves chiefly in the color of the skin and the texture of the hair - will hereafter be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing... the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization."

Unfortunately, the momentum of the Pan-African movement was slowed with the deaths of key figures, including Conference-organiser Henry Sylvester Williams in 1911. The First World War (1914-1918) and the subsequent rhetoric of democracy, anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism would, however, trigger a 'revival'.

Again, it was Du Bois who took a leading position, explaining:

"It would be a calamity for the two hundred million of black people to be absolutely without voice or representation at this great transformation of the world."

With Western leaders due to meet at the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, Du Bois sought to draw attention to the plight of Africans around the world and gain commitments to tackle these injustices.

Whilst Du Bois was a central figure, there were other notable groups pushing the Pan-African agenda, such as The International League of Darker Peoples, formed at the home of leading businesswoman, Madame C. J. Walker. There was also the emergence of Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which requested that the German colonies in Africa be returned to native Africans.

Du Bois arrived in France in December 1918, but found his attempts to organise the Pan-African Congress difficult; he was flatly rejected by the American Peace Commission, who stated such a congress was "impossible".

Du Bois sought the help of the French, in particular Blaise Diagne, a Senegal-born, French politician, whose influence within the French Government proved invaluable.

The First Pan-African Congress took place between 19-21 February 1919 and was attended by fifty-seven delegates from fifteen countries. The Congress specifically requested that German colonial territories not be split amongst the various colonial powers; and also appealed for basic human rights for Africans across five key areas:

  • Land: and its natural resources should be returned, giving natives effective ownership of their own land

  • Capital: the investment of capital should be regulated as to prevent the exploitation of natives and the exhaustion of natural wealth

  • Labour: slavery, corporal punishment and forced labour shall be abolished, with labour condition regulated fairly

  • Education: every child should have the right to learn to read and write their own native language, as well as a colonial language; training for industrial jobs, both technical and menial should also be offered to natives

  • State: the natives of Africa must have the right to participate in government in conformity with the principle that the government exists for the people, and not the people for the government

The First Pan-African Congress, whilst not influencing any immediate Western foreign policy - colonial powers promptly split up German colonial territories amongst themselves - was deemed a success for its turnout and public interest.

Following the Congress, a permanent committee was established to organise the next conference - seven more Congresses would take place between 1921 and 2014.

The legacy of the First Pan-African Congress can be appreciated in the words of Nigeria's first President, Nnamdi Azikiwe, who in 1965 explained:

"Founding of the Pan-African Congress in 1919, in Paris, was a signal for the historic struggle by African nationalists which led to the political emancipation of this continent."