No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists over a Half Century, 1950-2000

Edited by William Minter,
Gail Hovey, and Charles Cobb Jr.
Published by Africa World Press.
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More Interviews

1. Bill Sutherland
2. George Houser
3. E. S. Reddy
4. Charlene Mitchell
5. Mary Jane Patterson
6. Ben Magubane
7. Robert Van Lierop
8. Prexy Nesbitt
9. Jennifer Davis
10. Geri Augusto
11. Sylvia Hill, 2003
12. Edgar Lockwood
13. Cherri Waters
14. Dumisani Kumalo
15. Frank Beeman
16. Sylvia Hill, 2004

interviews list page

No Easy Victories Interview: Mary Jane Patterson

Mary Jane Patterson

Mary Jane Patterson. Photo by Mimi Edmunds.

The following text is the transcript of one of the interviews that was part of the reseearch for the book No Easy Victories. With the assistance of Aluka (aluka.org), sixteen of the interviews were transcribed and prepared for presentation on the web. Each transcript was reviewed by the interviewee, and a short introduction prepared by one of the No Easy Victories editors.

Mary Jane Patterson

" Our involvement in the civil rights movement is what sent us into our involvement against apartheid." - Mary Jane Patterson

" The reason I resigned [in 1969] from working for the Presbyterian Church [as a social worker in Kenya] is that California needs missionaries worse than Kenya does. And the reason is because Ronald Wilson Reagan is the governor. . He had wrecked education, and he had wrecked mental health and was on the way to wrecking the environment." - Mary Jane Patterson


Mary Jane Patterson came to Washington in 1971 as associate director of the Washington Office of the United Presbyterian Church in the USA.[1] She quickly assumed principal responsibility for international issues, including Africa, and continued to place Africa high on the agenda when she became director of the office in 1975, a post she held until 1989.

Throughout this period, Mary Jane, as she was known to her many contacts in the church, in Congress, and in progressive political circles, was a stalwart supporter of the campaigns to cut off U.S. support for apartheid and minority rule in Southern Africa. She represented her office on the board of the Washington Office on Africa (WOA), which was founded by the American Committee on Africa with church and trade union representatives in 1972 to support the African liberation cause by lobbying in Washington. She chaired that board during the critical years of 1978 to 1984, and she was a consistent counselor and mentor for its first three directors: Ted Lockwood (1972-80, 1988-89), Jean Sindab (1980-86), and Damu Smith (1986-88).

In the 1970s the Washington Office on Africa campaigned to restore U.S. compliance with international sanctions against white-ruled Rhodesia. It opposed U.S. intervention in Angola in 1975-76, and was among the few groups that consistently worked to oppose U.S. military support to Jonas Savimbi's UNITA in the 1980s as well.[2] Most critically, however, WOA was one of the most constant advocates for full economic sanctions against South Africa, along with congressional leaders such as Ronald Dellums from Berkeley, California. [3]

It was only in the 1980s that the anti-apartheid cause gained wide public attention in the United States, with the year-long demonstrations at the South African Embassy in 1984-85, television coverage of demonstrations and killings in South Africa, and a new wave of student demonstrations in U.S. colleges and universities. Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu and other prominent anti-apartheid South African religious leaders such as Beyers Naudé and Allen Boesak repeatedly crossed the Atlantic to speak to U.S. audiences in churches and communities.

In virtually every religious denomination, however, these public efforts included both local churches and national and regional leaders. Church leaders in Washington such as Patterson helped make the key connections for these networks to have an impact in Congress.

U.S. churches have been as diverse and divided along political, racial, and cultural lines as the larger society. But the two currents illustrated in the two quotes from this interview cited above-the civil rights movement and a concept of " mission" that focused on common struggles for social justice rather than paternalistic charity- were present within virtually every denomination in every part of the country.

This 2004 interview with Patterson does not focus on the details of legislative advocacy for Africa in Washington, a subject probably better addressed through archival research.[4] Instead, it focuses on her background and the experiences that shaped her involvement in African solidarity. The most significant is a lifelong engagement in the civil rights movement-a movement that, Patterson stresses, began long before the 1960s. Her father knew A. Philip Randolph from the 1920s, and she recalls him saying that talk of a march on Washington went back to those years.[5] She recalls her own involvement in a restaurant sit- in in the late 1940s or early 1950s, as well as organizing in Ohio for the 1963 March on Washington and going to Mississippi in 1964.

That involvement was paired with an ongoing connection to Africa. Patterson first went to Africa in 1965, recruited as a social worker for the Presbyterian Church of East Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. Called home along with other missionaries to work in U.S. inner-city programs after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, she decided, in her words, that " California needs missionaries worse than Kenya does."

For Patterson, these connections grew out of an internationalist perspective with a sense of history that was fostered by her parents when she was still very young.[6] Mary Jane Patterson was born in 1924 in Marietta, Ohio. Her mother's family, originally from Virginia, had come to Ohio before the Civil War and had deep roots in the state. Both parents were educated: her mother was a librarian and her father worked in the post office. The family was connected to the Wesleyan Methodist Church. " We grew up, my sister and brother and I, with a sense of history, because both my father and mother were interested in historical things."

The family took for granted that working together for social justice was what one did. " I remember I was quite young and sitting on the porch and crying about things that I had read in the Marietta Times about what was going on with the Jews in Germany," she recalled. " And my mother came out and said, well, hon, you can do something about that. So we came up with that kind of consciousness, a real social conscience."

The following interview was conducted by Mimi Edmunds in Washington, DC, on April 10, 2004. Brief excerpts from another interview with Patterson conducted by William Minter on September 11, 2003, are also available in this archive.

