Africa: A Eulogy for C. Payne Lucas, Sr. (1933-2018)

2 October 2018
guest column

Washington, DC — Eulogy delivered at the National Presbyterian Church during the funeral service on September 26, 2018

What a testimony it is that so many who have been so touched and influenced by him are gathered together on this day, in this cathedral to pay homage to a man we must now reluctantly cede back to the Maker in whom he so devoutly believed.

One of the noblest of the Almighty’s creations – the indomitable, the irrepressible and irreplaceable, C Payne Lucas, the likes of whom we may never see again.

Luke has been a vital part of my life for nearly 60 years, ever since he introduced himself on my first day in the Peace Corps headquarters as the desk officer who would be my Washington backup while I was serving overseas as the country director in Sierra Leone.  And to quote the immortal line from Casablanca – it was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Over the years I felt like a member of his extended family. I became the Godfather of his daughter, Hillary, and he, the Godfather of my son, Thomas.

At the newly established Peace Corps Luke went on to become a legend in his own time.  Whenever he spoke everybody listened. In Niger he became the model of what a country leader should be.  He ascended to one of the organization’s most important positions – Regional Director for Africa, the Continent with the largest number of volunteers. During his Peace Corps years he received many honors and awards both at home and abroad.  Even after those Peace Corps years he remained close to its founder, President Kennedy’s brother-in Law, Sargent Shriver, at whose funeral he delivered one of the eulogies.

During his service in Niger, Luke became a close confidant of President Hamani Diori. And when the greatest drought of modern times ravished his homeland, Diori turned to Luke to rally American assistance.  Thus, was born Africare.

And here I quote from the Preface I wrote a few years ago for the book, African Americans in U.S. Foreign Policy: “C. Payne Lucas… began a relief effort centered in the black community. He tapped ordinary black Americans in a way they had not been solicited for an Africa-related cause since the days of [Marcus] Garvey. From small black churches and large ones, from tiny Southern rural hamlets and great Northern urban ghettos, envelopes poured into the Africare headquarters in Washington in support of starving cousins in Africa.”

Under Luke’s inspiring leadership Africare grew into one of the most respected and effective development organizations in the country.  At a time when private internationally focused organizations were among the most segregated in the country, Luke made sure that his staff was thoroughly racially integrated.  Africare thus became a home to gifted blacks whose talents had been shunned or stunted by other non-government international affairs agencies.

For the first year of Africare’s existence, Luke refused to take a salary.  He was determined to keep the organization’s administrative overhead as low as possible. His tight fistedness was well known. He was the most honest and integrity driven administrator not only that I have ever known but possibly that any one has ever known.  He was by far the lowest paid CEO of any comparable private organization.  One of the hardest tasks that befell the Board of Directors was getting him to accept a raise. We finally prevailed by convincing him that his low salary held down those of the rest of the staff.

For several years after Africare vacated its first home in the basement of the Niger Embassy it occupied rental space in a commercial building on Dupont Circle.  Luke decided that we were situated too far from the black community.  After the most diligent of searches he found a dilapidated, abandoned school in the Shaw area. I will never forget my first visit there. I was shocked. As I walked through the first floor befouled with the scent of stale urine and fresher marijuana, my feet treading on the broken glass of whiskey bottles and addicts discarded needles. I questioned for one of the few times in my life, his judgment.  There was no way this hovel and location would be suitable.

But as he so often did, he saw far beyond what was to what could and should be. As only he could, he persuaded the city to give him this ruin for a pittance. And the rest is history. Like a Phoenix, Africare House rose from the ashes. Thereafter, no visit was complete for any African head of state to our nation’s capital that did not include a visit to the building which Luke built. Like many of you I will forever treasure the photos I have memorializing my meetings there with leaders like Nelson Mandela, Kenneth Kaunda and a host of others.

Upon the death of Africare’s beloved Board chairman, the first black Episcopal Archbishop of Washington, Luke established the annual John T. Walker Memorial dinner.  It became the greatest ingathering of people interested in Africa to be found anywhere in the nation. It was attended by Presidents of the United States and heads of States of African countries; by Senators and Congressman, Secretaries of State and other Cabinet Officers; heads of fortune five hundred companies and so many others.

The envelopes which had poured into Africare in its early days from ordinary citizens were now filled with checks from the very affluent.  Was there ever another fund raiser who combined Luke’s charisma and faithful stewardship of the organization he shepherded?

We would do well to remember that for the three decades he headed Africare, C Payne Lucas was the most influential and respected private citizen in the country when it came to America’s relationship with Africa.  No one’s counsel in the African development field was more sought after than his. Presidents would ask him to accompany them on their trips to Africa.  He turned down all blandishments to leave Africare for a high ranking, high profile Presidential appointment.

It is a ritual as old as human history for those who remain to assuage their grief with the consolation that the dearly departed is now in a better place. I am sure, Luke, that you are now there reunited with your dear son and daughter, C. Payne Jr and Therese.  But, my dear friend, we who are here to pay you homage are not, in the wake of your passing, in so good a place.  How could we be when our universe has been deprived of so great a life force. How we shall miss your wise counsel, your great humor, your dominant personality, your inspiring leadership and vision, your warm companionship.

Freddie, Hillary, Walter and Cody, your husband, your father, your grandfather was such a loving and caring person in your lives.  None of us here can fully appreciate how heavy your hearts and those of his surviving sisters are at his loss. But he is still with you and will forever be for his memory will never die.

For as long as any of us survives, C Payne Lucas will be remembered, but that in itself is not enough.  This towering figure in reconciling so many of us to our African roots must be rediscovered and celebrated by generations yet unborn.  He is the perfect subject for biographies and PhD theses.

The best way I have for dealing with the ineffable sadness that suffuses Arese and me and all of us is to recall the words of the old Hebrew proverb: “Say not in grief: ‘He is no more,’ but live in thankfulness that [once] he was.”

Ave atque Vale, old friend.  Hail and Farewell.

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