Abstract: African American Business Abroad: John Hervey Wheeler, the United States-South Africa Leader Exchange Program, and Global Civil Rights, 1959-1969

Brandon K. Winford


In November 1959, African American banker and civil rights lawyer John Hervey Wheeler traveled to South Africa as one of seven American fellows with the United States-South Africa Leader Exchange Program (US-SALEP). The US-SALEP was a private non-profit organization established in 1958 and sponsored by the African American Institute with funding provided by individual and corporate donors from the U.S. and South Africa. The organization's purpose was to help in "understanding between South Africa and American professional, business and civic leaders" with the added bonus of fostering "closer relations between the people of the United States and [the continent of] Africa" more broadly. Wheeler was the only businessman in the American delegation and he received the courtesies reserved for a foreign diplomat, yet he was well aware of the country's system of apartheid and made it clear that he would not participate on a " 'second-class citizenship' basis." This paper examines the ways Wheeler was able to link his ideals of New South prosperity and the battle for freedom in the American South to similar freedom movements around the world. In the following decade, he continued to travel in official capacities at the behest of the American government. In 1963, Wheeler attended the International Trade Fair in Tripoli, Libya on behalf of former North Carolina Governor and then commerce secretary Luther H. Hodges. That same year, the Kennedy administration offered Wheeler an appointment as ambassador to the newly independent Nigeria, but he declined citing increased banking responsibilities. Later in the decade, Wheeler served as a lecturer on behalf of the state department in Syria and Egypt. These opportunities gave him a unique window into global civil rights and he was able to articulate the American businessman's responsibilities abroad.