Drawing on the long American tradition of religious missionary work abroad, Harlem minister James Robinson founded Operation Crossroads Africa with donated money in 1958. Several trips to Africa had convinced him of the need for an interracial service program that would assist poor Africans on a people-to-people basis outside of political considerations. During the summer of 1958, about 60 American students traveled to Cameroon, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, where they built schools, assisted with manual labor, and formed friendships with the locals. They each collected donations and put in money out of their own pockets to fund this work.
The Crossroads service model and its philanthropic projects were an inspiration for the Peace Corps. “This group and this effort really were the progenitors of the Peace Corps,” said President Kennedy in 1962. Weak management has slowed the program in recent decades, but more than 11,000 volunteers have served in Operation Crossroads Africa since the nonprofit’s creation, and about 50 students still go abroad to work on village projects each summer.
- Damon Freeman, “James Robinson,” in Notable American Philanthropists (Greenwood Press, 2002)
- Gerard Rice, The Bold Experiment: JFK’s Peace Corps (University of Notre Dame Press, 1985)