A visit to Sophiatown with Lucille Davie

Lucille Davie’s Sophiatown tour

I wrote briefly in my last blog about the history of SophiaTown, and its destruction in the late 1950s.  This wholesale and devastating destruction of buildings left only four standing:  Three that escaped were Christ the King Anglican Church, where Archbishop Trevor Huddleston preached, Dr Alfred Bitini Xuma’s house and St Joseph’s Home for Children. Never having visited these buildings, I was particularly interested to join Lucille Davie on her tour of these few remaining original buildings. Lucille is a prolific researcher who used to write highly informative articles for Joburg.org and has an impressive range of historical knowledge and insights. She has researched and written extensively about Sophiatown, so myself and the other 4 tour participants (German nationals living in South Africa) felt in good hands when we set out on our morning adventure.  

Trevor Huddleston Centre

We disembarked outside the Mix, part of the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre, a new multi-purpose building built in 2015 and made our way to Dr Xuma’s house next door, now the Sophiatown Heritage and Cultural Centre.

Dr Xuma’s house 

Dr Xuma’s house

Declared a declared a national monument in 1998, and given Heritage Site status the following year, this house was built in 1935.  Xuma called it Empilweni (House of healing) and lived there with his second wife Madie Hall Xuma  whom he met in America. She was a renowned educator and social activist in her own right and headed the ANC Women’s League from 1943 to 1948. 

Xuma’s career trajectory is remarkable.  A herdboy as a youth, he became a shipping clerk and then a hotel and train waiter. Not only was he the first black South African to become a medical doctor, but he was also a prominent leader, activist and president-general of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1940 to 1949. It was under his leadership that the ANC Youth League was started and apparently when Mandela went to visit him at his house in 1944, he (Mandela) was very impressed at how grand this 4 bedroomed house was with its entrance hall, sitting room, dining room and study, so different  from the standard 4-roomed government-built Soweto house.

Xuma’s consulting room at the back of the house. There is a photo of Madie Hall Xuma on the right of the window

Despite both Dr Xuma’s and Madie Hall Xuma’s credentials and their standing in the community, and Dr Xuma having been the Chairperson of the Western Areas Anti-Expropriation and Proper Housing Committee, Xuma was forced to move to Dube, Soweto in 1959. After his death in 1962 his book collection was given to Orlando East Public Library, the first purpose built public library in Soweto. 

Trevor Huddleston 

As much as 1950’s Sophiatown was bound up with Drum Magazine, African Jazz, gangster subculture and forced removals, so it is inextricably linked to the name of Trevor Huddleston, somebody who needs little introduction. In 1940 Huddleston was sent to by the Anglican religious order, the Community of the Resurrection, to South Africa, initially to Cape Town and then to their mission station in Rosettenville. He was the Priest-in-Charge of the Community of Resurrection’s Anglican Mission in Sophiatown until he was recalled in 1955.   After his death in April 1998 his ashes were interred next to the Church of Christ the King in his beloved Sophiatown.

Christ the King Anglican Church

From Dr Xuma’s house we moved on to the Church of Christ the King.  Standing in this quiet clean uncluttered space it is difficult to imagine the traumatic history of this building and its congregants.  Lucille’s input and insights into the invisible history of the altar area were fascinating. 

Interior of the Church of Christ the King designed by Frank Fleming and built in 1935. The mosaic in the apse is a recent 2009 addition

Sister Margaret’s mural 

St Joseph’s Children’s home

The first building later to become known as the Boy’s House, opened 1923

Last stop was this delightful complex high on the Melville Koppies ridge, whose history, like that of Church of Christ the King, is integrally connected with the Anglican Church, the Community of the Resurrection, especially Trevor Huddleston, the Sisters of St Margaret and the architect Frank Fleming who designed the initial buildings: the first building later known as the Boys’ House (1923), the main block (1932) and Priests’ House.  Built as a children’s home and a memorial to the Coloured men who fought and lost their lives in the first World War, it was opened in 1923. 

Foundation stone St_Joseph’s Home, Sophiatown
Main Block St. Joseph’s home 1932. Left to right: north, east and south wings.
West wing was built by 1939 enclosing the internal courtyard. St.Joseph’s Home, SophiaTown
The courtyard. St Joseph’s Home Sophiatown
The bell in the central courtyard
Hope Blossoms in Sophiatown by Sarah Welham

The Church successfully opposed the removal of the Home in the 1950s because the property was on farm land and not part of a proclaimed township and so St Joseph’s continued to be run by the Anglican nuns until they left South Africa in 1978.

The changes in the running of the home from 1978 onwards until the property was bought by the Anglican Diocese of Johannesburg in 2008 are well laid out by Sarah Welham in her book: Hope Blossoms in Sophiatown St Joseph’s Home for Coloured Children -The story.  

Reinvented as the home of Vuleka 

In 2014, Vuleka moved its central office to the St Joseph’s Diocesan Centre.  Vuleka is a church-based project, started in 1989, in response to the crisis in education after the Soweto student protests.  It now runs two pre-primary schools, three other primary schools, a centre for assisted learning and a high school.  While all these schools are co-educational, the school established at St Joseph’s is for boys. 

And we ended up this fabulously interesting and informative morning’s tour with lunch at the Roving Bantu in Brixton.  

Lunch at the Roving Bantu in Brixton

Remember to check Lucille’s website



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