John L. Dube
A Biographical Sketch


John Langalibalele Dube (1871-1946) looms large as one of the most important figures in South African history. He led a public life as an educator, an orator, a writer, a newspaper editor, and a international civil rights leader. He was the founding president of the African National Congress (1912), the political organization primarily responsible for overthrowing the Aparthied system. In addition Dube and Nganzana Luthuli, an eminent African journalist, “co-founded Hanga Lase Natal (The Natal Sun)(1903), the first Zulu language newspaper of which he later became editor.”[1] In addition Dube often traveled to the United States, finding encouragement at Oberlin College, and inspiration from Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. In South Africa, Dube founded one of the first schools of higher learning for the indigenous peoples, the Zulu Christian Industrial School (1901), later renamed the Ohlange Institute.

Dube was born in Natal in 1871 of a royal Zulu lineage. He was raised as a Christian. John Dube’s father, James Dube, converted to Christianity bringing his family with him. James was “the first native minister of the Zulu Mission of the American Board of Comissioners for Foreign Missions.”[2] Throughout his life, John Dube navigated between his Christian spirituality and his Zulu ethnic roots, which often came into conflict. One example of this conflict is seen when Dube writes of how his family’s conversion was received by their community:

Because [My Father] was the leader of his people, a great protest went up from the Dube tribe against my Grandmother, because she had allowed him to come in contact with this new religion and be drawn away from the practices of his people.[3]


This was a serious rift. The Dube tribe was angry enough, that according to Dube,

many times they tried to kill my Grandmother, many nights she was forced to sleep in the bushes out of the way of her would be assassins.[4]


James Dube would go on to serve as a Congregational minister at the Inanda station in Natal, while his son John Dube attended the Adams School, at the same Inanda station. Both these programs were run by Herbert D. Goodenough (OC:A.B. 1878; Theol., 1881).[5]

            Apparently Dube was a high spirited youth. When, with some other boys, he got into trouble at the school Rev. Goodenough called on his Oberlin classmate and fellow Zulu missionary, William Wilcox (OC:A.B. 1878, Theol., 1881, A.M. 1901), stationed at Inhambe, to talk to the boys.[6] Wilcox and Dube developed a relationship. When Wilcox and his family decided to return to the United States, Dube asked to accompany them back to Oberlin College. Wilcox agreed to bring the enthusiastic Dube to the United States. However Wilcox made it clear to Dube that this was no free ride. Dube would have to work for his education. Although Dube later explained that he was employed in the South African mines, working to save enough money for the journey,[7] other sources state that his mother gave Wilcox a sum of thirty gold sovereigns she had been saving.[8]

            But even with his passage paid, Dube needed to labor in order to support himself once in the United States. When he arrived in Oberlin, Dube “had only his clothing, and two shillings remaining, all that was left of his mother’s money.”[9] Wilcox was quick to remind him “that if he intended to survive in a white man’s world he would have to obtain employment.”[10] Dube did not have easy time finding suitable work. Wilcox assisted Dube in finding work with a road gang, but the labor was rigorous and “by late afternoon he could no longer tolerate the physical punishment of common, outdoor labor.”[11] Recollecting on this experience Dube would later observe that “it was the hardest day’s work I ever had in my life.”[12] The rigorous roadwork took a toll on Dube’s health and he became ill, missing the next day’s work and promptly losing the job. In the following weeks Dube worked a number of jobs. However none suited him and he quickly became “very home sick and wished [he] had never gone away from home.”[13]

            Fortunately Wilcox introduced Dube to Mrs. Frank H. Foster, and she was able to use her connections in Oberlin to find some more suitable work for Dube.

During the winter and spring 1887-1888 John swept and cleaned college classrooms, split logs into fire wood for college furnaces and did odd jobs for wealthy white students.[14]

Dube officially enrolled at the Oberlin Preparatory Academy, the pre-college division in the autumn of 1888.[15] (Click Here For Dube’s Schedule). Oberlin life was not easy for Dube. Most likely it was difficult for him to pay sufficient attention to his studies and maintain a steady job. Dube stayed in Oberlin until 1890, studying the sciences, mathematics, classical Greek works and practicing his oratorical skills.

