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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 June 2015

Tufts University


This article examines the activism of militant Catholic African students in France in the 1950s. Largely left out of the historiography of the period, they developed a unique perspective on Africa's future, informed by their dual (and often fraught) identity as Africans and Catholics. They undertook a strident campaign to convince French Catholics and the Church hierarchy of the necessity of decolonization, trying to change the Church from the inside.

Crafting Political Identities in the Era of Decolonization
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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1 This meeting took place 6–7 April 1956 in a Franciscan monastery. Students from Paris, Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Montpellier attended. See J. Pliya, ‘L'Association des étudiants catholiques en France: historique et activités’, L'Afrique chrétienne II & III (Lezay (Deux Sèvres), 1960–1), 220. The group was also known as the Union of Catholic African Students (UECA). The declaration was circulated widely. See ‘Une importante déclaration des étudiants catholiques africains en France’, Le Monde, 28 (Paris) 13 Apr. 1956, 5; ‘Le devoir de décolonisation en Algérie’, Témoignage chrétien (Lyon) 13 Apr. 1956, 4; ‘Déclaration des étudiants catholiques d'Afrique Noire en France’, Afrique nouvelle (Dakar) 24 Apr. 1956, 6.

2 Archives de la Congrégation du Saint-Esprit, Chevilly-Larue, France (ACSSp) SF 27.2, ‘Déclaration des étudiants catholiques d'Afrique noire en France’; see also Tam-Tam (Paris) Apr.–May 1956, 4–6.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Shepard, T., The Invention of Decolonization: the Algerian War and the Remaking of France (Ithaca, NY, 2006), 63Google Scholar.

6 ACSSp SF 27.2, ‘Déclaration des étudiants catholiques’.

7 According to Jean Pliya, there were about twenty students at the conference in Pau, though the attendees represented larger constituencies. Two hundred students participated in the 1957 pilgrimage to Rome, see Pliya, ‘L'Association’, 220. There were approximately 2,000 sub-Saharan African students in France in 1950, 4,000 in 1952, and 8,000 in 1960. See Guimont, F., ‘Les étudiants africains en France et leur organisation: La FEANF (1950–65)’, in Sot, M. (ed.), Etudiants africains en France, 1951–2001: Cinquante ans de Relations France-Afrique quel avenir? (Paris, 2002), 119Google Scholar. Yet, thanks to the preponderance of mission schools in Africa, Catholics were over-represented among students who studied in France – fully half of the African students in France in 1951 were Catholic. See Cholvy, G. and Hilaire, Y.-M. (eds.), La France religieuse: Reconstruction et crises, 1945–1975 (Toulouse, 2002), 73Google Scholar.

8 Cooper, F., Decolonization and African Society: The Labor Question in French and British Africa (Cambridge, 1996), 176CrossRefGoogle Scholar. FIDES stood for Fonds pour l'Investissement en Développement Economique et Social (Fund for Economic and Social Development).

9 See Chafer, T., The End of Empire in French West Africa: France's Successful Decolonization? (Oxford, 2002), 165–72Google Scholar; Cooper, F., Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945–1960 (Princeton, 2014), 226–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 R. Sastre, ‘Liturgie romaine et négritude’, in Abble, A. et al. , Des prêtres noirs s'interrogent (Paris, 1956), 153Google Scholar.

11 On missionary relationships with French administrators in colonial Africa see, among others, de Benoist, J.-R., Eglise et pouvoir colonial au Soudan français: administrateurs et missionnaires dans la boucle du Niger (1885–1945) (Paris, 1987)Google Scholar; Foster, E., Faith in Empire: Religion, Politics, and Colonial Rule in French Senegal, 1880–1940 (Stanford, CA, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Shorter, A., The Cross and Flag in Africa: The ‘White Fathers’ During the Colonial Scramble (Maryknoll, NY, 2006)Google Scholar; Vieira, G., Sous le signe du laïcat: documents pour l'histoire de l'Eglise catholique en Guinée (Dakar, 1992)Google Scholar.

12 In Europe, left-wing worker-priests went into factories to fraternize with laborers; in Latin America, clergy and believers began to critique the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny elite.

13 See Benedict XV's apostolic letter Maximum illud (1919), and Pius XI's encyclical Rerum ecclesiae (1926). On French missionary failures to train African clergy, see Foster, E., ‘A mission in transition: Monsignor Joseph Faye and the decolonization of the Catholic Church in Senegal’, in White, O. and Daughton, J. P. (eds.), In God's Empire: French Missionaries and the Modern World (New York, 2012), 257–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Three predominantly French missionary groups: the Spiritans, White Fathers, and the Society of African Missions controlled most of the Episcopal seats, and thus the deployment of clergy, in French sub-Saharan French Africa until the early 1960s.

