Beyond  /  Origin Story

How a Black Female Fashion Designer Laid the Groundwork for Ghana’s ‘Year of Return’

When Ghana gained independence, Freddye Henderson facilitated African American tourism to the new nation.

... the continent’s cultural destinations and the lack of overt racial discrimination the delegation encountered abroad. She told her husband, Jacob, “I think more black people would travel if they knew how easy it was.” They used their personal savings to open the Henderson Travel Agency in 1955.

... the continent’s cultural destinations and the lack of overt racial discrimination the delegation encountered abroad. She told her husband, Jacob, “I think more black people would travel if they knew how easy it was.” They used their personal savings to open the Henderson Travel Agency in 1955.

While the Hendersons had planned many trips to Europe by 1957, West Africa was virtually unknown to them and to the travel industry as a whole. No U.S.-based airlines had direct flights to the region, and the few travel agencies that booked African itineraries catered to white American and European travelers headed to see the game reserves in the east. When the Hendersons visited Ghana a few months ahead of the independence celebration at the end of 1956, they found that the soon-to-be-independent nation’s tourist infrastructure was extremely limited and that much of what was emerging was still in the hands of the British.

This presented Henderson with an entrepreneurial opportunity. She moved to develop partnerships with black Ghanaians, helping local taxi drivers buy buses to shuttle members of the African American delegation across the country and working with Ghanaian female entrepreneurs and artisans to design garments and accessories that her travelers would want to buy.

The relationships she built on that scouting trip and the success of the African American delegation’s trip to Ghana convinced Henderson that the nation would be a desirable destination for African American travelers long after the independence celebrations ended — especially those committed to overthrowing American racism. Henderson presented Ghana as an appealing tourist site because of its triumph over white rule and oppression. This portrayal resonated deeply as black Americans engaged in their own battles for full citizenship.

Henderson mounted a campaign in the black press to convince African Americans that they needed to dispel long-held stereotypes about African primitiveness and see Ghana for themselves. Her marketing materials depicted Ghana as a nation in a “dynamic state of ascendancy.” Highlighting Ghanaian independence as the vanguard of the black freedom struggle and the capital, Accra, as a thriving metropolis, she developed elaborate itineraries that brought black Americans together with Ghanaian nationals and expats to dance under the stars to Highlife and debate strategies for global black freedom.

Even after Nkrumah was overthrown in a coup in 1966 and his vision for a unified African diaspora no longer seemed attainable, Henderson remained undaunted in her quest to bring African American tourists to Ghana. In fact, a partnership with Pan Am in the 1970s gave her a chance to reimagine the airline’s marketing materials. Reflecting Henderson’s vision, it touted “a delightfully different tour of Africa featuring the excitement of a people building new nations … friendship, people and progress.”

Henderson’s progressive vision of what modern West Africa had to offer African Americans, however, got eclipsed in the late 1970s, thanks largely to African Americans’ newfound desire to explore their past. According to scholar Salamishah Tillet, political instability in the region, the lack of ...