William Minter

September 2004


Interviewee: Mary Jane Patterson
Interviewer: Mimi Edmunds
Location: Washington, DC, USA
Date: April 10, 2004

PATTERSON: I graduated from Ohio State University and I got two degrees at the same time: a degree in accounting and a degree in philosophy.

Q: What year did you graduate?

PATTERSON: I graduated in 1954 [after entering the university in 1940]. I was late graduating because at the beginning of World War II I had started to go to college, but at World War II, we were asked to do something for our country. See, World War II was Pearl Harbor, etc., so what do you do for your country? I went to work in an airplane factory. I left college and went to work in an airplane factory because I'm from Ohio and Curtis Wright had an airplane factory in Columbus, Ohio. So I was Rosie the Riveter.[7] I was Rosie the Riveter until the end of the war. At the end of the war, I got married. I said, well, I'm going to go back to college. And I did, finally.

Q: So that was in '50?

PATTERSON: I'm going back to school, yeah. And I did and I graduated and I was an accountant.

Q: And you were also a parent and-

PATTERSON: No, I never had any children. I have no children. I have nieces and nephews who are just like my children.

But at any rate, what I then did, I was an accountant, and that's what I did. I worked for an insurance company, then I worked for Internal Revenue Service, or Eternal Revenue Service, whatever you want to call it. So the 1960s come and we are working very hard on the civil rights movement.

Q: You started in the civil rights movement in the late '50s?

PATTERSON: Oh, before that. The civil rights movement really got started in the '40s. You see, I think what happened was our involvement in the civil rights movement is what sent us into involvement about apartheid. I am convinced of that. In the 1940s and in the early '50s we were doing things in Ohio, dumb things, dumb things. In Ohio, for instance, there was a hotel, a first-class hotel called the Neil House which no longer exists, but it was a hotel that would not serve blacks. I'm trying to remember whether we were Negroes or blacks. I think we were Negroes. Would not serve Negroes except on Thursdays.

Q: What was special about Thursdays?

PATTERSON: Thursdays was maids' day off. So this hotel would not serve Negroes, except on Thursday, in their first-class restaurant. Well, so of course we, who were young at that time, we said that's the craziest thing we ever heard. So we're going to stop that. So what did we do? A group of us-

Q: So wait a minute. This was about 1949?

PATTERSON: Well, this would have been-let's see if was after-let's see, World War II began in 1941.

Q: Ended in '45.

PATTERSON: Ended in '45. This would have been '48, '47, '48, '49, somewhere along in there, '47, '48, '49. So we go on another day, another evening-

Q: Not Thursday.

PATTERSON: No. So we go-we're a bunch of college students, Negroes, and we go and we sit in. Now what we wanted to happen-remember, this is Ohio, this is not the South. What we wanted to happen, we wanted them to call the police. And we said, if they call the police, it'll get in the paper. So we had a great idea. If they'll just call the police, it'll get in the paper, and this foolishness of only serving Negroes on Thursdays will stop. Bright young people. But the problem was, they wouldn't call the police. They wouldn't serve us and they wouldn't call the police. So we don't know what to do. We are just sitting there and we're completely out of it, Mimi. We don't know what to do.

So I say, well let me call Mr. Bentley. Well, Mr. Bentley, he was a Negro who was the head of an insurance company in Columbus, Ohio. It was the Fireside Mutual Insurance Company, and he was the head of it. And he was also big in the NAACP. [8] So I said, well, let me call Mr. Bentley, and I called Mr. Bentley and I tell him what the predicament is. And he said, okay, we'll take care of everything. So Mr. Bentley then calls two or three friends of his and calls the unions. And the NAACP and the unions come down and they rescue us.

Q: You were just sitting there, and nobody served you?

PATTERSON: No, they wouldn't serve us. They ignored us. And we had no idea this was going to happen because we thought they'd call the police. And we were ready, we were ready!

Q: How many, about?

PATTERSON: Oh, there must have been about seven of us.

Q: Men and women?

PATTERSON: Oh, yeah, there were men and women. And so then of course Mr. Bentley and two other people from the NAACP, and some union people came and they sat down with management. And they negotiated with management and management said that they would forever stop this foolishness. So in the end we won, but we didn't know how to go about it. But they negotiated it all and so then that foolishness of only serving Negroes on Thursday ended.

They didn't do the right thing, they didn't arrest us. We expected to be arrested. It was very different than when you worked in the civil rights thing in the South, because Ohio was very different. We just didn't have patterns of segregation in the way that they did in the South.

Q: But weren't there formations of the Klan in the southern part of Ohio?[9]

PATTERSON: Not so much Ohio, it was Indiana, it was Indiana. Although we did have, once when I was a kid in Marietta-I was born and raised in Marietta, Ohio, and we did have once the Klan come to Marietta, Ohio. There are not very many blacks in Marietta, in that part of southern Ohio. The Klan came and marched in Marietta, Ohio one time when I was a child. Oh, I must have been 12 or 13. So all of the African Americans went down and joined them. And that broke up the Klan! [laughter]

My Dad took us and other people went, and our neighbors went. Our neighbors were all white and they went with us, and we go down and we join them. Well, they fell apart, they got out of there [laughter].

Q: Were they protesting something in particular?

PATTERSON: No, no, no. They were just showing that they had authority. We were across the river from West Virginia and they were just showing that they had authority. Ah, that's a lovely memory. I hadn't thought of that in a long, long time.

Q: Can we go back to how your involvement with civil rights led to your involvement in the anti-apartheid movement?

PATTERSON: The thing is, it was a justice issue. So we heard-we knew about apartheid in Africa and we said, this must be done away with. Because we considered apartheid to be so much worse than what things were in the United States, which is true.

Q: When was that? Was that in the '50s?

PATTERSON: Oh, yes, in the '50s.

Q: So things were stirring.

