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Meet the black Nobel Peace Prize recipients, part 1

ECONOMIC EXCELLENCE: St. Lucian William Arthur Lewis won the prize in 1979

THERE IS no other prize with the prestige of the Nobel Prize.

Some of the world’s most famous names have been recipients – but black winners are not often widely acclaimed. The Voice highlights the achievements of some of them, below:


Ralph Bunche was the first black person to receive a prize from the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

A distinguished pacifier of Middle East tensions during the late 1940s, Bunche was awarded the coveted prize for peace in 1950, 49 years after the award was initiated. The African-American earned the honour for his role in negotiating a ceasefire between the Israelis and Palestinians, shortly after a coalition of neighbouring Arab countries invaded the new state. Bunche directed talks with the Israelis and Egyptians on the island of Rhodes and by the end of February 1949 both sides signed a truce, which moved the governments of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria to follow suit.

It’s been said that when Bunche learned he would receive the Nobel Prize he strongly considered rejecting it, on the premise that it is the job of United Nations officials to negotiate peace.

Bunche was also the first African-American to receive a doctorate in political science from an American university and was instrumental in creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while working at the UN.

During Bunche’s formative years the family lived in Detroit where his father, Fred Bunche, earned a living as a barber and his mother, Olive Johnson Bunche, was an amateur musician.


Albert John Luthuli was the first African and person outside of Europe and the Americas, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Luthuli was a South African chief, teacher and trade unionist, who was the elected president of the African National Congress (ANC) liberation movement in 1952.

As the ANC president, Luthuli inspired 10 million Africans to engage in a civil disobedience campaign, against the South Africa’s policy of racial segregation. The lay preacher of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa adhered to the philosophy of non-violence, while spearheading several demonstrations and strikes against the white minority government. During the ANC’S liberation movement under the direction of Luthuli, the pacifist was arrested and persecuted. Following the massacre of 69 black demonstrators in Sharpeville in 1960, the ANC was banned.

At Luthuli’s acceptance speech, he stressed the aim of the anti-apartheid movement. He said:

“Our goal is a united Africa in which the standards of life and liberty are constantly expanding.”


In 1979, Sir William Arthur Lewis shared the Nobel Prize for Economics with Theodore W Schulz.

The St. Lucian is the only black person to receive a Nobel Prize in categories other than peace or literature. He was the first West Indian to win a Nobel Prize.

In 1954, Lewis published Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour; in the journal, The Manchester School. The article, which outlined the Lewis Model, was his most influential on issues determining development and gained him the Nobel Prize.

The following year The Theory of Economic Growth expressed Lewis’s conviction that development was not solely about the application of economic theory but involved an awareness of political, social and cultural factors. This work broke new ground in a pioneering economic field and provided a hypothesis to be modelled and tested.

In 1963, Lewis was knighted in recognition of his contribution to the Commonwealth and was also appointed professor at Princeton University.

It was later revealed that his philosophy was sparked by at- tending a meeting of a local Universal Negro Improvement Association, established by Marcus Garvey.


The Nigerian playwright and poet was the first black person to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

He received the award in 1986 for his writings which are based on the mythology of the tribes of Yoruba and Ogun, the god of iron and war.

One of Soyinka’s famous quotes was: “The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism.” The writer was jailed twice for his criticism of the Nigerian government during the 1960s and famously composed protest poems on toilet paper from his cell in solitary confinement.

After studying in Nigeria and the UK, he worked with the Royal Court Theatre in London. He went on to write plays that were produced in both countries, in theatres and on radio.

He also took an active role in Nigeria’s political history and its struggle for independence from Great Britain.


Toni Morrison was the first black woman to win the Noble Prize in literature. In 1993, the author was praised by the Academy for her work “characterised by visionary force and poetic import [that] gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”

Three of her novels were specifically highlighted; Song of Solomon, Beloved and Jazz.

The Nobel Prize winner has always been very clear who her main audience is. She has said during interviews:

“I’m writing for black people. I don’t have to apologise or consider myself limited because I don’t write about white people, which is not absolutely true – there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it.”

Part 2 of this piece will be published tomorrow at 6.30pm GMT.

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