15 ACSSp 2F 1.3 a5, Délégation Apostolique de Dakar, ‘Statistiques annuelles des missions catholiques: année 1957–1958’.

16 In the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, in the political climate that gave rise to the triumvirate of French anti-clerical laws of 1901, 1904, and 1905, state subsidies to Catholic schools in Senegal were abolished, the schools were laicized, and the parish priests in the Four Communes taken off the colonial payroll. For the next 15 years, Catholic missions in West Africa found it difficult to obtain subsidies for their work or authorizations to open schools from the colonial government. The peace settlement following the First World War included a provision that allowed missionaries from any signatory power to move freely in Africa, which alarmed French colonial administrators, who feared legions of American and British Protestants would overrun French territory. In 1922, a decree regulating private education in the federation was drawn up and enforced in a manner designed to favor French missions at the expense of anglophone rivals. Over time, more financial support emerged for Catholic missions, depending somewhat on the sympathy of local officials. The Vichy regime, which was generally pro-Catholic, continued this practice, though it was unwilling to accord African Christian converts special status in the colonies. For more, see Foster, Faith in Empire, 69–94, 185n31, 227n9.

17 Centre des Archives d'Outre-mer, Aix-en-Provence (CAOM), 1 FIDES 43 (321).

18 Pius XII, Fidei Donum, in C. Ihm (ed.), The Papal Encyclicals 1939–1958, 323.

19 Ibid. 330.

20 On African students in France see Aly Dieng, A., Histoire des organisations d’étudiants africains en France (1900–1950) (Dakar, 2011)Google Scholar; Les grands combats de la FEANF: de Bandung aux indépendances 1955–1960 (Paris, 2009)Google Scholar; Les premiers pas de la Fédération des Etudiants d'Afrique Noire en France (FEANF) (1950–1955) (de l'Union Française à Bandoung) (Paris, 2003)Google Scholar; Bah, T., ‘Les étudiants d'Afrique noire et la marche vers l'indépendance’, in Ageron, C.-R. and Michel, M. (eds.), L'Afrique noire française: l'heure des indépendances (Paris, 1992), 4156Google Scholar; Chafer, T., ‘Students and nationalism: the role of students in the nationalist movement in Afrique occidentale française (AOF), 1946–1960’, in Becker, C. et al. (eds.), AOF: réalités et héritages: societies ouest-africaines et ordre colonial, 1895–1960 Tome 1 (Dakar, 1997), 388407Google Scholar; Diané, C., La FEANF et les grandes heures du mouvement syndical étudiant noir (Paris, 1990)Google Scholar; Guimont, F., Les étudiants africains en France, 1950–1965 (Paris, 1997)Google Scholar; Ndiaye, J.-P., Enquête sur les étudiants noirs en France (Paris, 1962)Google Scholar; Rice, L., ‘Between empire and nation: francophone West African students and decolonization’, Atlantic Studies: Global Currents, 10:1 (2013), 131–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sot, Etudiants africains; Traore, S., La fédération des étudiants d'Afrique noire en France (F.E.A.N. F.) (Paris, 1985)Google Scholar. A few of them mention Catholic students in passing.

21 Harang, C.-E., Quand les jeunes catholiques découvrent le monde: les mouvements catholiques de jeunesse de la colonisation à la cooperation 1920–1991 (Paris, 2010), 112Google Scholar.

22 Bancel, N. and Devisse, J., ‘La presse étudiante noire en France de 1943 à 1960’, Le rôle des mouvements d’étudiants africains (Paris 1993), 205–6Google Scholar.

23 A. Aly Dieng, Les premiers pas, 237–8; C. Diané, La FEANF, 94. The only exception is Ngongo-Mbede, V. M., ‘Joseph Ki-Zerbo, militant chrétien, africaniste et féministe’, in Bantenga, M. W. et al. (eds.), Hommage au Professeur Joseph Ki-Zerbo: Actes du colloque international sur l'histoire du Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, le 26 novembre 2008 (Ouagadougou, 2010), 155–77Google Scholar.

24 It may also result from a conflation of Catholic African students with their senior co-religionists such as Léopold Senghor and Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who had long worked within the French colonial framework and were faulted by students for supporting de Gaulle's proposal for a French Community in 1958 and the failure to preserve African unity in its aftermath.