PATTERSON: Oh, yes, very much so. And then there were people who were making connections between what was going on in Africa and apartheid and what was going on in the United States.

Q: What people?

PATTERSON: Like for instance people here who were at Howard University. One of my good friends was a professor and he was a Negro, a professor. Barbee Durham was a professor at Ohio State University and he was also very active in NAACP. So the word about apartheid was also with us in the NAACP.

I was very active in the NAACP, but also very active in the Presbyterian Church. And the Presbyterian Church was already beginning-the Presbyterian Church was very much into the civil rights movement. Heavily into it, as were all the churches. For instance in 1964 when I went-This is an aside. In 1964, when I went to Mississippi to work on the freedom movement,[10] the first black church that was burned was a Catholic church because the Catholic priest had been the most stalwart in saying that Mississippi had to change, that segregation had to go.

Q: In what town, do you remember?

PATTERSON: Yeah, that was in Hattiesburg. But 13 churches were burned. Lots of churches were burned. That's an aside.

The Presbyterian Church, in 1954, got out and said something that really impressed African Americans. That in our country, we must have a non-segregated church in a non- segregated society. That was 1954. And even before then, there had been things that the Presbyterian Church had been involved in-housing, for instance. I was a member of Bethany Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Ohio. And in Columbus, Ohio, one of our suburbs, Upper Arlington, would not sell houses to Negroes or Jews. And our church, the Presbyterian church, along with a Christian church and a Methodist church and Unitarian, got involved in the desegregation of housing, which I think was about 1948. I'm not sure.

Q: Your church was Bethany Presbyterian in Columbus?

PATTERSON: Bethany Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio.

Q: And it was active in the fight to desegregate housing?

PATTERSON: Oh, yes, very much so. If you look at the pronouncements of the national office of the Presbyterian Church, you would find that in the 1940s, late 1940s, they had to do with the civil rights movement. So you see how the civil rights movement really flowered and really began earlier, much earlier than the 1960s. We know about the 1960s because all hell broke loose in the 1960s. But those things were connected by people in the NAACP.

What caused me to go to work for the Presbyterian Church was-at that time I was working for Internal Revenue Service. I was a Presbyterian, but I was working for Internal Revenue Service, and the computers came in in the early '60s. And when the computers came in there were plenty of jobs. I thought I was going to go to San Francisco to live because I thought it would be a good idea, but my aunt got sick and I said, well, I'll stay here in Columbus. And there were plenty of jobs. I could have gone to Cincinnati, to Houston, to San Francisco, Atlanta, wherever you wanted to go.

What happened was the YWCA[11] in Columbus Ohio- there was an advertisement that they needed a finance director. So I go over there to be interviewed for finance director, and I say in my interview, I'm tired of accounting, I'm a people person, and I'd like to go back to school and get a master's degree in social work. Those were magic words. Florence Worrel, who was interviewing me, had a similar background. She had been an accountant and she had decided that she was tired of that and had gotten a master's degree in social work and she was the director of the YWCA in Columbus, Ohio. And she said, if you do this, if you take this job-she was very honest- she said I want you to take this job-

Q: Who was she?

PATTERSON: Her name was Florence Worrel. She was the director of the Columbus, Ohio YWCA. And she said, I want you to take this job because I want to put a Negro into this job.

Q: And she was white?

PATTERSON: Oh, yes, of course, she was white. And see, there was a black YWCA in Columbus, Ohio, but she was the director of the white one-and I would go over to there, because they advertised for a finance director. Now this is, let's see, I went to Kenya in-I left Ohio in '65.

So what Florence said was, Mary Jane, I want you to take this job because I want to put a Negro into this job because all hell is going to come in the United States, and I want to be in the forefront. She was perfectly honest-I want to be in the forefront of it. She had worked in New York, and the reason she had come to Columbus, Ohio, was because her mother was sick and lived in Columbus, Ohio. And she had come there and had taken this job as the director of that. She said, you come and take this job. You'll have to take a cut in salary, but you can go back to school full-time because you can do this job with one hand tied behind you and you'll have an assistant. And that was sure enough true.

Q: Why did you have to take a cut from what you were doing?

PATTERSON: Because I was working for Internal Revenue Service, so I was making good money for those times.

Q: But you could go back to school.

PATTERSON: I could go back to school, which I did, and got a master's degree in social work, and guess what? I come back to the YWCA and worked as assistant teenage program director. While I was at the YWCA, 1964-by 1964, we knew in the civil rights movement that change was going to come to the United States. The United States didn't quite know it, but we knew. Columbus Presbytery, a very conservative presbytery-I have to back up a little bit on this, too.[12]

In 1960, I was asked by Bethany Presbyterian Church to be an elder and I said, I can't be an elder, I'm too young. Because we had the idea-you know, the Presbyterian Church, older people. We have an expression in the black community and the expression is " waiting on you." The elders of the church will wait on you. Well, let me tell you in the black community, if people wait on you . What happened was, Elder Isvale came to my house, like at five o'clock in the afternoon, to say that I should be an elder in the Presbyterian Church. And I say things like, oh, I can't be an elder because I like to have a drink of Her Majesty's scotch every now and then [laughter].

Q: You were 30 or something.

PATTERSON: Oh, I was too young, too young to be an elder. So when I say that, Elder Isvale says, I have an occasional glass of wine-and he's about 70-something or other. So then I say, well, when I get mad, I really cuss people out. He said, well, I have been known to say a few things in anger. For every objection I made to his request, he had an answer. It's called " waiting on you" in the black community. In other words, you can't get away from it [laughter].

They asked me to be an elder in a Presbyterian church because they want me to say the same thing on the floor of presbytery that I'm saying in the street about civil rights.

Q: And you were saying what?

