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Max Yergan papers

Identifier: Y.USA.71


Papers and files, mainly appearing to have been compiled by the American YMCA's International Committee, concerning Max Yergan, who pioneered YMCA work in South Africa and went on to co-found the Council on African Affairs. Includes correspondence from and about Yergan, reports by Yergan on his work and concerning the situation in South Africa and other African countries, newsletters, news releases, clippings, and various publications.


  • Creation: 1915-1963
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1921-1950


Conditions Governing Access

Open for use in the Elmer L. Andersen Library reading room.

Conditions Governing Use

This collection may be protected by the Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). It is the user's responsibility to verify copyright ownership and to obtain all necessary permissions prior to the reproduction, publication, or other use of any portion of these materials. Researchers may quote from the collection under the fair use provision of the copyright law.


Max Yergan was born in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1892. He graduated from Shaw University in 1914 and did graduate studies at Springfield College. He became an officer in the Student Christian movement in 1915, beginning a 25-year long association with the YMCA. With the outbreak of World War I, he was sent to organize YMCA units among the African regiments that the British Army was raising in Kenya and later served as a chaplain for the U.S. Army in France and then as a YMCA foreign secretary in Bangalore, India and in East Africa. After the war, Yergan applied to serve as the YMCA's foreign secretary in South Africa, and in the face of major opposition from South African authorities and following a substatial delay, was ultimately admitted, accompanied by his wife, Susie Wiseman Yergan. While the YMCA had been active in South Africa since the 1840s, the work had previous been geared toward serving white South Africans. Yergan's work, mainly among students and teachers, focused broadly on promoting Christianity and fostering interracial cooperation. Projects and programs included organizing recreational opportunities for youth, establishing Sunday schools and night schools, and promoting sanitation and modern methods of agriculture. In recognition of his work he received the Harmon Award in 1926 and the NAACP's Spingarn Medal for interracial achievements in 1933.

By the mid-1930s, Yergan became increasingly troubled by the political, economic, and social conditions faced by Black people in South Africa. The position of the YMCA in South Africa as in all of its international work at the time was to eschew overt participation in movements challenging the status quo and remain as apolitical as possible. In 1936, Yergan resigned from the YMCA but continued to work work on behalf of Africa by starting, along with singer Paul Robeson and others, the Council on African Affairs. He maintained ties and working relationships with many of the YMCA's prominent African American leaders who had mentored him in his YMCA career, including Channing Tobias and Jesse Moorland. He was also co-publisher, with Adam Clayton Powell, of the Black newspaper The People's Voice. In 1936, Yergan was also appointed to the chair in "Negro" history at City College of New York, becoming the first teacher of Black studies on a major campus in the United States.

As head of the National Negro Congress, on which he served in the 1940s, Yergan led a delegation from that organization to petition the United ations for the elimination of political, economic, and social discrimination in the United States. While during the 1920s and 30s, Yergan was sympathetic to Communism, particularly as a response to the oppression he encountered in South Africa, he later became disillusioned with it. In 1947 left the National Negro Congress due to what he considered to be "Communist infiltration," and subsequently became a supporter of a number of right-wing causes, including Barry Goldwater's candidacy for the Presidency. Perhaps the most notorious was his support of South Africa's Voerwood Government and his 1964 statement in praise of South Africa's apartheid policy, which he believed gave Black Africans "more dignity and self-respect."

Yergan and his wife divorced in the 1940s. He died April 11, 1975 and was survived by four children.

[Information primarily paraphrased or quoted directly from Yergan's New York Times obituary (13 April 1975), and from "Max Yergan in South Africa: From Evangelical Pan-Africanist to Revolutionary Socialist," by David H. Anthony III (African Studies Review, vol. 34, no. 2, Sept 1991). ]


1.3 Cubic Feet (3 boxes)

Language of Materials



Papers by and about Max Yergan, who pioneered YMCA work in South Africa during the 1920s and 1930s.

Related Materials

Additional information regarding Max Yergan may be found in the YMCA Biographical Files, separately cataloged in the Kautz Family YMCA Archives.

Additional material regading Yergan's work in South Africa can be found in the Records of YMCA International Work in South Africa, separately cataloged in the Kautz Family YMCA Archives.

Note on Language in the Collection and this Guide

Please note that some of the descriptive language found in this collection guide reflects and re-uses the words and ideas of the people and organizations that created the material. Historical records represent the opinions and actions of their creators and the society in which they were produced. This historical language was retained in cases where we believe it provides important context about the materials, is a Library of Congress Subject Heading, or is the official title of an item, organization, or event. As such, please be aware that this material and the guide describing it contains racial and other language and/or imagery that is outdated, offensive and/or harmful.

Processing Information

Fast processed in 2009 as FP145. Re-processed in 2016.

Catalog Record ID number: 9974819675701701

An Inventory of his Papers
Lara Friedman-Shedlov
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Revision Statements

  • 2021-11-30: Language was changed to reflect more current and respectful terminology and conventions, e.g. capitalization of the word "Black" in reference to people and eliminating the use of the term "Black" as a noun referring to people. Text was was updated to more clearly indicate when harmful/outdated language is being quoted from original sources for historical purposes, vs. supplied by the Archives. A content warning note was also added regarding language that was retained.

Collecting Area Details

Contact The Kautz Family YMCA Archives Collecting Area