25 Chafer, End of Empire, 130.

26 The main exceptions to this are biographies of the first generation of African prelates, many of which are written by priests. See also Tsiakaka, A., L'abbé Fulbert Youlou: la mémoire oubliée du Congo-Brazzaville (Pfastatt, 2009)Google Scholar; Vieira, G., L'Eglise catholique en Guinée à l’épreuve de Sékou Touré (1958–1984) (Paris, 2005)Google Scholar.

27 Lefebvre, a Spiritan missionary, became Apostolic vicar of Dakar in 1947, and Archbishop when it became an archdiocese in 1955 until he stepped down in 1962. From 1948 until 1959 he also served as papal delegate to all of French sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar. For a biography (written by one of his disciples), see Tissier de Mallerais, B., Marcel Lefebvre (Etampes, 2002)Google Scholar.

28 ACSSp SF 27.1, letter from unamed to M. l'Aumônier, 19 Mar. 1951.

29 Lefebvre's was not the first such effort, but it was the first lasting one, see ACSSp SF 27.1, letter from P. Joseph Michel to Mgr Bertin, Paris, 22 Apr. 1951.

30 Lefebvre called Vatican II a ‘betrayal’ and the ‘self-destruction of the church’, see Lefebvre, M., J'accuse le Concile! (2nd edn, Martigny, 1976), 89Google Scholar.

31 Lefebvre, M., ‘Où va l'Afrique?’, Ecclésia: lectures chrétiennes, 46 (1953), 78Google Scholar. He first tried to publish the piece in 1950 in Afrique nouvelle, the widely read Catholic weekly paper of French Africa. The White Fathers, who ran the paper, felt it might upset their sizeable Muslim readership. See Archives générales de la Société des Missionaires d'Afrique, Rome (AGMAfr), Mgr Durrieu 464, Rapport sur l'Affaire Islam. A very similar piece came out in La France Catholique in 1959.

32 M. Lefebvre, ‘Où va l'Afrique?’, 76.

33 Ibid. 78.

34 Archives de la Société des Missions Africaines, Rome (ASMA), 2D41, letter from Jacques Adande to Mgr Chopard-Lallier, Dakar, 5 Jan. 1960.

35 Michel served in Dolisie from 1946 until 1950. On his upbringing, see Ernoult, J. and Coulon, P., ‘Histoire d'un historien spiritain: le Père Joseph Michel (1912–1996)’, Mémoire spiritaine, (1996), 51–5Google Scholar.

36 Ibid. 67.

37 Toutane, ‘La vie dans les facultés’, Tam-Tam, May 1953, 14.

38 Initially, Tam Tam was typed and copied on plain white paper. Beginning in 1955, it was printed and bound on glossy paper. It came out between four and eight times a year in the 1950s. By 1955, it could circulate 5,000 copies, but many of those were passed around among multiple student readers. In addition, much of its content was reproduced by other press outlets, see ‘Tam-Tam et la presse’, Tam-Tam, Dec. 1955, 26–33.

39 Madeleine [Lastel] Cartier, La rue Thibaud’, Mémoire spiritaine (1996), 105Google Scholar.

40 ‘Nous avait-on preparés à notre vie en France?’, Tam-Tam, Feb. 1952, 25.

41 ACSSp SF 27.1, David and Couthon, ‘Réponses aux questions posées à la page 25 du No. 1 de Tam-Tam’, Saumur, 26 Feb. 1952.

42 Ibid. Emphasis in the original. For similar fare, see B. Mensah, ‘Editorial’, Tam-Tam, Mar.–Apr. 1954, 3.

43 ACSSp SF 27.1, ‘Les étudiants d'outre-mer en France – Document no. 4’, Service Presse-Information, JEC, Paris, 8 Oct. 1954.

44 ACSSp SF 27.1, ‘Les étudiants d'outre-mer en France – Document no. 3’, Service Presse-Information, JEC, Paris, 8 Oct. 1954.

45 Fadior, ‘Entre nous africaines’, Tam-Tam, Apr. 1953, 18–21. ‘Entre nous africaines’ was a recurring column addressed to female students.

46 Dupuy and Zerbo, ‘Sur le Vif’, Tam-Tam, Mar.–Apr. 1954, 13–14.

47 On the Jeunesse étudiante chrétienne (JEC), see Cholvy, G., Histoire des organizations et mouvements chrétiens de jeunesse en France (XIXe-XXe siècle) (Paris, 1999), 223–8Google Scholar.

48 ACSSp SF 27.1, ‘Les étudiants d'outre-mer en France – Document no. 2’, Service Presse-Information, JEC, Paris, 8 Oct. 1954. This was excerpted from Dupuy et Zerbo, ‘Sur le Vif’.

