We are all the products of a series of accidents, really. Every human is a personification of chaos theory. As a butterfly flaps its wings and sets in train a hurricane, an act of generosity 50 years ago in Kenya gives America a President.
To explain. There were two American teachers, Helen Roberts and Elizabeth Mooney living in Nairobi in the late 1960s, and they had taken a shine to a bright young student. They wanted to foster his brilliance and they paid for him to fly to America to continue his education.
That Kenyan man was Barack Obama Sr.
He went to Hawaii to study, and met a young woman. They had a son, who now is the President.
But for the goodness of Ms. Roberts and Ms. Mooney, you could argue, the President’s parents would never have met.
But chaos theory involves infinitely complex causation. You could also argue that without the vision of a Kenyan man named Tom Mboya, the President would not exist either.
For he arranged for the University of Hawaii to offer the scholarship taken by the senior Mr. Obama. And Mr. Mboya’s activities, in turn, depended on the dedication of a group of activists in America.
Cora Weiss, a 53-year summer resident of the Vineyard, was one of those activists. One of the main ones, in fact. And now a book has been written, Airlift to America, chronicling their efforts in bringing hundreds of African students to America to study, between 1959 and 1963.
The book was written by Tom Shachtman, much of it from records which had been stored in Mrs. Weiss’s garage for nearly 50 years. She also did many of the interviews.
“I was the executive director of something called the African-American Students’ Foundation, set up in 1959 to facilitate the travel and care and feeding of what became nearly 800 students from East Africa,” she recalled on Wednesday, sitting in the kitchen of her Aquinnah home.
The organization began because Mr. Mboya, a Kenyan labor activist, became concerned about how his country would function, once it gained independence from British colonial rule.
To the considerable displeasure of the British, he determined the country should look to America to help educate its future leaders.
“Tom was a young man, ambitious, brilliant. It was the height of colonialism there and of the civil rights movement here,” Mrs. Weiss said. “And Tom did a tour of American colleges, setting up scholarships everywhere, including the University of Hawaii.
“Then he said, ‘But we need an organization to run this.’
“So a few of us gathered in New York and I became the executive director, and on the board of directors,” Mrs. Weiss said.
With the initial support of two other families in Riverdale, in the Bronx, where Mrs. Weiss and her husband Peter lived, they started it.
“I worked with a man named Frank Montero and a woman raised in a Japanese concentration camp in California named Mary Hamanaka,” she recalled.
“We were very fortunate in that guy named Milton Gordon, who owned Lassie the dog — Lassie was quite a property in those days — and Milton had an office in the Seagram Building in New York and he let us have a room in his office. That’s where we worked from.”
The Weisses were no strangers to activism of this sort. Peter Weiss was on the board of the American Committee on Africa, “a very strong anti-colonial organization.”
“And I had spent my years at the University of Wisconsin at the international club setting up speaking dates for the few foreign students there, so they could have some pin money. I helped the few African students there organize a student union,” said Mrs. Weiss.
She also helped raise funds for Martin Luther King’s civil rights campaign. The Weisses were connected, as evidenced by the fact that Dr. King himself persuaded the Georgia university to take six students.
The cause of helping these African achievers to further their education was always closely connected to the civil rights movement.
“This country in those days had hundreds of small white Christian colleges in the South, who would not take a ‘negro.’ But would take a foreign student. So I think these black African students helped open the door a bit.
“The first plane was paid for because Harry Belafonte, Jackie Robinson and Sidney Poitier, together signed a fundraising letter,” Mrs. Weiss said.
“In that first group of 1959, 81 students came.”
“Barack Obama missed out on a seat on that first plane. Luckily the two teachers stepped in and raised money for him to come over on a parallel flight,” she said.
“He picked up the scholarship from the University of Hawaii. And while he was there, he needed money for books and tuition and clothes, some of which we sent him.
“So he wasn’t on the airlift, but he was a member of the airlift family.”
For further support, the Foundation tapped its black and Democratic contacts to get access to the Kennedys.
“So, it’s 1960 and John F. Kennedy is the chair of the Africa sub-committee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He wants to be President,” said Mrs. Weiss.
“So we got an appointment with Senator Kennedy in Hyannisport and Tom went up there. He and John F. Kennedy bonded. They were two men with similar ambitions, they wanted to be president of their countries. They both believed in justice and education.”
“And at the end, Kennedy picked up the phone to Sargent Shriver — Eunice Kennedy’s husband, in Chicago — who is the director of the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation, which manages the family money, and said ‘I want to support the airlift.’
“Initially they were going to send a check for $10,000 and Kennedy said ‘No, give them $100,000.’
“It paid for three planes to come in 1960.”
Alas, other foundations were not so generous. And the politics were difficult. The British complained to Vice President Richard Nixon about the meddling in Kenyan affairs. The State Department was unhappy. There were critics who complained they were lowering academic standards with this crash education program.
“We were pilloried by sections of the establishment for sending kids to all kinds of universities,” she said.
The foundation only lasted another few years before it ran out of money. But it achieved much towards its goal of educating future leaders in east Africa.
Ninety per cent of the students went back to their countries, many to significant positions in government and society. Tom Mboya himself went on to hold senior government positions including Minister for Economic Development and Minister for Justice. He was assassinated in 1969.
“One member of the 1960 airlift, the Kennedy airlift, was Wagarri Maathai, who went to a small religious school in Kansas, the first African woman to become a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Or any kind of Nobel laureate,” she said.
There were, of course, lots of Vineyard connections, apart from the Weisses and Kennedys. Ron Davenport, the wealthy black radio owner who summers in Oak Bluffs, helped put them in contact with the Kennedys.
“A woman named Jean Bond, who has been coming to Oak Bluffs in the summer for years, worked with me as a volunteer in 1959 and 1960,” said Mrs. Weiss.
There were others, too; most famously, the family of Andrea Simon, a noted civil rights activist.
“So Carly, Joanna, Peter and Lucy Simon grew up with a man named Boniface Odero, who was an airlift student at Manhattan College,” she said. “Their mom promised they would take in a student for a few weeks and he stayed a year,” she said.
Carly Simon has written a blurb for the back of the book.
“The Vineyard is connected to many good things that have happened in this world,” said Mrs. Weiss.
The book was launched with a reading and signing at Midnight Farm, which is owned by Mrs. Weiss’s daughter Tamara and Ms. Simon, on Thursday night. It will not be in general publication for a couple more weeks, but Vineyarders can buy it there, or at the Bunch of Grapes or Edgartown Books.