C Payne Lucas, leader of relief efforts across Africa, dies at 85
Payne Lucas, who died Sept. 15 at 85, led Africare for more than three decades. (Dudley M. Brooks/The Washington Post)
By Emily Langer
Payne Lucas, who was credited with improving lives across Africa as a founder and longtime president of Africare, a Washington-based relief organization that has constructed roads and wells, established schools and literacy programs, and improved health care in some of the neediest countries in the world, died Sept. 15 at a hospital in Silver Spring, Md. He was 85.
The cause was advanced dementia, said his wife, Freddie Hill Lucas.
Mr. Lucas, one of 14 children born to a lumber mill worker and his wife, was once described by The Washington Post as an “accidental idealist.” He grew up in poverty, achieved an education through scholarships and rose through the ranks of the fledgling Peace Corps before helping to found Africare in 1971.
Initially housed in the embassy of Niger, the aid organization grew, according to The Post, into “the largest African American nonprofit specializing in aid to African countries.” By the time Mr. Lucas stepped down as president in 2002, the program had directed $400 million to 27 countries for drought and famine relief, agricultural initiatives, environmental work, and HIV/AIDS prevention, among other efforts.
“C. Payne was really a pioneer in all the work with Africa,” Dorothy I. Height, longtime president of the National Council of Negro Women, said in a tribute when Mr. Lucas retired. “He had the vision and really set the pace. He was one of the first to call for people to pay attention to Africa — and gave them a channel to do it.”
Mr. Lucas sought in particular to involve black Americans in his organization’s efforts. “Most African Americans are realizing that they don’t expect to be free in America until Africans are free,” he once said. “It’s one and the same cause. It’s self-respect.”
He recalled with pride the donations that Africare received not only from the U.S. government and corporations but also from private individuals who opened their change purses. One of the first crises Africare worked to alleviate was the drought that ravaged the Sahel, the region south of the Sahara, in the 1970s.
“We took that drought and started to talk about it and got some good media time,” Mr. Lucas told the New York Times. “Suddenly all these people started coming in with contributions, most of them from the inner city. We had welfare mothers coming in with bags of change and we counted money all day.”
The organization’s annual gala was a marquee event, drawing leaders from the political and diplomatic communities where Mr. Lucas had become an influential force. At times Mr. Lucas found himself appearing on television or testifying before Congress to force attention on humanitarian crises he said were overlooked by the international community.
“You’re seeing a whole nation destroyed,” he said on CNN during the famine in Somalia in the early 1990s. “You have people eating human flesh in Somalia. How can you permit that to go on? How can we claim to be civilized and permit that? We should be in the street.”
He called for a program in Africa similar to the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II, and he called on private citizens — especially the wealthiest among them — to support such an effort.
“Every black athlete in the NBA who is not concerned about the AIDS epidemic in Africa, he’d better get his head examined,” Mr. Lucas told The Post in 2001, “because these are our people.”
Cleotha Payne Lucas was born in Spring Hope, N.C., on Sept.14, 1933. In his youth he made money by picking cotton and shining shoes, according to a biography on the HistoryMakers website, an online collection of oral histories from prominent African Americans.
He received a bachelor’s degree in history, pausing his studies to serve in the Air Force, from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in 1959 and a master’s degree in government from American University in 1961.
After graduating, he interned for the Democratic National Committee before receiving a job with the Peace Corps under founding director R. Sargent Shriver. Mr. Lucas became a field representative for Togo, in West Africa — an experience Mr. Lucas found deeply inspiring, he told The Post, because it was the first place he had ever seen “where blacks were in charge.”
Mr. Lucas later served in positions including regional director for Africa and director of the office of returned volunteers before helping found Africare. He was a longtime D.C. resident before moving to Louisburg, N.C., when he retired and to Silver Spring last year.
Survivors include his wife of 54 years, the former Freddie Hill, and their daughter Hillary Lucas, both of Silver Spring; two sisters; and two grandchildren. His son, C. Payne Lucas Jr., died in 2013, and his daughter Therese Lucas died in 2017.
For all the successes of Africare, Mr. Lucas emphasized that much work remained, particularly the prevention and treatment of HIV across Africa, where 26 million people live with the disease, according to the most recent figures from the World Health Organization.
“All the work to get Africa to this point will be lost,” Mr. Lucas said when he retired, asking others to continue the organization’s mission. “We can dig all the wells we want, but there won’t be anyone to drink the water unless we get on top of this disease.”