While the United Kingdom was violently suppressing a revolt against its rule in East Africa, the United States was in the middle of a growing civil rights movement. According to previously secret government files released in the UK today, it was during that time in 1959 when British colonial officials provided the name of President Obama’s father and other Kenyan students in America to the United States government.
“If we contextualize this, it’s fair to say the US and UK were like-minded in their views on race,” said Harvard historian Caroline Elkins, whose research into the UK’s colonial practices in Kenya helped lead to the documents release.
According to British media reports, one of the files reveals US officials told a British diplomat that Kenyan students had a reputation for “falling into bad hands” and “becoming both anti-American and anti-white.”
It does not specify what is meant by “bad hands,” but the file shows British colonial authorities were annoyed by claims made by a US-based group helping to fund the Kenyan students’ education, including a grant to Barack Obama Sr., who was the first African student at the University of Hawaii.
The African American Students Foundation–supported by black American celebrities including Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and Jackie Robinson–said it was providing scholarships to Kenyan students because higher education was not available to them in their country at that time. The BBC reports diplomats at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., denied the claim and accused the AASF of having objectives that were more political than educational.
“There were some limited opportunities for those Kenyans who supported the colonial state or certain missionaries, but there were by no means the kinds of opportunities in Kenya as there were in the United States,” said Elkins.
President Obama writes about the life of his estranged Kenyan father in his memoir, “Dreams from My Father.” The elder Barack Obama was 23 when he enrolled at the University of Hawaii. A year later he met and soon married American student Ann Dunham, the president’s mother. Obama went on to earn a graduate degree at Harvard University and became an economist in Kenya. He died in a car crash in the capital city of Nairobi in 1982.
The list of Kenyan students drawn up by British colonial officials is among thousands of documents kept secret by the British government until it was forced to release them by a court order. The old documents shed light on brutal British practices to maintain power in Kenya and dozens of other former colonies and protectorates. They will likely be used as evidence in a lawsuit brought against the United Kingdom last year by four survivors of Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s. Kenya’s Human Rights Commission say tens of thousands of Kenyans were executed, tortured, or wounded in the fight for independence.
“Kenya was in a state of emergency. The British were fighting an all-out war and using unprecedented, unbridled torture to repress the struggle for independence,” Elkins said.
The author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Imperial Reckoning said it does not surprise her to learn British colonial authorities told US officials they should be concerned about Kenyan students, because at the time officials in both countries feared people campaigning for freedom would become dangerous extremists.
“It’s ironic,” said Elkins, pointing out most violent acts were committed by British government soldiers.