In 1888 Dube “began work at a local printing firm, and he learned the skills of editing and publishing.”[16] These would prove important later when Dube established the first indigenous Zulu newspaper, Illanga Lase Natal. Although he never did receive an official degree from Oberlin College, the skills, connections and worldly perspective Dube cultivated during these years would prove important building blocks, laying the foundation for his later accomplishments.

Although Wilcox had left Oberlin, he and Dube remained in contact. In 1887, Wilcox had become the pastor of a small Congregational church in Keene Valley, New York. Undoubtedly Wilcox knew of Dube’s difficulties finding employment and in 1888 asked Dube to visit him. During his time with Wilcox, Dube utilized his newly acquired type setting skills.[17] He assisted Wilcox in printing a pamphlet entitled “Self Support among the Kaffirs.”[18] This pamphlet

stressed Wilcox’s belief that industrial education, courses in trades and agriculture offered at Hampton Institute, and the “ways and means for self-help” could uplift the natives of Africa.[19]


This experience clearly shaped Dube’s development perhaps even sowing the seeds in Dube’s mind that ten years later would grow into Ohlange Institute. Dube worked closely with Wilcox, accompanying him on a tour of lectures. Dube was only seventeen at the time, but had the courage to ask Wilcox, if he, too, could give a lecture. Wilcox was surprised by this request but allowed Dube the forum, scheduling “a special mid-day meeting.” Following the lecture:

influential lady was interested in him and got him dates for lectures and they succeeded in raising a sum of money with which he went back to Africa and started a school for his people on the same lines of industrial training and self-help proposed in the pamphlet he had helped to prepare.[20]


Other sources suggest that perhaps Dube used some of this money to pay for his 1888-1889 tuition at the Oberlin Preparatory Academy. From 1890 until as late as 1892 Dube lectured throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York.[21]

In 1891 Dube completed a short book, A Talk Upon My Native Land. This thirty-five page work highlights Dube’s desire to bring agricultural and industrial reforms to his fellow indigenous Africans. This work also reflects the conflict between Dube’s ethnic roots and Christian teachings. The conflict was not restricted to Dube’s ethnicity as a Zulu. Dube was a Black African man in the segregated United States. During this time segregation and racism were powerful forces in both South Africa and the United States. Many schools were segregated and Oberlin was hardly an exception. A few years prior to Dube’s arrival,

College officials expelled a Black student, Reverdy C. Ransom, for organizing a protest against segregated dining room seating arrangements.[22]


But Dube chose a less confrontational path than many of his contemporaries. This choice had both positive and negative effects that will be explored later.

Chronic illness forced Dube to return to South Africa in 1892. He would later return to the United States.      Upon his return to South Africa, he worked as a teacher for his former high school Amanzimtoti. It was here he met his future wife, Nokuetela Mdima.[23] The previous year, Wilcox, too, had returned to South Africa. Wilcox had been working at the Groutville mission station and Dube began to assist him.[24] Both Wilcox and Dube’s wife encouraged Dube to establish his own mission. In addition “John was dissatisfied with working under the guidelines of white missionaries and within the structure of traditional mission education.”[25] In 1894 the young couple arrived in the village Incawadi, in the Umkomas Valley, beneath the Drakensburg Mountains. From 1894 to 1896 the Dubes attempted to transform and Christianize this small village. They established a small day school were Dube taught English and basic Mathematics. In addition, Dube “built two church buildings where twenty-seven newly converted Africans attended sermons and readings every Sunday.”[26] The Dubes’ school differed from many missionary schools of its time, not only because it was taught by indigenous Africans, but also because the Dubes encouraged pupils to read in their own language, and stressed the concept of “practical work.”[27] During this period Dube realized the need for a larger industrial school. But he would need to return to the United States in order to acquire the capital.

In 1897 Dube returned, this time going to Brooklyn Heights, New York, where he was ordained in the Congregational ministry at the Lewis Avenue Church located in the Bedford Stuyvesant area.[28] While living in Brooklyn Dube attended a number of Booker T. Washington’s lectures. He heard Washington speak on topics such as, “the dignity of labor” and the methods “to teach the Negroes to become moral self-supporting, and useful citizens.” On another occasion Dube attended a speech by Washington concerning “the evils of colored men in Africa who ‘study Cicero’ in school, yet who are ‘without trousers.” [29] Washington’s speeches stressed a need for skilled industrial laborers. After hearing Washington’s speeches Dube became “very much interested in educational work, visiting Hampton and Tuskegee.”[30] (For More Information, see Section 2, John L. Dube and Booker T. Washington: Ohlange and Tuskegee).