49 ACSSp SF 27.1, ‘Les étudiants d'outre-mer en France – Document no. 2’, Service Presse-Information, JEC, Paris, 8 Oct. 1954.

50 On Ki-Zerbo, see Bantenga et al., Hommage; Pajot, F., Joseph Ki-Zerbo: itinéraire d'un intellectual africain au XXe siècle (Paris, 2007)Google Scholar.

51 Pliya, ‘L'Association’, 222. See also, in ACSSp SF 26.2, Toufic's presidential speech opening the 1959 annual meeting. In the 1960s, Toufic worked for the OCCGE (Organisation de coopération et de coordination pour la lutte contre les grandes endémies). Toufic, N., ‘L'onchocercose oculaire en Afrique de l'Ouest d'expression française’, Ophthalmalogica, 159 (1969), 1123CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 On Codjia see ‘Historique du CNHU-HKM’, 2012, 6. ( On Johnson, see Decalo, S., ‘Raymond Messanvi Johnson’, Historical Dictionary of Togo (3rd edn, Lanham, MD, 1996), 169Google Scholar.

53 For an interview with Joachim, see Jules-Rosette, B., Black Paris: The African Writers’ Landscape (Urbana, IL, 1998), 7983Google Scholar.

54 On Kaya see Bazenguissa-Ganga, R., Les voies du politique au Congo: Essai de sociologie historique (Paris, 1997), 433Google Scholar. Dogbeh appears on a list entitled ‘Africains en France 1956–7’ in the archives of the JEC at the Bibliothèque de documentation internationale contemporaine, Nanterre, France, (BDIC) Fdelta1980/104. On Olory-Togbe, who is listed as director of publication in Tam-Tam's 1956 issues, see (

55 R. Sastre, ‘Liturgie romaine’, 154. Mgr Lefebvre authored the preface to Des prêtres noirs, cautioning against innovations in Catholic ceremony. His message was at odds with the book's aim, though his participation legitimized it. Mgr Lefebvre, ‘Lettre-Préface’, Des prêtres noirs, 11–14. See also Kinkupu, L. et al., Des prêtres noirs s'interrogent cinquante ans après (Paris, 2006), 287Google Scholar.

56 Dosseh's full name was Robert-Casimir Tonyui Messan Dosseh-Anyron. See his article ‘Marie en Afrique’, Tam-Tam, May 1952, 4–5. See ASMA 2K6 on his elevation to Archbishop of Lomé in 1962.

57 R. Dosseh and R. Sastre, ‘Propagande et vérité’, Des prêtres noirs, 140–1, 147.

58 Ibid. 149.

59 For the breadth of Diop's network, see Hommage à Alioune Diop: fondateur de Présence Africaine (Rome, 1977)Google Scholar. Diop is referred to as ‘notre ainé’ in ‘Tam-Tam et la presse’, Tam-Tam, Dec. 1955, 36.

60 Ki-Zerbo, J., ‘Témoignage d'un étudiant catholique’, Présence Africaine, 14 (1952), 66–7Google Scholar. This appeared in Tam-Tam, Jan.–Feb. 1954, 7–10. Tchidimbo, R., ‘L'étudiant africain face à la culture latine’, Présence Africaine, 14 (1952), 5564CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

61 Tchidimbo was ordained in 1951. In 1963, he published L'homme noir dans l'Eglise with Présence Africaine, insisting on the universal (as opposed to European) nature of the church. Tchidimbo, R.-M., L'homme noir dans l'Englise (Paris, 1963)Google Scholar, 45. He was appointed archbishop of Conakry in 1962 in the midst of Seku Ture's attacks on the church and was imprisoned for most of the 1970s.

62 A. Diop, ‘On ne fabrique pas un peuple’, Preface, Présence Africaine, 14 (1952). Diop, Tchidimbo, and other African Catholics were influenced by the personalism of leftist Catholic philosopher Emmanuel Mounier (d. 1950), who took a great interest in Africa and Présence Africaine. See Mounier, E., L’éveil de l'Afrique noire (Paris, 2007)Google Scholar, which includes a famous letter to Diop.

63 A. Diop, ‘Assimilation et liberté humaine: lettre au président du groupe Catholique des etudiants Africains, Paris 22 avril 1952’, Tam-Tam, May 1952, 10.

64 Ibid. 12.

65 For more on Lastel, see Cartier, ‘La Rue Thibaud’ and A. Daily, ‘Race, citizenship, and Antillean student activism in postwar France 1946–1968’, French Historical Studies, 37:2 (2014), 339–41. Frantz Fanon did not contribute to Tam-Tam, as A. Aly Dieng suggests. Fanon published his own unrelated magazine called Tam-Tam while he was a student. Dieng, Les Grands Combats, 179; Macey, D., Frantz Fanon: A Biography (2nd edn, London, 2012), 126Google Scholar.