PATTERSON: All kinds of things, like, well-segrega-discrimination. It wasn't segregation in Ohio. Discrimination has to go. It was NAACP and we were just heavy into it. Heavy into it.

Q: So they wanted you to say something on the floor of the presbytery?

PATTERSON: Presbytery, yes, that I was saying in the street that had to do with civil rights. By that time, if the older people said, do it, I did it. I became an elder in 1960.

Q: Said, okay, I'll go make some noise.

PATTERSON: I did. So if you make noise in presbytery in the Presbyterian Church, it's like everything-you get put on a committee. So then you're on a committee in that presbytery. Well, if you make a lot of noise in that presbytery, you're on a committee in the synod. Synods were much stronger then than they are now, in the Presbyterian Church. Then you're on a committee in the synod. Then the next thing, you're on a committee at the national level. So then I am on a committee at the national level in the Presbyterian Church. On that committee, we fought the battle about alcohol [laughter].

The reason we fought-

Q: Because it was prohibited?

PATTERSON: Oh, no, there were two churches-two branches of Presbyterian Church joined in 1958. The former United Presbyterian Church and then the Presbyterian Church of North America. They became one church in 1958. The former United Presbyterian Church, their abstinence in alcohol was absolute. They were like the Methodists.

The other branch of the Presbyterian Church, the branch to which I belonged, the Presbyterian Church of North America, said, let those who drink not stand in judgment on those who do not drink. And let those who do not drink not stand in judgment on those who do drink, and let's all get along. And it worked.

So when I got sent on this national committee in 1960, well, what does happen is that you really do get noticed by national people when you're on one of those things.

So what sent me to Africa was the Presbyterian Church. I was still working at the YWCA, and there was an opening for a social worker in Nairobi, Kenya, East Africa. And so I find out later that they decided that they were going to get me-the Presbyterian Church-to go to Africa. I didn't know this for a number of years. What I found out later, personnel told me, was that the church in Kenya, the Presbyterian Church in Kenya, wanted a missionary who had worked in the American civil rights struggle. They did not care what the race of the missionary was. They did not care if the person was white or black. They requested from New York someone who had worked in the civil rights movement.

They asked me first to go in 1963 and I said no. I was very interested in Africa and remembered John Kennedy and " what you can do [for your country]." I said, I'm very interested in Africa and I'd like to do this in 1963, but I cannot because I'm going to help to organize the March on Washington from Ohio, which I did.

Q: What was your role in organizing it?

PATTERSON: Well, what we did, it was interfaith, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. Those of us who organized got together people. We just really saturated the churches and the synagogues with requests for people to go to work on the issues in the South. And that's exactly what we did. And we got-I cannot tell you how many busloads of people that we got to go from Ohio to Washington. And when we came back-because everybody had seen it on TV, we were heroes when we got back. I never will forget, a friend and I went to the bank and we had on all of our stuff that we had over here in Washington at the march, that we had been to the march. And the bank president comes down from upstairs and says, I want you to talk to all of our employees, you two who were there, and tell us what it was like. It was a holiday, the day after in Columbus, Ohio. And here we were in the bank, this friend and I. She was white, I'm black. We're explaining why we had gone and the people who had seen it on TV or heard it on the radio had wished that they were there. And it was a holiday. I think that is not generally known, that in places like Columbus, Ohio, it was a holiday.

Q: The day after the march.

PATTERSON: The after the march was like a holiday. Anybody who had been there got interviewed, I was interviewed by the papers. It was a holiday. And that's a part of our history that people generally just don't know.

Q: No, it's gotten forgotten.

PATTERSON: So I go then to Kenya and-

Q: You turned it down in '63.

PATTERSON: I turned it down in '63 and I turned it down in '64.

Q: Why?

PATTERSON: In 1964, Columbus Presbytery, a conservative presbytery, sends a letter to all elders and all ministers. And Columbus Presbytery says, our young people are going to Mississippi this summer to register people to vote. We believe that all people should have the right to vote. Now, you need also to know that Ohio is a state where African Americans or Negroes or colored, whichever they were, had been voting since the 1850s, since before the Civil War. Now people don't generally know that people voted in Ohio. My grandmother and my great-grandmother voted in Ohio.

Q: In 1864.

PATTERSON: Oh, before. 1850. Since the 1850s, they had voted.

Q: Your grandmother and your great-grandmother.

PATTERSON: They voted. So Columbus Presbytery, that was normal for Ohio. Columbus Presbytery says, we'd like for elders and pastors to go to Mississippi in the summer of '64 to be with our young people. Our young people are going. And we want mature Christians to be there with them. So when I got that letter, I'm the finance director of the YWCA, and I put that letter at the bottom of my basket, never to look at it again. I think.

Q: The letter to go to Kenya, or the letter to go-

PATTERSON: To go to Mississippi to work-1964, to go to Mississippi. So I get a call from a friend of mine, Les Stansberry, and he says, Mary Jane, did you get the letter? He's a pastor, Presbyterian pastor in Columbus, Ohio. Did you get the letter? I say, yeah. He said, what are you going to do. I say, I'm going to Mississippi. Then I had said it out loud for God and everybody to hear.

Q: But you had put it on the bottom of the pile because you didn't think you would go.

PATTERSON: I wasn't going. Well, I'd be a fool to go to Mississippi, wouldn't I? So we went to Mississippi and that was something to do. We flew to Memphis and in Memphis, in 1964, Les Stansberry was white, and I'm of course black. In Memphis we are to go to stay with a schoolteacher. And then we are to go on by bus from Memphis to Jackson. When we got to Memphis, I said to Les, I'll check and see if it's safe for Negroes and whites to ride in the same cab over to this woman's house, this schoolteacher's house. And he said, how will you find out? I said, don't you worry, I'll find out. Well, of course, what I did was, I see a skycap and I ask him if it was safe, and he said yes, that it-'64 in Memphis, it was safe. It wouldn't have been safe two years before, but it was safe then, to ride in the same cab. So then I went into the women's restroom and there was woman in there-a black woman in there, and she said, no, it's safe.