Upon returning to South Africa in 1901, Dube founded the Zulu Christian Industrial School, later renamed the Ohlange Institute. Both Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee and Dube’s Oberlin College experience helped shape his vision for a South African institute.[31] Oberlin’s motto is “Learning and Labor.” The Tuskegee Industrial Institute stressed empowering African Americans with basic skills so that they could effectively improve their lives and social status. Wilcox, an Oberlin alumnus, realized the potential of a Tuskegee institute in the African continent. Dube’s Ohlange drew upon on the theme of “Learning and Labor” as it sought to improve the Africans’ applied and industrial skill levels. Tuskegee and Ohlange focused on practical and obtainable goals within their segregated societies. They interpreted the meaning of “Learning and Labor” differently from Oberlin, where students worked to fund their studies, but did not make the technical skills of work the subject of their studies.

Dube wanted Ohlange to prepare its pupils to be skilled laborers. When Dube founded Ohlange, any notion of a school for higher learning founded by an indigenous African for Africans was a new and truly revolutionary concept. Later, as the school increased in size, the humanities and science curriculum continued to develop. However, some scholars argue that Dube and his fellow instructors feared the apartheid government would accuse the school of creating competition with educated whites as well as white skilled laborers if they did not maintain the faćade of an industrial institute. The white status quo almost definitely feared what educated Africans might choose to accomplish with their newly developed skills. Dube’s Ohlange pushed the boundaries of what the government would tolerate. Dube’s reserve in this respect has earned him much criticism from more progressive camps. His seemingly conservative politics reflect the inner conflict he must have suffered, as he struggled to maintain his Christian morality as well as his allegiance to the improvement of the lives of indigenous South Africans, throughout his journey to rectify glaring racial inequalities.



[2]F.H. Foster, postscript to John L. Dube, A Familiar Talk Upon My Native Land [Rochester, N.Y.: R.M. Swinburne & Co. 1891?], (Oberlin College Library Special Collections).

[3] Student File (John L. Dube), Zulu’s Appeal for Light, c. 1930, Box 72, O.C.A.

[4] Student File (John L. Dube), Zulu’s Appeal for Light, c. 1930, Box 72, O.C.A.

[5] Marlene Merrill.“Summary of Dube Findings.” March 6, 2001.

[6] Merrill. “Summary of Dube Findings”.

[7] “Big Zulu Missionary Tells of His Work.” New York Times. January 9, 1905.

[8] Merrill.“Summary of Dube Findings.”

[9] William Manning Marable, African Nationalist: the Life of John Langalibalele Dube. p.63. [Michigan: UMI Dissertation Services, 1976].

[10] Marble, p.63.

[11] Marable, p.64.

[12] Marable, p.64.

[13]Marable, p.65.

[14] Marable, p.65.

[15] Although Dube was most likely a student at OC from 1888-90, we cannot confirm this because his name does not appear in any of the annual catalogues. His name does appear in the General Catalogue p.285, as a student enrolled in the Oberlin Preparatory Academy, 1888-90, of Oberlin College, 1833-1908. Oberlin, OH. 1909, The O.S. Hubbell Printing Co., Cleveland OH.

[16] Marable, p.66.

[17] Merril, “Summary of Dube Findings.”

[18] Marble, p.66.

[19] Marable, p.66.

[20] William C. Wilcox. “The Oberlin College Library, Student File (John Dube).” Oberlin Alumni Magazine. 1927.

[21] Marable, p.68.

[22] Marable, p.67.

[23] Marable, p.69-70.

[24] Marable, p.69-70

[25] Marable, p.72.

[26] Marable, p.72.

[27] Marable, p. 73.


[29] Marable, p.94.

[30]Student File (John Dube) Alumni Records O.C.A. John Dube. A fundraising pamphlet for the Ohlange Institute.

[31]“Big Zulu Missionary Tells of His Work.” New York Times. Jan 9, 1905.