Feature Story | 1-Feb-2023

Q&A: UW historian explores how a Husky alum influenced postcolonial Sudan

University of Washington

In his upcoming book, “Bounds of Blackness: African Americans, Sudan, and the Politics of Solidarity,” historian Christopher Tounsel charts how the relationship between African Americans and Sudan has evolved over the past century.

“At this particular moment in history, in terms of Black Lives Matter and post-George Floyd, it’s useful for us to understand how Blackness has been defined and contested beyond the shores of the United States,” said Tounsel, associate professor of history at the University of Washington. “Seeing how Black peoples in this country have interacted with other Black peoples abroad can say a lot about how we define Blackness and Black politics.”

Tounsel, a historian of modern Sudan who focuses on race and religion as political technologies, found multiple connections between Sudan and Seattle. The most prominent was the late Andrew Brimmer, an economist, business leader and UW alum who in 1966 became the first Black member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.

UW News sat down with Tounsel to discuss Brimmer, his legacy, and the other Seattle connections mentioned in the book. “Bounds of Blackness” will be published by Cornell University Press.

Q: Who was Andrew Brimmer and what is his historical significance?

CT: Andrew Brimmer is, by all accounts, one of the most important economists of the 20th century. He was an African American man born in Louisiana who made his way to the state of Washington. He served in the Navy and went on to become a Husky alum twice over, getting his bachelor’s and master’s at the UW before doing his doctorate work at Harvard. It was in that capacity that he traveled to Sudan. On behalf of the United States, he helped the Sudanese government explore the idea of a central bank. Brimmer is principally known in history as the first Black member of the Federal Reserve Board, which is the central banking system of the U.S. But before that, this African American UW alum helped lay the building blocks for a central bank during the infancy of a postcolonial African state.

Q: Why were Brimmer’s accomplishments so remarkable for the time?

CT: Brimmer was born during the height of Jim Crow. It was rare for an African American to get a college degree. It was especially rare to get one at a school like the University of Washington, a predominantly white institution, and then go on to business school at Harvard. In some ways, Andrew Brimmer represents an exception because his story is very rare among his contemporaries. But I also feel like he’s somewhat unknown. I hope my book — by exploring him and bringing his contribution to light — can give him the place in history that he deserves.

Q: How would you describe Brimmer’s legacy?

CT: Throughout the 20th century, the U.S. Department of State was known for being very white — even among predominantly white institutions. Recently, the State Department published something to the effect that the demographics among its staff now more closely reflect the national demographics than ever before. In some ways, I think Brimmer’s legacy is being one of the pioneers of African Americans working abroad in service of the U.S. government during the early period of African decolonization. He kind of helped pave the way for those who came after him in Sudan.

Q:  What other connections did you find to the Seattle area?

CT: One was an industrialist named Leigh S. J. Hunt who had ties to both Seattle and Sudan. Hunt was a white 19th-century mining magnate who helped found the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He embarked on a mining project in Korea and got rich but was then diagnosed with exhaustion from overwork. On doctor’s orders, he decided to rest in Cairo. While there, he discovered possible economic opportunities in Sudan, such as planting cotton to expand his business enterprise. Hunt asked Booker T. Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, if he could help. To make a long story short, Hunt sent three African Americans with Tuskegee ties to Sudan to help plant cotton. He was basically at the center of what I believe is the first moment in which African Americans made their way to Sudan.

A second Seattle connection is a man named Horace Cayton Jr., an affluent African American who was the grandson of the first Black American elected to the United States Senate. He lived in Seattle in the early 1900s, and Booker T. Washington was a family friend who stayed at his house at one point. Cayton Jr. later became a journalist for the Chicago Defender, a Black newspaper. He wrote in an article that the first slaves that arrived in Jamestown in 1620 came from Sudan. It’s an interesting moment because empirically, it's probably not true. And yet, it speaks to how African Americans have a kind of deep, historical and perhaps romantic relationship with Sudan. Through Brimmer, Hunt and Cayton Jr., you’ve got these very interesting Seattle connections to Sudan from the early to mid-20th century.


For more information, contact Tounsel at ctounsel@uw.edu.

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