We go over to the schoolteacher's house. Now remember, when you went to Mississippi to work in '64, you were covered. I had the name of a woman that I was to get in touch with if anything happened to me in Mississippi, a white woman. All these kinds of details had been taken care of because it was too dangerous not to have everything taken care of. So they had the woman's telephone number where we would be staying that night, and the next day we were to catch the bus to Jackson. And we hadn't been there an hour when she got a telephone call saying we could not take the bus to Jackson because they were pulling northerners off of the bus and beating them up, whites or blacks, didn't matter. They were taking people off the buses and beating them up. So we had to fly from Memphis to Jackson, which we did.

So in '64, I said to the church, I couldn't go because I was going to Mississippi, and then in '65, I said yes, that I would go to Kenya.

Q: So then you're invited again in '65. They really want you.

PATTERSON: Yeah, they did. Margaret Shannon, bless her of blessed memory, she took me to a two-martini lunch [laughter]. She was an executive with COEMAR in the Presbyterian Church. COEMAR was our board of foreign missions. COEMAR was the Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations. But anyhow, she was one of the executives in that, in the Presbyterian Church.

Q: She takes you to a two-martini lunch. I guess-did that do it?

PATTERSON: Oh, that did it [laughter]. And I said, yes, and I then went to Kenya.

Q: And you were going as a social worker.

PATTERSON: I was going as a social worker, that's what they needed, and I did that.

Q: Where did you work in Kenya?

PATTERSON: It was for the Presbyterian Church of East Africa and I worked-What they had thought that I was going to be doing was to set up something for a girls' hostel, but by the time I got there, that had already been done. And so what I did was this.

See, what they did in the British system at that time, you educated the children through a standard seven, and they would not send the girls to high school. So the girls' hostels were really to begin the education of the girls. The hostel was to be sure that the girls had a place to stay.

Q: Were you teaching in Nairobi?

PATTERSON: No, I didn't. I lived in Nairobi, I lived in Delamere Flats which is on Kenyatta Avenue. But I taught in Eastleigh which was a multilingual district. So I had to learn Swahili.

[conversation between Mimi and Mary Jane in Swahili]

PATTERSON: So what I had to do was to decide what it was that I needed to do the most. And that was most interesting because I worked at the Eastleigh Community Center and I had an African co-worker, Mary K. I've been back to Kenya I can't tell you how many times. Ten times or more. And Mary K., my friend, has been here. She was my African co- worker.

PATTERSON: Yes. Well, the head of the Eastleigh Community Center was John Ghatage, he was an Indian from India. What Mary and I did, number one, we set up-it was sort of like a school. Sometimes the girls who had graduated from standard seven, whatever-

Q: Like elementary school.

PATTERSON: Many of them should have gone on-could go on to high school and were capable of going on to high school. Some of them could do things like work in a bakery or something like that. So we had a group-this was really a great thing. It became big. I've been back many times and it became big. What we would do would be to get money for the girls. Remember, they had to pay [for education] after elementary school. So we would get money for the girls to go on to high school or we would send them to trade school. One of the young women, now I've seen her in the years when I go back, she still works in a bakery. We got her a job in a bakery, but she's now the head of the bakery. So we just did a lot of that. And a woman came out from the United States named Hazel Robertson and worked with me as a volunteer. And she was an older woman. That was wonderful, because the respect of the Africans for older people is marvelous, and that was really great. So we got that going.

But on the other hand, I did other things. You know Shari'a law, Muslim law. Shari'a law-so what would happen in this community, since this was an intertribal community, you really got to know everything that was going. And what would happen in Eastleigh was that men from Saudi Arabia would come to Kenya to work and they would marry the Somali women who were also Muslim. So they would marry those beautiful, beautiful Somali women. They would have children. Then when they got ready to go back to Saudi Arabia, they could take the children because the children belonged to the men. Of course, that's European, too. The children belonged the men.

So my colleague and I-gosh, I never will forget, Daniel arap Moi was the home secretary,[13] and I remember going to see him about Shari'a law with my colleague, Mary K. He told me afterwards the reason he did what we wanted him to do was because I didn't-I had Mary speak. And he said, I knew very well what she was saying, you had coached her, and told her, and helped her to do that, but you stayed in the back-you, the outsider, stayed in background. And he granted us what we wanted. He said they could not remove those children. They could not.

Q: How did that feel, as an African American working with a Kenyan African, when he said, you're still an outsider.

PATTERSON: Oh, I understood that from the get-go. I wasn't one of those crazy African Americans who went over and kissed the soil of Africa, God, I'm home. You can't be home if you've been in a diaspora for 14 generations. You're not home. Home is where you are for 14 generations. But some of those crazy people who would come in the 1960s, I'd just look at them and say oh, you damn-well, I was getting ready to call them damn fools. You're not home [laughter].

Q: As an African American knowing that somewhere along the line there were common roots, did it do something for you?

PATTERSON: Oh, yes, oh, yes. Very much, very much so. I have also been to Tanzania a lot and there's a thing in Tanzania, it's " Moyo ya Africa," the heart of Africa, there's something that talks about the past.[14] See, the slaves did not just come from West Africa, which is generally thought. They also came from East Africa.

What would happen to me was, the Kenyans would say, you look like us. Which is true, I do, I do, I did. I was young then, but I did.

