July 19, 1892|
Raleigh, North Carolina
|Died||April 11, 1975
Mount Kisco, New York
Max Yergan (July 19, 1892 – April 11, 1975) was an African-American activist notable for being a Baptist missionary for the YMCA, then a Communist working with Paul Robeson, and finally a staunch anti-Communist who complimented the government of apartheid-era South Africa for that part of their program. He was a mentor of Govan Mbeki, who later achieved distinction in the African National Congress. He served as the second president of the National Negro Congress, a coalition of hundreds of African-American organizations created in 1935 by religious, labor, civic and fraternal leaders to fight racial discrimination, establish relations with black organizations throughout the world, and oppose the deportation of black immigrants. Along with Paul Robeson, he co-founded the International Committee on African Affairs in 1937, later the Council on African Affairs.
Max Yergan was born on July 19, 1892, in Raleigh, North Carolina in his grandfather's house to mother Lizzie Yeargan, daughter of Frederick Yeargan. Fred was the source of inspiration for much of Max Yergan's life, as a board member at Shaw Institute and a member of the Baptist church in Raleigh, as well as a man deeply interested in his African heritage. Yergan attended St. Ambrose Episcopal Parish School as a child, and then moved on to attend Shaw University in both the preparatory and college branches. It was there at Shaw that Yergan discovered the YMCA, and in 1916, he joined a missionary trip to India, a trip that would greatly affect the rest of his adult life.
Career and political work
Yergan came to South Africa in 1920 as a missionary for the YMCA. He was the first African American to do YMCA work in South Africa. As a YMCA activist he was interested in improving social work in the nation and this influenced the founding of the Jan H. Hofmeyr School of Social Work. As a whole his experiences in South Africa radicalized him to the point he came to desire a more radical direction for the YMCA than it was willing to accept. After attempts to radicalize the YMCA failed, he resigned from the organization in 1936 and became committed to Marxism.
On his return to the United States Yergan became the first African-American faculty member ever hired at one of New York City's public colleges, City College of New York, teaching the course "Negro History and Culture" in the fall of 1937. It was the first time this course was offered within the City Colleges of New York. During the Rapp-Coudert hearings, informers reported that his class was "liberal and progressive." Yergan was denied re-appointment and dismissed for his politics.
The Cold War led him to become disillusioned with Communism and ultimately to become strongly hostile to Communism. In 1952, he spoke against Communism on a visit to South Africa and, in 1964, he praised aspects of the South African governments "separate development" plan. In the last decade of life, he co-chaired the conservative American-African Affairs Association.
Yergan died on April 11, 1975, in Mount Kisco, New York, a little over three months before his eighty-third birthday. Due to his changing ideals throughout his life, he lacked all but a few close friends at the time of his death.
Honors and awards
- David Henry Anthony, Max Yergan: Race Man, Internationalist, Cold Warrior, 2006. ISBN 0-8147-0704-1
- David Henry Anthony, "Max Yergan, Marxism and Mission during the Interwar Era in South Africa", Social Sciences and Missions (Leiden: Brill), no.22/2, 2009, pp. 257–291.
- HighBeam - Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History
- Anthony, David Henry (2006). Max Yergan: Race Man, Internationalist, Cold Warrior. NYU Press. p. 5. ISBN 9780814707043.
- Virtual CCNY
- Daren Salter, "Yergan, Max (1892–1975)", Blackpast.org.
- South Africa History site
- NAACP Spingarn Medal
- "Yergan, Max" (2015). Manuscript Division. Paper 224. Digital Howard, Howard University.