The infamous Peace Corps postcard
Marjorie Michelmore was a twenty-three-year-old magna cum laude graduate of Smith College 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 idea 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 in the streets, cooks in the streets, sells in the streets, and even goes to the bathroom in the streets. Please write. Marge. P.S. We are excessively cut off from the rest of the world.

Never was mailed
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.
     In the Fall, 1999 issue of the Friends of Nigeria Newsletter, Frank recalls the incident and those early tense days in Ibadan, Nigeria. It is reprinted here by permission of Murray Frank and the FON Newsletter.


Murray Frank
Ibadan 12/61
More photos
Murray Frank Remembers
The Postcard Affair began October 14, 1961. That was the day Peace Corps Nigeria almost came to an end . . . before it started. And I was in the middle of it all.
     Nigeria I had arrived in Ibadan early in October. Volunteers were settling into dormitories at the University of Ibadan (then a part of the University of London and called University College of Ibadan) where they would continue the training started at Harvard.
     I was the Western Region Peace Corps Representative. My family and I arrived in September, ahead of any other Regional Representatives and their families. Brent Ashabranner, who left AID to become Nigeria’s first Peace Corps Director, helped us get settled. We had a house in Bodija, a middle-class development between the center of Ibandan and the University. Residents included professionals and senior government officials — not quite the Peace Corps mold — but quite a comfortable area for a family with children aged two and four.
     I had nothing to do with Volunteer training. My job was to arrange Volunteer assignments. I would visit a potential location, meet the principal and staff, establish that there was a position for the Volunteer to fill, and check out living conditions. I had not gotten very far by Friday, October 13. But, I was getting to know Volunteers as work assignments were developing.
     Volunteers went to class and studied Monday through Saturday mornings. Friday night, October 13, PCV Marjorie Michelmore wrote some letters and picture postcards to folks back home. She mailed them on the way to class Saturday morning. One of the postcards described her first impressions.
     When Volunteers arrived at dormitory dining halls for lunch Saturday, October 14, there was a copy, word for word, of that postcard at each place. Marjorie’s comments described how the average Nigerian lived. While not inaccurate, her comments were not flattering, and to a Nigerian student — especially one concerned about Western imperialism — the comments seemed downright insulting.

God help me!
A couple of Volunteers hitched a ride from the university to bring me the news. Protests were beginning on campus, Volunteers were being ostracized. This was clearly not a training issue. Now, I was in charge, God help me!
     I arranged for all of the Volunteers to come to my house while I went to the USIS library to phone Lagos. I didn’t have a phone. I told Ashabranner what I knew. He cabled Peace Corps Washington.
     By coincidence, the second-in-command at the American Embassy, the Deputy Chief of Mission, was on his way back to Lagos after a trip up North when the story broke. I met him at a local rest house with Marjorie and we agreed that she should go with him to Lagos. There was an AP stringer at the rest house. He could see that something was up.
     I went home to meet with Nigeria I Volunteers. I was totally unprepared for this.
     Initially the group felt anger — at Marjorie for getting us into this, at the Nigerians for making such a big deal out of one person’s comments on a postcard and holding us all responsible. Should we issue a statement disassociating ourselves? If so, to whom? How? We got by that quickly and went on to examine how representative these students and their feelings were of the country, and especially of the people with whom we would be working.

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