Black Nationalist Women's Activism in 1920s Harlem

By Keisha N. Blain

Founded by Marcus Garvey, with the assistance of Amy Ashwood, in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1914, the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) was the largest and most influential Pan-Africanist movement of the twentieth century. Emphasizing racial pride, black political self-determination, racial separatism, African heritage, economic self-sufficiency, and African redemption from European colonization, Garvey envisioned the UNIA as a vehicle for improving the social, political, and economic conditions of black people everywhere. From Kingston, Jamaica, Garvey oversaw UNIA affairs before relocating to Harlem. At its peak, from 1919 to 1924, the organization attracted millions of followers in more than forty countries around the world.

UNIA parade in Harlem, 1920. Source: New York Public Library

UNIA parade in Harlem, 1920. Source: New York Public Library

Like many black nationalists before and after him, Garvey maintained a masculinist vision of black liberation and thus believed that black men would ultimately lead the fight to improve conditions for black people in the diaspora. Eunice Lewis’s call for “revolutionizing the old type of male leadership,” in a 1924 article for Negro World, was therefore a direct challenge to the prevailing ethos of black patriarchy in the Garvey movement. Along with a cadre of women during this period, including Amy Jacques Garvey, Maymie De Mena, and Henrietta Vinton Davis, Lewis articulated a new and expansive vision of black women’s leadership in the UNIA and in the community as a whole. These women, from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and social positions, adopted a proto-feminist stance in which they directly challenged male supremacy and attempted to change the UNIA’s patriarchal leadership structure. In their efforts to “revolution[ize] the old type of male leadership,” black nationalist women pioneers created opportunities for women to have greater visibility and autonomy than Garvey originally envisioned. Moreover, they devoted significant attention to women’s issues and often defied prevailing gender conventions. In doing so, they articulated many of the same arguments and employed some of the strategies that were fundamental to feminist movements that emerged during the 1960s and 1970s.

Indeed, throughout the United States, Canada, and other parts of the African diaspora, the UNIA played a critical part in fueling the racial consciousness of black women from all walks of life. In an era of strict gender roles, involvement in the UNIA enabled black women to engage in political activities outside of the expected parameters of home and family. The Nineteenth Amendment failed to live up to its promises for women of color; it took more than four decades before they experienced the full benefits of suffrage. Largely shut out of the formal political process, black women in the United States during the 1920s found opportunities to engage in political activity through predominantly black religious institutions, the black club women’s movement, and some leadership opportunities in mainstream civil rights organizations. These opportunities, however, were limited in scope — often confined to behind-the-scenes roles. With few visible leadership positions available to black women during this period, the UNIA provided a unique opportunity for women to maintain public roles. For example, when the organization relocated to Harlem, three of the six directors listed on the certificate of incorporation were women: Carrie B. Mero, an activist from Massachusetts, and Harlemites Harriet Rogers and Irene M. Blackstone.

Of these three women, Blackstone was the most well known in Harlem circles. A clubwoman and suffragist who previously served as president of the Negro Women’s Business League, Blackstone joined the UNIA in Harlem in 1917. Initially believing that it was unlikely for black men and women in the United States to obtain full citizenship rights, Blackstone embraced Garvey’s message and quickly became immersed in black nationalist politics. In addition to maintaining a position as one of the organization’s directors, she became president of the New York UNIA Ladies’ Division in 1917. During this period, Blackstone used her public platform in Harlem to advocate racial pride, boldly declaring in one speech, “I am American. I am black, and I am proud that I am black.” Reflecting her commitment to women’s rights and leadership opportunities, Blackstone encouraged black women to leave white women’s kitchens, urging them to build their own livelihoods by relying on their unique skills and creativity. In a passionate speech, delivered to a group of UNIA members in 1923, Blackstone advocated black economic empowerment and called on black men and women to boycott white-owned businesses. “Why,” she asked black Harlemites, “should all the white men come up here on your main streets — Fifth Avenue, Lenox Avenue, Seventh and Eighth Avenues [in Harlem] and have all of the business places?” “If you would boycott the white business man in Harlem,” Blackstone continued, “you would find black businesses on the avenue.” Her comments underscore her endorsement of black capitalism as a vehicle for bolstering black economic power — an idea that was consistent with the UNIA’s mission.

