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Remembering Amy Ashwood-Garvey: A Pan-African pioneer

Thandeka Nomvele is a research assistant at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa. She recently penned an opinion article that first appeared in The Gleaner (Jamaica): 27 November 2021.

 The University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) in South Africa, in collaboration with the London-based Centre for Pan-African Thought (CPAT), recently hosted a virtual lecture series based on the volume edited by Professor Adekeye Adebajo titled ‘The Pan-African Pantheon: Prophets, Poets and Philosophers’. It brought together 10 of the contributors to this volume, who spoke on their respective chapters about figures such as Dudley Thompson, Miriam Makeba, Malcolm X, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Derek Walcott, and Steve Biko. Among these was Amy Ashwood-Garvey, born on January 10, 1897, in Port Antonio, Jamaica. She was a prominent pioneer who contributed to, and was impacted by, the intellectual and activist ideals of Pan-Africanism.

Ashwood-Garvey’s exceptional contribution to Pan-Africanism traversed several decades and played out across four continents, and involved collaborations with some of the most influential thinkers, political activists, and socialist leaders of the early to mid-20th century. Professor Rhoda Reddock, whose lecture was titled ‘Amy Ashwood-Garvey: Global Pan-African Feminist’, noted that, while she was popularly and formally regarded as the first wife of Marcus Garvey (the Jamaica-born Pan-Africanist), Ashwood-Garvey was less known for her contributions to the Pan-African movement. It was not until the early 2000s that she was recognised for the work she had done for Africans and the global African diaspora.

Her pursuit to “awaken the Negro” was sparked in 1904, during her early years at the Baptist Westwood High School for Girls in Stewart Town, Jamaica, which was established to accommodate girls with darker complexions. Thus, Ashwood-Garvey became familiar with the concepts of colourism and class divides, and became conscious of how these separations impacted the unification of the black race.

During her quest to unify and uplift the black race, Ashwood met Marcus Garvey, a man whose Pan-Africanist ideals resonated heavily with her own. She subsequently joined the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) in 1914, a black nationalist fraternal organisation. While her claim to have co-founded the UNIA-ACL has been cast in doubt by Garveyite historian Tony Martin, several documents indicate that she served as the secretary and initiated the women’s division of the organisation.

Indeed, the UNIA-ACL was launched with the financial aid of Ashwood-Garvey, who borrowed money from her parents to print the flyers for the initial meeting. She served as the first general secretary and was a member of the association’s management board. During this time, Ashwood-Garvey started the women’s league of the UNIA-ACL, which later became the Black Cross Nurses Arm, and secured positions for women on the UNIA’s branch executives. The Black Cross nurses provided healthcare to black people and promoted overall well-being through their health manuals.

Amy Ashwood-Garvey made unique contributions to the anti-colonial Garvey movement in the Caribbean and in Africa. She lectured in the Caribbean and in West Africa, and played an instrumental role in unifying the black and Indian populations in Guyana. She actively tried to unite Kwame Nkrumah and his vocal dissident, the Ghanaian politician, J.B. Danquah, whom she had met during her stay in London. She encouraged Jamaican citizens to pursue a radical political education and run for political office. A prime example was J.A.G. Smith, who stood against the former prime minister, Alexander Bustamante, in Jamaica. Furthermore, Ashwood-Garvey encouraged sex education for the Jamaican people, decades before it was introduced in Cuban schools after the 1959 revolution. She often called for a women’s political movement, similar to the ones that were emerging across America, to promote female representation in local politics. Ashwood-Garvey hoped that the masses in British Guiana would imitate these movements in America and equip themselves with the knowledge of parliamentary and legislative procedures, in order to run for – and ultimately hold – such public offices, as enlightened members of the black community.

In 1918, Ashwood-Garvey, together with her then husband Marcus Garvey, established the Negro World newspaper under the UNIA-ACL. This weekly newspaper was printed in Harlem, New York, and distributed in over 40 countries. In line with the Pan-Africanist ideals, the newspaper published Afrocentric content and subsequently played a major role in the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s and 1930s. After Ashwood-Garvey left the UNIA-ACL, she continued to play a pioneering role in the emerging struggles for national liberation and Pan-Africanism.

Ashwood-Garvey’s creative impulses led her into a career as a public speaker, writer, a theatre producer, and a restaurant owner. When she and her partner, Sam Manning – a Trinidadian performer and songwriter – moved to London in 1936, they opened a nightclub and restaurant called the Florence Mills Restaurant and Social Club. This club is further testimony to Ashwood-Garvey’s dedication to unifying the black race as it created a space for radical thinkers and activists. The Florence Mills Club hosted intellectuals such as C.L.R. James and organised meetings for groups such as the International African Friends of Abyssinia (IAFA), an organisation established in London in 1935, to challenge Italy’s conquest of the Ethiopian empire. It is said that C.L.R. James began work on The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, a history of the Haitian revolution, at the Florence Mills Club in 1938.

Amy Ashwood-Garvey’s name has been tied to Marcus Garvey’s. However, her contributions have influenced the development of Pan-Africanism in the 21st century, as well as the rethinking of African, African-Caribbean and African-American political processes. Her unrelenting efforts continue to inspire generations of activists throughout the African world. Thus, Amy Ashwood-Garvey should be recognised as a Pan-African pioneer in her own right, and history should accord her the honour she deserves.

The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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