I would go out to the African village where Samuel, who worked for me, lived. You know how when you go to an African village, all guests sit with the elders and they pass the pombe[15] around and everybody takes a sip from the gourd. And even if you're young, if you're a guest you sit with them. But the women would always say, you are our daughter. And when I got ready to come back, they gave me a crib that they had made because I should go home and have children, they said.

Q: How did you feel about being there in those years, fresh out of Kenya's independence.

PATTERSON: They had only had their independence for three years when I got there. See, I got there in '66 and the whole harambee,[16] the joy of it all. I got written up for some of the things I did that had to do with-you know how they were so hopeful. It was such a great time to be there.

They came, and down around Nairobi and outside-gee, I can't even remember the names of places anymore. But people would just come and squat. I understood the hope of the people that everything was going to be well, that they would not give up on that and they would do things. Like they put in pipes for the water and the city wouldn't turn the water on. So then Mary K. and I would go to the council and get them to turn the water on. And it was a wonderful time to be there and the people were so loving, is the only word I can think of.

Q: Is Mary still alive?

PATTERSON: Oh, yes, very much so. Her son lives-her son emigrated about 14 years ago to the United States and lives in Pennsylvania and is married to an American woman.

I was there [in Kenya to visit] in 1998. What was frightening was how arap Moi has really stomped on the Kikuyu who had been the rulers, of course, with Jomo Kenyatta. It was a different mood. Mary K., my friend, talked about how they were afraid of the government. My former boss, he's also still living-the Reverend John Gatu.[17] His son had to go to Tanzania, had to get out of the country. I think he's back now, but it was scary.

Q: So you were there for how long-from '64?

PATTERSON: Well, I came back to the United States-I was called back to the United States in 1968, in June of 1968. Called back to the United States because of the crisis in our own country around the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The day that Robert Kennedy was assassinated, my neighbor across the hall from me-I lived in Nairobi in Delamere Flats, and my neighbor across the hall was a British woman who was a Kenyan citizen. They had come out [to Kenya from Britain] and they had land up in the Highlands and she decided that she just couldn't go back to Britain to live because she couldn't stand the climate any more. And she comes knocking on my door and Mary Jane, Mary Jane, Mary Jane, come look at the telly. Your country's gone crazy again. That was the assassination of Robert Kennedy.

Q: And so what went through your head?

PATTERSON: I thought, my country has gone crazy again. See, when Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated, President Jomo Kenyatta had a big ceremony for him at the St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Nairobi. I was a part of that ceremony. You couldn't get in this church-the people-it was so crowded.

Q: Had King come to Kenya?

PATTERSON: No. But they knew about him. While I was there, one time, I drove up into the country somewhere-I didn't know where I was going-and stopped at a little place to pick up something. And the people there said, oh, oh, we've heard on the radio. And I said, what have you heard on the radio? The mayor of Chicago said, shoot to kill.

Now, I'm in Kenya. Not in the Highlands, but on the road, and the local people tell me that the mayor of Chicago said shoot to kill.

Well, what happened was the church called a hundred missionaries home because the Presbyterian Church had decided the United States had gone crazy. But all the churches decided that. The Methodists, Reform Church. Everybody called people home. I was supposed to go home. When you're called home like that what you do is put your furniture and stuff in storage and you put it in storage for six months because if you're called home it's not likely you're going to come back soon. So I was called home in the summer of '68, and I was thinking I was going to go back in February of '69. I worked in Chicago.

Q: To do what?

PATTERSON: Well, there was a program called Reach Out. And Reach Out said that the young people in our schools are not school dropouts. They are school push-outs. And the reason they are school push-outs is the system doesn't want to be bothered with them. They have all kinds of problems. It's like they have bad home life. They have all kinds of problems. And so the school pushes them out rather than take care of them.

So what we did in Reach Out was we had lots of schoolteachers and we had lots of social workers. And that's what it takes because it is really true that what they need is help. For instance, I can give you an example. One of the young kids came into me and said, Mary Jane, would you come over to Mother Cabrini? This was a housing project in Chicago. It's now called Cabrini Greens, but in the 1960s they called it Mother Cabrini. My mother's sick. I say sure, Olivia, I'll come over and see your mother. I go see her mother. Her mother's drunk. Now Olivia knows her mother's drunk. She knows I know her mother's drunk.

She was about maybe 13. She had two younger brothers. She was taking care of them, getting them off to school and everything. And I said to her, yes, your mother is sick. And I said, I'm going to do something about this. She said, okay. She was really distraught. Now she'd have been a school push-out if there hadn't been intervention. What I did was to go to the women in that church, the older women, and said, set up something to take care of this situation.

What they did was the older women-one of them would go every morning over to that house. Get those kids out, get them together to school. Would take food, and so forth and so on. The mother would sometimes cuss them out. They ignored her. That's what intervention is.

Q: Did you see a similarity between your work in Chicago and your work in Kenya?

PATTERSON: Oh, yes. Oh, yeah. Well, the first place, I guess from my background there was something about it. I asked the kids one time to tell me the tales that the grandmothers tell and okay, so then they came in and they would tell me the tales that the grandmothers told.

Q: Was this in Kenya or here?

PATTERSON: This was in Kenya. One of the tales that the grandmothers told was that the priest and the policeman are the same. I said, oh, my God. I said, what does that mean? The taking of our land. The fact that we do not have enough food. The priest and the policeman are the same.

Dr. Irvin, who was a Scottish doctor and a Presbyterian missionary, was in my class one of those days, and he said, Mary Jane, how did you know to ask that question, to tell me the tales that the grandmothers told. I said I think it's from my background. From living in the United States. From being a Negro in the United States. I think I know.

Q: Because you always wanted to know what your grandmother and your great grandmother said?

