Ghanaian Racial Citizenship in the Soviet Union and U.S., 1957-1966

By Nana Osei-Opare

On May 25, 2020, a white American police officer, Derek Chauvin, and two other police officers murdered George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man. Floyd’s murder sparked global outrage and a reckoning on anti-Black racism. Even right-wing television evangelist Pat Robertson, a staunch pro-police supporter, criticised Chauvin’s actions. Floyd’s murder and the global reactions it sparked struck me on a personal and academic level.

First, as a Black man, Floyd’s murder resurfaced haunting racial experiences in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa, the United States, and global travels in the 1990s and 2000s. I recalled a police officer beating a handcuffed Black suspect across our home. I remembered American police officers stopping me at a grocery store because I fitted “a description” of someone using counterfeit dollars. I also recollected a young child in Moscow, Russia, calling me a “n—-r” as I purchased food.

Second, I thought about the lives of Ghanaians who suffered from violent forms and acts of racism approximately sixty years ago in the Soviet Union, Ghana, and the United States and their protests against such incidents. These events transpired at the height of African decolonisation and Soviet and American attempts to woo these same Africans. This will be the subject of this post.

As I began my archival journey in Russia in 2017, I sought information on Ghana-Soviet relations during the Kwame Nkrumah era, 1957-1966.[1] Yet, as I read through Russian archival documents, the volume of racial incidents and complaints Ghanaians filed against Soviet citizens surprised me and took me in a different direction. Coupled with Donald Trump’s presidential run and presidency, which had explicit overtures to white supremacy, and his reported claim that no country led by a Black person had been successful, those racialised stories of Ghanaians slowly began to consume a larger part of my project. I turn back the clock 64 years.

Figure 1. Kwame Nkrumah is at the podium in the middle of this picture.
Ghana’s Independence Day, March 6, 1957. Public domain though Creative Commons.

On March 6, 1957, Ghana, a small West African country, but also a leading export of Black cultural capital, cocoa, and gold, became the first sub-Saharan African colony to gain independence. Ghana’s charismatic Pan-Africanist and socialist leader, Kwame Nkrumah, insisted that Ghana’s independence would signal to the world that Black people could manage their affairs. Nkrumah and his comrades had big dreams and expectations. Through socialism, Ghana’s early leaders sought to revamp and recreate Ghana’s future away from its colonial umbilical cord with Britain.[2]

To create rapidly the socialist panacea and economic independence that Nkrumah and his comrades envisioned, Ghanaian students were sent abroad to Western and Eastern countries to gain an education.[3] Western and Eastern countries welcomed these students with open arms, hoping to show them the splendors of their educational, social, and political-economic systems.[4] Yet, within these spaces, unintended and unplanned nationalist connections were born and solidified due to virulent anti-Black racism. 

In early September 1963, three Ghanaian college students were driving around Tuscaloosa, Alabama, when a car containing five white men steered into their vehicle. The five white men then drove the Ghanaians to an isolated spot and beat them with an assorted of automobile parts—and even pointed a gun at their feet.

A few months later, in Moscow, the corpse of a young twenty-nine-year-old Ghanaian medical student, Edmond Asare-Addo, was found. The discovery of Asare-Addo’s dead body provoked outrage amongst Ghanaians in the Soviet Union. In the largest demonstration held at the Red Square since 1927, when Leon Trotsky’s supporters protested his expulsion from the Communist Party, Ghanaian students marched to the Red Square with placard signs. One sign read: “‘Moscow, a sec­ond Alabama.'”[5]

Figure 2. Students Protesting in Moscow, USSR, December 18, 1963.
Image from Pittsburgh Courier (1955-1966), City Edition; Pittsburgh, Pa. [Pittsburgh, Pa].
December 28, 1963.

