A number of high profile Americans have worked to improve life for Africans. Among them are Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and Oprah Winfrey. Their generosity has received plenty of attention by news organizations. By contrast, Americans who are not celebrities but have undertaken humanitarian projects in Africa and elsewhere have done so with little fanfare. One example is philosopher Robert Paul Wolff. In 1990 he established University Scholarships for South African Students, a foundation which has helped over twelve hundred young Africans earn college degrees. Another example is close to home – Richard P. Stevens of New Castle, Pennsylvania. (1)
Born in June 1931, Stevens followed World War II via maps of the world which he collected. As he learned about distant places, he vowed to visit them when he was older. He listened intently to the radio as Edward R. Murrow reported from London on the war. In high school he organized a group which he called the Junior Defense Army to recycle materials for the war.
Early on, this curious and perceptive child also detected flaws in American society linked to race. He observed that there were no people of color in his church, his neighborhood, or his grade school, that his parish priest never addressed racial discrimination from the pulpit, and that a local hotel and the cafeteria of the local YMCA were off limits to blacks. He also found it odd that his parish would support missions to spread Catholicism among people of color thousands of miles away but not at home. (2) All of this prompted Stevens to set his mission in life – to help people of color near and far.
After completing a doctorate in history at Georgetown University, Stevens accepted a faculty position at Lincoln University in southeastern Pennsylvania. Lincoln is a historically black institution whose graduates include writer Langston Hughes and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. He soon took the first of a series of leaves from Lincoln to teach in Africa at half his Lincoln salary. (3) In Africa he saw apartheid first hand and joined efforts to abolish it at considerable personal risk. He also met thousands of young people in his classes and during his extensive travel across the continent. He helped scores of students complete their education in Africa, secure employment, enroll in graduate programs in Europe and America, or take up permanent residence in the United States. His extended family of beneficiaries includes college presidents, corporate executives, entrepreneurs, university professors, ambassadors, cabinet ministers, and an attorney general. Stevens continues to open his house to former students and their families for short or long stays.
Over the years Stevens became so knowledgeable about Africa that the U.S. State Department and the Congress sought his counsel. He returned to Africa many times, including a stint as a visiting professor in the Sudan where he strove to substitute critical thinking for rote memorization of the Koran by his Muslim students. (4)
Today Richard Stevens, humanitarian and globetrotter, lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where he shares a house with a family from the Sudan. Few people of any race can match his record of service and dedication to people of color.
© 2011 Tom Shipka
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