PATTERSON: Yes. They told true. They would say, well, it's not just me. Women from the days in slavery would talk about what had happened to them. If they had been raped, whatever had happened and so forth. So the tales that the grandmothers told have an effect on what's going on now, here.

The problem is that nowadays things have changed so much. We're not around our grandmothers. And we're not around the older people who have the traditions and who keep the thing going. I think out of that background, and sort of applying that-when I lived in Chicago I knew how to get things done. The only thing that I can think of that could have caused this would have been something in my background.

Q: Did you learn anything from the way Kenyans relate to their elders to take back to the States?

PATTERSON: Yes, I did. When I worked in California-see what happened to me was I was to work three months in Chicago, which I did. Then the church said go to work three months in Los Angeles and then go back to Kenya in February of 1969. What happened when I got to Los Angeles was Ronald Wilson Reagan was the governor of California. I had been there about a month and I wrote a letter to the Presbyterian Church saying I resign from working for the Presbyterian Church. I will find a job here in Los Angeles and I made book and chapter on them.

The reason I resigned from working for the Presbyterian Church is that California needs missionaries worse than Kenya does. And the reason California needs missionaries worse than Kenya does, I wrote, is because Ronald Wilson Reagan is the governor and I made book and chapter on what he has already done. He had wrecked education, and he had wrecked mental health and was on the way to wrecking the environment. He just couldn't quite get to that. And I made book and chapter on this.

Now the connection. When I worked in California there's one of the suburbs of Los Angeles over to the east of Compton, can't think of the name. Most of the people who lived there were poor whites who have come from places like Oklahoma and other places. The connection was that they were like the Kenyans in many ways. They would do things for themselves, but they can't get the city folk in Los Angeles or wherever they have to go to help them. I remembered how that worked in Kenya. And what you had to do, and I would transfer that to working in Los Angeles.

Q: So you came back in '68 and you left your position as a missionary?

PATTERSON: Yes, I worked for the Protestant Community Services. It's now called People's Coordinated Services.

Q: Now meantime, there were changes in America, more radical, more division. Armed struggle in Africa, nationalism here.

PATTERSON: I remember seeing this picture, when I came back, of the bible with a gun on the top of the bible. I was horrified. But I do remember that picture. I don't remember who got it out. But there was a bible and laying on the top of this bible was the gun, and it was-I think it was done by the Black Panthers probably.

Q: Did it make sense to you?

PATTERSON: It made sense of terms of an old Frederick Douglas thing and that is that nothing happens without struggle. Struggle can be peaceful or struggle can be violent. Power concedes nothing. If you go over to the Anacostia Museum where the Frederick Douglas Home is, that saying is prominently displayed. But I had known that saying since I was a child. My dad used to say, power concedes nothing. So in that sense it made sense to me although I didn't go along with it. Because it had not been a part of my background.

Q: A few minutes on whatever you can give on just the formation of the Washington Office on Africa.

PATTERSON: In '71 what happened was the church came after me, the Presbyterian Church. I had worked in California. In '71 they did a full-I'm a basketball fan-they did a full court press. They sent everybody out from New York and asked me would I come to Washington, DC as associate director of the Washington office. And I said yes.

At that time Josiah Beeman[18] was the director and I came on as associate director for national affairs. I hadn't been there six months before Joe had changed my title from associate director for national affairs just to associate director because, he said, I knew more about Africa than he did, he said, and I knew more about civil rights than he did. The beginning of the Washington Office on Africa was Joe Beeman, with George Houser at the American Committee on Africa.

George Houser and Ted Lockwood, an Episcopalian priest. And then Jennifer was with George Houser, Jennifer Davis. And Chris Root.[19]

The Washington Office on Africa really began because apartheid was big and the Presbyterian Church was big on anti-apartheid.

Q: How did it tie together in your memory, your experiences in Africa and the work of the Washington Office on Africa?

PATTERSON: Well, the big ties were directly, I believe, that the big ties came directly out of the American struggle. I really do. And also we understood how the corporate world is linked to it. Presbyterians are not poor people [laughter]. And I'm reminded of when we were boycotting Gulf Oil. So one of the things that would happen with the Washington Office was we would go, we would send our big shots to go to talk to the Mellons.[20]

Q: Who were your big shots?

PATTERSON: I can't give you the names, but I'll tell you who-our stated clerk,[21] Bill Thompson, got a lawyer from Indiana whose name I will not say, but he was really good. He called me up and said I can't go anymore. And I said why not. He said they're getting too close to my price. We understood how the corporate world works. So I said, fine, you can't go to negotiate with them anymore they get too close to my price.

Q: Meaning what?

PATTERSON: Who knows. I don't know exactly what that means, but it's got something to do with money. I can assure you. What they would do in the corporate world, they'll fly you into their place in their own airplanes. They'll have you meeting with this, that, and they'll do all kinds of things, you know, to make you feel good. [There comes to be] a conflict of interest.

So I said okay, that's fine. I called Bill Thompson and we get somebody else. We have somebody who can't be bought. A lot of people can't be bought. I learned that when I was a student at Ohio State University and was working in the civil rights movement and I got a call from an unknown person. " If you will quit saying those things you are saying in public we will put $5,000 in your bank account tomorrow." See how young I was. I know how it works. And that's the way it works. Of course now $5,000 is nothing, now, but then it was really something.

Q: How did you help the Washington Office on Africa? What was your role?

PATTERSON: I think what we did was to put them in touch with people who could be helpful. And we could also get people to go and talk to people in the Congress. I think we provided quite a bit of that. I know we did. We had a saying in my office. We always owe Ted Kennedy,[22] and Ted Kennedy always owes us. Now I can't explain to you exactly what that means, but those are the kinds of things that you're able to do-

Q: That were understood.

PATTERSON: Yeah, they're understood.