I argue that the Alabama reference was not simply referring to America’s southern state’s anti-Black racism notoriety. Instead, I maintain that it was an intentional reference to the grotesque attack on the three Ghanaian students. Ghanaians in the Soviet Union linked their sufferings, not merely in respect to their race but to their nationality. This suffering cut across the Capitalist and Communist blocs and extended to Ghanaian strangers. The recognition was mutual.[6]

The Ghana Students’ Association of the Americas wrote to the Soviet Ambassador in the United States and the Soviet foreign ministry to “strongly protest the suspicious circumstances that surrounded the death of Mr. Addo, a Ghana medical student, near Moscow….(italics mine).” The letter immediately underscored that Asare-Addo’s death in Moscow was more than a localised racial affair but had global nationalist implications.[7]

As Ghanaians faced numerous acts of violence in the USSR in the 1960s, the Ghanaian Embassy in Moscow wrote scathing letters to the Soviet Foreign Ministry about the racism Ghanaian students faced in the USSR. As fights erupted between the Ghanaian citizens protecting each other and Soviet citizens, the Ghanaian Embassy stood steadfastly behind its citizens. The Embassy noted that it was their duty to “ensure that Ghanaian citizens were not indiscriminately blamed for any breaches of the peace.” Moreover, the Embassy “hoped that the appropriate authorities would take . . . measures to ensure that Ghanaian trainees are not subjected to any provocation or wanton molestation.”[8]

Ghanaians did not simply view these attacks as against a racialised Black body, but against a Ghanaian body and body-politic. While there were larger anti-African and anti-Black solidarity discourses amongst Ghanaians, Ghanaians were also particularly focused on the plight of other Ghanaians. 

These incidents simultaneously reify and undermine Benedict Anderson’s claim that print culture spurred and solidified nationalist sentiment amongst people.[9] While the medium of letters—print culture—facilitated the forging of a global Ghanaian national consciousness, the engraving of visual testimony and knowledge of racial discrimination and violence against their compatriots gave it life.

Nana Osei-Opare is an Assistant Professor of African and Cold War History at Fordham University, New York City. He is also affiliated with Fordham’s African and African Studies Department and Peace and Justice Studies program. He is the author of “Uneasy Comrades: Postcolonial Statecraft, Race, and Citizenship, Ghana-Soviet Relations, 1957-1966,” in the Journal of West African History and “If You Trouble a Hungry Snake, You Will Force It To Bite You: Rethinking Postcolonial African Archival Pessimism, Worker Discontent, and Petition Writing in Ghana, 1957-66” in the Journal of African History. He is currently working on a book manuscript tentatively titled, Socialist De-Colony: Soviet and Black Entanglements in Ghana’s Decolonization and Cold War Projects. You can contact me on Twitter @NanaOseiOpare.

[1] I write more about Ghana-Soviet relations here, Nana Osei-Opare, “Uneasy Comrades: Postcolonial Statecraft, Race, and Citizenship, Ghana-Soviet Relations, 1957-1966,” The Journal of West African History, 5(2) 2019, pp. 85-112.

[2] See Jeffrey S. Ahlman’s book on Nkrumah’s socialist project, Jeffrey S. Ahlman, Living with Nkrumahism: Nation, State, and Pan-Africanism in Ghana (Ohio University Press, 2017).

[3] See Abena Dove Osseo-Asare’s, Atomic Junction: Nuclear Power in Africa after Independence (Cambridge University Press, 2019), 49-76.

[4]  See Eric Burton, “Navigating Global Socialism: Tanzanian Students in and Beyond East Germany, Journal of Cold War History, Volume 19 (1), 2019, 63-83; Sarah Pugach, “Agents of Dissent: African Student Organizations in the German Democratic Republic,” Africa, 89, S1 (2019); Constantin Katsakioris, “Students from Portuguese Africa in the Soviet Union, 1960–74: Anti-colonialism, Education, and the Socialist Alliance,” Journal of Contemporary History (2020), 1-24.

[5] For more information on this incident, see Julie Hessler, “Death of an African Student in Moscow: Race, Politics, and the Cold War,” Cahiers Du Monde Russe, Vol. 47, Issue 1-2, (January 2006), 33-63.

[6] See Osei-Opare, “Uneasy Comrades.”

[7]  See Osei-Opare, “Uneasy Comrades.”

[8]  See Osei-Opare, “Uneasy Comrades.”

[9] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 1991), 5.

Cover Image and Figure 2. Students Protesting in Moscow, USSR, December 18, 1963. Image from Pittsburgh Courier (1955-1966), City Edition; Pittsburgh, Pa. [Pittsburgh, Pa]. December 28, 1963.

Figure 1. Kwame Nkrumah is at the podium in the middle of this picture. Ghana’s Independence Day, March 6, 1957. Public domain though Creative Commons.

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