New currency in Ghana, Africa, carries face of noted Salisburian

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 19, 2017

By Mark Wineka

SALISBURY — Raemi Evans and the rest of her family are, of course, quite proud that a portrait of her grandfather, famed educator and missionary Dr. James E.K. Aggrey, is embossed on a commemorative 5-cedi bill in Ghana.

Now if they could just get their hands on some of the bills — not for spending, but to treasure as keepsakes.

“We’re working on it,” Evans says. “… We would like very much to have some.”

The new currency with Aggrey’s picture went into circulation this spring. The commemorative bill — it is legal tender along with the old 5-cedi note — celebrates 60 years of centralized banking in Ghana and also coincides with the country’s 60th anniversary of independence.

Aggrey, often remembered as “Aggrey of Africa,” is one of the more famous and admired individuals on Africa’s Gold Coast, not to mention how well he was known here.

At his death in 1927, it is said every town and village on the Gold Coast observed his death with mourning and weeping.

Aggrey is buried in Oakdale Cemetery in Salisbury. He had a master’s degree from Salisbury’s Livingstone College and a doctor of divinity degree from Hood Theological Seminary, which was then part of Livingstone.

He also has strong ties to the Sandy Ridge and Miller’s Chapel AME Zion churches, which he served as pastor on alternate Sundays.

Evans lives today in the West Monroe Street house that her grandparents, James and Rose Aggrey, called home. The house sits across from Livingston College.

Evans is the daughter of Abna Aggrey Lancaster, who was one of four children of James and Rose Aggrey. She is too young to have ever known her grandfather, who was only 51 when he died.

James Emmanuel Kwegyir Aggrey was born in 1875 in the Gold Coast village of Anamabu. He received his “foreign” name of James when he was baptized at a Wesleyan Church in 1883. He received some of his early schooling in a Wesleyan Methodist church school at Cape Coast.

By all accounts, Aggrey feasted on learning from an early age, and his passion for education would never wane.

Aggrey jumped at the chance to come to America for training in 1898, when AME Zion Church Bishop John Bryan Small of Barbados visited the Gold Coast looking for young men who had demonstrated they were qualified.

Aggrey first sailed off to England, then the United States, where he settled in Salisbury and attended Livingstone College, which remains associated with the AME Zion Church.

Aggrey excelled in all classes, from the classics to the sciences, and graduated first in his class in 1902. He received Livingstone’s three prized gold medals for scholarship, English and deportment.

By that time, Aggrey was fluent in English, German, French, Latin and Greek. He was ordained an elder in the AME Zion Church in 1903 and assumed church duties in Salisbury. That was the same year he met Rose Douglass of Portsmouth, Virginia, who shared his scholarly passions.

The couple married in 1905. Aggrey received his master’s and divinity degrees from Livingstone and Hood, respectively, in 1912.

At Livingstone, he was a professor, registrar and financial secretary.

He wrote for the Charlotte Observer and authored a famous African story for children titled “Fly, Eagle, Fly,” which in later editions would have a forward by Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Aggrey became well-known for his travels throughout the United States and Europe, advocating harmony among races and the need to educate women and develop entrepreneurial skills among the people of Africa.

Closer to his U.S. home in Salisbury, Aggrey and a Livingstone College colleague, Thomas B. Patterson, helped in forming community leagues at Sandy Ridge and Miller’s Chapel churches. Those leagues assisted in raising the economic, health and educational levels of black communities.

He played a role, too, in founding the first African-American credit union and a realty company and building and loan helping black farmers buy land.

In 1914, Aggrey completed as four-year correspondence course with the International College of Osteopathy in Elgin, Illinois, and  became a doctor of osteopathy in 1914.

Each summer between 1915 and 1917, Aggrey traveled to Morningside Heights in New York City to attend summer courses at Columbia University. He eventually went to Columbia University full time in 1918 to earn his Ph.D.

Aggrey’s connections at Columbia led to his appointment on the Phelps-Stokes African Education Commission, which conducted a major study in Africa in 1921 focusing on educational opportunities for Africans in colonial Africa.

Led by Aggrey, the commission laid the foundation for education in East, West and Southern Africa.

“Their work broke new ground as a model for interracial cooperation and unity,” the Phelps-Stokes Fund said years later. “One of the outcomes of the African Education Study was the South African Institute of Race Relations, the oldest interracial organization in Africa.

“It was the first to emphasize race equity and harmony over apartheid and separation.”

Aggrey is said to have turned down the presidency of Livingstone College because of his trips to Africa and his focus on helping students there. He became the first vice principal of Achimota School in Ghana, which was established to give boys and girls an equal opportunity in education and to show that people of different races could live together.

Many schools and school buildings around the world are named for Aggrey, including the J.E.K. Aggrey Memorial Gymtorium at Landis Elementary School.

The school stands on the site of the former Aggrey Memorial High School, which was built and named for him in 1933 to serve African-American children during segregation.

Erected in 2004, a state highway historical marker on West Monroe Street honors both James E.K. Aggrey and his wife. It is thought to have been the first state history marker to recognize a husband and wife together.

Rose Aggrey died in Salisbury in 1961. She served on one of Salisbury’s first interracial committees, was principal of the African-American school in Granite Quarry, and taught summer school at Livingstone College and at what is today’s N.C. Central University.

Aggrey Avenue in Granite Quarry is named for her, and the Aggrey Student Union on the Livingstone College campus is named for the couple.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.