The Infamous Peace Corps Postcard, Part 1

A number of people have emailed me to ask about my mentioning of the “Marjorie Michelmore Peace Corps Postcard.” What was that, they asked, having never heard of it. Well, here’s the full story, in 10 blogs.

Marjorie Michelmore was a twenty-three-year-old magna cum laude graduate of Smith College in 1961 when she became one of the first people to apply to the new Peace Corps. She was an attractive, funny, and smart woman who was selected to go to Nigeria. After seven weeks of training at Harvard, her group flew to Nigeria. There she was to complete the second phase of teacher training at University College at Ibadan, fifty miles north of the capital of Lagos. By all accounts, she was an outstanding Trainee.

Then on the evening of October 13, 1961, she wrote a postcard to a boyfriend in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here is what she had to say:

Dear Bobbo: Don’t be furious at getting a postcard. I promise a letter next time. I wanted you to see the incredible and fascinating city we were in. With all the training we had, we really were not prepared for the squalor and absolutely primitive living conditions rampant both in the city and in the bush. We had no ideas what “underdeveloped” meant. It really is a revelation and after we got over the initial horrified shock, a very rewarding experience. Everyone except us lives on the streets, cooks in the streets, sells in the streets, and even goes to the bathroom in the street. Please writer. Marge.

P.S. We are excessively cut off from the rest of the world.

The postcard never was mailed. It is said that it was found on the grounds of University College at Ibadan near Marjorie’s dormitory, Queen Elizabeth Hall. The finder was a Nigerian student at the college. Copies of the postcard were made and distributed. Volunteers were immediately denounced as “agents of imperialism” and “members of America’s international spy ring.”

The protest made front-page news in Nigeria and it sparked a minor international incident. As the Nigerian Ambassador to the United States put it, “No one likes to be called primitive.”

Smack in the middle of this “international incident” was Murray Frank, the thirty-four-year-old Western Regional Director of the Peace Corps in Nigeria, who had arrived in-country only weeks before the Trainees and was busy developing sites for the Volunteers when the infamous postcard was found.

[Part 1]

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  • The author of this Infamous card never new her “postcard” would be shared with thousands of Trainees as a way to explain what not to do…focus on the Ugly American in another country. During Peace Corps training in Puerto Rico and later in Bogota, Colombia, I made certain that Trainees and future staff for Latin America heard me talk why it was important what you say and how…a careless statement becomes very careless. It was great for role playing in training, and a copy of the Ugly American was always read, first book out of your “book locker” when you got yo your site…I think well all learned! Thanks John…Bob
    Bob Arias
    Peace Corps Response Volunteer/Panama

  • This story was told to my group of trainees in Western Samoa (1983-1985), and we were reminded of it regularly, lest we step out of line in some way and cause an international incident. I suspect most of us thought it was just a Peace Corps myth, something related from PC generation to PC generation to scare the bejesus out of us and keep us in line. Until very recently, when RPCV Lorenzo Lihosit told me, I didn’t know it was true.

    Poor Marjorie. Does she know how famous she is?

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