Bishop Claude Alexander was in east Africa last year to preach at a sister church in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi when he had a chance encounter with another visitor — President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Alexander took the opportunity to tell the president about an idea he’d nurtured for years: the creation of a Charlotte-based trade hub that would connect the U.S. and Africa.
Over the following months that idea morphed with another. That was finding a way to reconnect Africans and African Americans 400 years after the first slaves were brought to the English colony of Virginia.
Now both ideas are about to become reality.
Next Friday and Saturday, Alexander will host around 200 leaders in business, academia and the faith community at R400 at his Park Expo & Conference Center. Kenyatta is sending a special envoy. Other African leaders, in the country for next week’s UN General Assembly session, have been invited.
“I am awed by how the African Heads of State and the African Union caught and affirmed the vision,” said Alexander, pastor of The Park Church. “I am excited about the unique opportunity that this presents to the city of Charlotte, the African diaspora and the continent of Africa.”
Alexander is CEO of Park Expo, formerly the Charlotte Merchandise Mart. He said the conference center has over 100,000 square feet of space available for the planned trade hub, which would offer office and display space to help African businesses reach the broader U.S. market.
He said African leaders were drawn by the size of Park Expo — which also has 224,000 square feet of exhibition space — and the fact that it’s one of the largest black-owned conference centers in the country.
“I think it’s going to have significant impact on both sides of the Atlantic,” said Barron Harvey, dean of Howard University’s School of Business and a featured speaker at the conference.
Since that first meeting at the Nairobi church, a lot happened on two continents to bring the event to Charlotte.
In August 2018, Alexander met with Kenyatta again at the State House, Kenya’s White House. In February he addressed leaders at a summit of the 55-country African Union in Ethiopia and saw them pass a resolution in support of his effort. And in May ambassadors from at least a half-dozen African ambassadors visited the Park Expo and met with Mayor Vi Lyles.
At the African Union, Kenyatta called on fellow leaders to support the Charlotte event as a way to both commemorate the 400th anniversary and move forward from it.
“There is so much we can do to bring together our artists, scholars, business people, religious institutions, students and youth,” he told them, according to prepared remarks. “I am particularly inspired by the call to seize the moment by Bishop Alexander and look forward to joining with you to embrace the initiative he is helping shape.”
To Alexander, the “R” in R400 is as important as the trade hub itself. It stands for Reconnects, Reconciles, Reclaims and Rebuilds and lays the groundwork for continued partnership.
He said there’s a lot about African history and African American history that neither fully understands about the other. That’s why he invited Mohamed Camara, who chairs Howard’s Department of African Studies.
Camara said he’ll talk about the parallels between slavery and Jim Crow in America and colonialism in Africa.
“My argument is that the racism that was being applied to people of African descent in the Americas was also applied to Africans in Africa,” Camara told the Observer.
“What I hope people take away from that is that there are so many things that we share as Africans and African Americans . . . And in the 21st Century Africa and its diaspora should capitalize on those similarities and work together, because we have a long way to go.”
Alexander said the conference also will look for ways to work with Africa in the future in areas including education, health care, tourism and the advancement of women.
“We do want to look back but (use it) as a springboard to look forward,” Alexander said.
Gateway to a billion people
Cameroonian Daniel Anagho, one of an estimated 10,000 Africans living in Charlotte, calls the proposed trade hub “a huge deal” for Charlotte.
The CEO of the African Investment Corporation, Anagho said it will allow Charlotte companies to form partnerships with African companies and make Charlotte a gateway to the continent.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity for us to look at ourselves as hub for 1 billion-person market,” he said.
Harvey, the business school dean, said he sees next week’s meeting leading to partnerships in education and other areas.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for entities in the United States and entities in Africa to collaborate,” he said.
If all goes according to plan, another R400 gathering is planned for Accra, Ghana, in 2020.
“If this is done correctly, then Charlotte could become a premier portal through which trade and commerce with the continent of Africa is done,” Alexander said. “It’s an opportunity for us as a city.”
Registration for the conference is open. The fee is $195. For information or to register, go to www.r400movement.com.
The program includes talks on African history and current affairs as well breakout sessions on everything from faith and development to sports and the arts.