Q: How was Bobby Kennedy regarded?

PATTERSON: With deep affection. I had met with Bobby Kennedy when I had come out from Ohio with a group, and I was the only African American in the group. And Bobby Kennedy pulled me aside, and took me into another room. And when we got in the other room, he said, I want to talk to you about the Irish and I want to tell you about the potato famine and I want to say to you that you must keep on doing what you are doing. I've got a picture of me and Bobby Kennedy and the group that I was with. God only knows where those pictures are.

And he said, don't let anybody intimidate you. I don't think you're easily intimidated. I am not. But don't let anybody intimidate you, and we had a little conversation. He said when [his] people came to Boston there were signs on the windows that said no dogs or Irish hired here.

This must have been '64, '65. I was with a group of people from Columbus, Ohio. I was the only African American in the group.

Q: Did you feel that he was a proponent for African liberation?

PATTERSON: Oh, yeah, oh yeah. I always thought that part of the reason for the assassination of John Kennedy was there was an article in the Wall Street Journal before that, shortly before the assassination, that said something about the connection of the Kennedys to the whole issue of apartheid. I recall that, and there are some other people who had recalled that. We don't know exactly when that was, but that was before the assassination. And we thought it was somehow tied up. Who knows?

Q: Let's wrap up. What do you think we need to know and learn from the last 50 years of solidarity?

PATTERSON: What I'm sure we need to know and learn is it has to do with the plagues that we're in, this whole thing of HIV and destruction of the continent in terms of the illness and the age and that kind of thing. I'm sure that that's got to be heavy on our agenda. People say things like, God sends plagues in. God does, but God does not mean that people stand by when people are being systematically annihilated by disease and AIDS.

And I also think African Americans are Americans. There's little difference-it all has to do with who runs things and there's no difference between a black billionaire and a white billionaire. That sounds crazy but it's true. It's a part of the system. So what do we have to do? It seems to me what our job is, is to keep bringing up the issues of justice. This country-the United States is in the process of eradicating the middle class. Well, if it does that in the United States, God help the rest of the world. And so I think what our job is now is to just keep on keepin' on, talking about the issues of justice.

Q: Thank you so much.

[1] The current Presbyterian Church (USA), which has its national offices in Louisville, KY, was formed in 1983 as a result of the reunification of the Presbyterian Church in the US (PCUS), the so-called " southern branch," and the United Presbyterian Church in the USA (UPCUSA), the so-called " northern branch." Patterson worked for the UPCUSA before 1983 and for the Presbyterian Church (USA) after the reunification.

[2] The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) had military support from both South Africa and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, in the complex conflict in Angola that combined elements of civil war, regional conflict, and Cold War intervention. See, among other sources, William Minter, Apartheid's Contras: An Inquiry into the Roots of War in Angola and Mozambique (London: Zed Books, 1994).

[3] See " The Struggle against Apartheid," in Ronald V. Dellums and H. Lee Halterman, Lying Down with the Lions: A Public Life from the Streets of Oakland to the Halls of Power (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), chap. 5.

[4] The archives of the Washington Office on Africa, including 63 boxes of material, are at Yale University Library and have been cataloged through 1991. See http://www.library.yale.edu/div/fa/105.htm. To date, however, no scholar has made systematic use of the collection.

[5] A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979), one of the pioneers of U.S. civil rights and an organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, initiated the March on Washington in 1963. Two decades earlier, in 1941, he had called for a march on Washington against discrimination, but it was called off after President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an order against discrimination in federal employment.

[6] Information and quotations in this paragraph and the next are drawn from an interview with Patterson conducted by William Minter on September 11, 2003. An excerpt from that interview is available in this archive.

[7] The symbol of women recruited to work in factories during World War II.

[8] National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909, is the oldest and largest U.S. civil rights organization.

[9] Although identified with the U.S. South, the racist organization known as the Ku Klux Klan was also active in many northern states, particularly in the 1920s.

[10] The " Freedom Summer" voter registration campaign in Mississippi in 1964, organized by a coalition of civil rights groups, also had organized support from the National Council of Churches and many of its member denominations, including the Presbyterian Church.

[11] The Young Women's Christian Association USA, founded in 1858, was active in interracial contacts early in the twentieth century, and many in the organization were active participants in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

[12] The Presbyterian Church (USA) is governed by elected regional governing councils called presbyteries and synods.

[13] Arap Moi, as home secretary from 1964 to 1967, was the cabinet minister responsible for law and order. He became vice-president in 1967 and was president of Kenya from 1978 to 2002.

[14] Patterson is probably referring to the slave port of Bagamoyo on the coast of Tanzania, which is now recognized as a world heritage site.

[15] Home-brewed beer.

[16] " Let us pull together," rallying cry of grassroots self-help projects in Kenya.

[17] Leader in the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, as well as the All Africa Conference of Churches and the World Council of Churches.

[18] In addition to his post as director of the Presbyterian Washington Office, Josiah Beeman served in many leadership positions within the Presbyterian Church (USA). From 1994 to 1999 he was U.S. ambassador to New Zealand.

[19] See interviews in this collection with George Houser and Jennifer Davis of the American Committee on Africa, and Ted Lockwood of the Washington Office on Africa. Chris Root worked at the Washington Office on Africa in the 1970s, and in the 1980s continued as an activist on Africa in both national organizations and locally in East Lansing, Michigan.

[20] The boycott against Gulf Oil in the early 1970s was focused on that company's involvement in Angola, which provided indirect support to Portuguese colonial rule in that country. The Mellons were major shareholders in Gulf Oil.

[21] The chief executive officer of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

[22] Senator Edward M. Kennedy, U.S. senator from Massachusetts, first elected to the Senate in 1962.

This page is part of the No Easy Victories website.