Sunday, July 25, 2010

Jerry Vogel, Africa Veteran Extraordinaire

November 2014: Mr. Jerome Vogel passed away peacefully on September 10, 2014, of an apparent heart attack. May he rest in peace.


The below post was originally published July 25, 2014.
Jerry Vogel was getting ready to leave for Mali, to take a group of students from all over the United States on a tour. He’s been traveling throughout Sub-Saharan Africa since the 1960s. Having arrived for the first time in Cameroon fifteen years later, I was eager to hear of his impressions from those post-independence years.
Above: to the right, a Cameroonian Calebasse

Jerry Vogel is a born and bred New Yorker: he lived in the Bronx, until he left for Hamilton College. He received a Fulbright Scholarship to study for a year in France. After completing graduate studies in English Literature, he taught at Georgetown University for five years, when he applied for a teaching position at the university in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. At that point he knew nothing about Africa.

In 1966, Ivory Coast had been officially independent from France for four years. However, it seemed to be independent in name only, and may have been one of the rare countries whose French population grew after independence, instead of shrinking. There were French barbers, taxi drivers, check-out ladies in supermarkets. At the university, Jerry Vogel was the only non-French professor, and was barred from teaching American literature except in the evening, when no official classes were held. Later he was “permitted” to teach “the Victorian Novel” and conversational English, which was in itself a novelty: English was taught like Latin, with dissertations and written translations. The University did not provide him and his spouse, Susan Vogel, with housing; finally, the Department of Education (which had no relationship with the university) gave him the use of an apartment otherwise inhabited by high school teachers, and he found some furniture at the American Embassy warehouse! After much wrangling, the  French added a small supplement to the income he was receiving from the U.S. government. 

During his stay in Abidjan, Vogel was able to perfect his knowledge of the French language, and when he returned to the United States in late 1965, he tried to find employment that would be related to Africa. He joined Operation Crossroads Africa in 1966, which was founded by James Robinson and based in New York. The organization received contracts from the American government to bring Africans to the United States for short-term stays in training programs, the “International Visitors’ Program.” Vogel would travel to Africa in interview and select applicants.

The region he started out in was Central Africa: he went to Cameroon, Central African Republic, (formerly Belgian) Congo, Nigeria, Chad... In Cameroon, in 1966, he stayed in Bafoussam (French-speaking West Cameroon) and Buea, in the English-speaking area. When James Robinson passed away in 1972, Vogel became the Executive Director of Crossroads Africa. Vogel added a program which brought volunteers to Africa from the United States. He remained at the organization until 1984; there was no endowment and even though the finances showed a surplus, it was stressful to constantly be searching for funds.

Vogel had already started a program in collaboration with the Parsons School of Design in 1983, bringing groups of students to Africa. In the 1990s the program was transferred to Drew University in New Jersey, where it remains to this day. In 1984, after leaving Crossroads Africa, he also launched a business making household and clothing items in Ivory Coast with local fabrics, selling in the United States through a trade show in NY.


In the meantime, his wife, Susan Vogel, founded the Museum for African Art on 84th Street in Manhattan. When the Museum moved to a larger location in Soho and opened a museum shop, Vogel was charged with purchasing merchandise, until 2005, when the Museum moved to temporary quarters in Long Island City, Queens, NY. Since the creation of the Museum, he has at various periods managed the store, curated at the museum, acted as Deputy Director. Currently he only works there for two days a week, coordination relations with collectors and art dealers, tours to Africa, and translating French documents as “Special Advisor to the President,” who is now Elsie McNabe-Thompson.