66 M. Lastel, ‘Antillais et Africains se comprennent-ils?’, Tam-Tam, Feb. 1955, 6–12.

67 Ibid. 12.

68 Pajot, Joseph Ki-Zerbo, 39.

69 Ki-Zerbo, ‘Témoignage’, 70.

70 J. Michel, ‘Le devoir de décolonisation’, supplement, Alizés, Apr.–May 1954; Fehim-Pihavanana, May 1954, and Tam-Tam, Mar.–Apr. 1954.

71 S. Abessolo, ‘Théologie et colonialisme’, Tam-Tam, Nov.–Dec. 1952, 8–9.

72 See E. Foster, ‘“Theologies of colonization”: the Catholic Church and the future of the French Empire in the 1950s’, Journal of Modern History, 87:2 (forthcoming).

73 ACSSp SF 27.2, letter from Mgr Lefebvre to P. Michel, Dakar, 5 June 1956.

74 In order to deny communism sole proprietorship of the anticolonial mantle, Michel authored an appendix assailing Aimé Césaire. Césaire, who Michel identified as a ‘Communist deputy’, had taken the church to task for collusion in the subjugation of colonial peoples. Michel faulted him for not citing his sources, and taking some of them out of context. J. Michel, ‘Notes sur quelques passages du Discours sur le colonialisme de M. Aimé Césaire’, Tam-Tam, Nov. 1954, 90–4.

75 J. Ki-Zerbo, ‘Discours adressé au Cardinal Feltin au nom des étudiants catholiques d'outre-mer’, Tam-Tam, Dec. 1954, 15.

76 Ibid. 15–16.

77 ‘Discours de son Eminence Cardinal Feltin aux étudiants d'outre-mer’, Tam-Tam, Dec. 1954, 18.

78 Ibid.

79 Ibid. 19.

80 Ki-Zerbo, ‘Discours adressé au Cardinal Feltin’, 14.

81 ‘Resolutions de la rencontre des étudiants catholiques africains à Rome (17–24 avril 1957)’, Tam-Tam, June–July 1957, 33–6.

82 Ibid. 36.

83 ‘Discours de M. Ki-Zerbo au nom des étudiants’, Tam-Tam, June–July 1957, 8.

84 ‘Discours de Son Exc. Mgr Sigismondi’, Tam-Tam, June–July 1957, 10–13.

85 Pius XII sent them a signed statement of welcome, exhorting them to ‘prepare themselves seriously and courageously’ for their ‘future professional, social and political roles’, and to seek inspiration in church teachings, all while obeying their bishops. ‘La voix du Pape’, Tam-Tam, June–July 1957, 1–2.

86 Chafer, End of Empire, 175, 179.

87 De Gaulle, C., Memoirs of Hope: Renewal and Endeavor, trans. Kilmartin, T. (New York, 1971), 53–8Google Scholar.

88 Pajot, Joseph Ki-Zerbo, 50–1; On Dicko, see J. Ki-Zerbo, preface to Dicko, A., Journal d'une défaite autour du Référendum du 28 septembre 1958 en Afrique noire (Paris, 1992)Google Scholar, x. Senegal's Cheikh Hamidou Kane, Abdoulaye Wade, and Christian Valantin, among others, were in the MLN. See Aly Dieng, A., Mémoires d'un étudiant africain Volume 1: de l'Ecole régionale de Diourbel à l'Université de Paris (1945–1960) (Dakar, 2011), 91Google Scholar. In 1958, Tévoédjrè published L'Afrique révoltée with Présence Africaine, prefaced by Alioune Diop, which included a chapter on the church and colonialism.

89 Ki-Zerbo, preface to Dicko, Journal, xv, xxiii, and xxxii–iii.

90 Archives de la Préfecture de Police, Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, France (APP) 77W5173/650096, ‘Libérons l'Afrique! Manifeste du Mouvement africain de libération nationale’. The Catholic Beninese physicians Alexis Codjia and Martin Edouard Goudoté were among the 14 signers of the manifesto.

91 Ki-Zerbo, preface to Dicko, Journal, xv.

92 Ibid. xxix–xxxi.

93 Ibid. xxix; Dicko, Journal, 125.

94 Years later Lefebvre bitterly reflected, ‘certainly John XXIII did not value me as Pius XII had’. M. Lefebvre, ‘Evangélisateur et grand organisateur de l'Eglise en Afrique’, Fideliter (Suresnes) Sept.–Oct. 1987, 21–2.

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