Several other black women in Harlem found similar visible leadership opportunities in the UNIA during the 1920s. This was certainly the case for Ethel Maud Collins. Born in Brown’s Town, Jamaica, near Marcus Garvey’s hometown of St. Ann’s Bay, in 1892, Collins migrated to the United States during the Great Migration. As thousands of black southerners abandoned life in the Jim Crow South, collectively resisting white supremacy and searching for better prospects in the urban North and West, Caribbean migrants also arrived in the United States in record numbers. From 1899 to 1927, more than 140,000 Caribbean migrants entered the United States. The period between 1922 and 1923 witnessed a sharp increase in Caribbean immigration before the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 took effect. The vast majority of these immigrants relocated to New York City. By the onset of the Great Depression, almost 20 percent of blacks in Harlem were of Caribbean origin.

When Collins arrived in Harlem in 1920, she joined a vibrant community of Afro-Caribbean men and women. While the organization’s base of support extended far beyond the city, the UNIA in Harlem became a significant political space for Afro-Caribbean men and women, as well as other peoples of African descent, to engage in the struggle to end global white supremacy. Though the specific circumstances surrounding her decision to join the UNIA are unclear, Collins became an active member of the Garvey movement within a year of arriving in the United States. During the organization’s heyday, Collins frequently attended UNIA meetings in Harlem, doing clerical work for the organization and investing in the Black Star Line. A single woman who resided with her siblings, Collins operated a beauty shop from her Fifth Avenue apartment to maintain a livelihood and likely used it as a space to disseminate Garveyism. By the late 1920s, she was appointed executive secretary of the Garvey Club in New York and acting secretary of the UNIA.

Amy Jacques Garvey

Amy Jacques Garvey

Significantly, Collins’s positions in the Garvey Club and in the UNIA brought her into contact with other black nationalist women in Harlem at the time, including Amy Jacques Garvey, who later became Garvey’s second wife. Born to an educated middle-class family in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1895, Jacques Garvey relocated to the United States in 1917. As new black residents from the South joined a growing community of Afro-descended people in the city, Harlem witnessed a flowering of black intellectual and literary expression through various mediums, including poetry, literature, and music. The Harlem Renaissance, which began around 1918, also marked the emergence of the “New Negro,” the antithesis of the submissive, passive, and accommodating “Old Negro.” Arriving in Harlem during this period, Jacques Garvey joined the community of “New Negro” migrants. Although she would later deny it, Jacques Garvey was a close friend of Garvey’s first wife, Amy Ashwood, who may have also played a significant role in Jacques Garvey’s decision to join the UNIA. When Marcus Garvey and Amy Ashwood were married at Harlem’s Liberty Hall in 1919, Jacques Garvey participated in the ceremony as Ashwood’s maid of honor — a clear indication that the two women had formed a close bond of friendship and mutual affection.

Like Collins, Jacques Garvey became increasingly active in UNIA affairs shortly after joining the organization. Unlike Ashwood, who maintained a very public presence, however, Jacques Garvey worked mostly behind the scenes. During her early years in the UNIA, Jacques Garvey served as the secretary in the UNIA’s main office and helped Garvey plan his speaking tours. In 1922, months after Garvey’s divorce from Amy Ashwood was finalized, Jacques Garvey became Garvey’s new wife — a position she skillfully used to leverage her involvement and leadership in the organization. In only a matter of months, she became the most prominent woman in the organization, serving in a wide range of capacities, including spokesperson and archivist. In 1923, Jacques Garvey published the first edition of the Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, a collection of Garvey’s speeches and essays. “It is my sincere hope and desire,” she explained in the book’s introduction, “that this small volume will help to disseminate among the members of my race everywhere the true knowledge of their past history... and the glorious future of national independence in a free and redeemed Africa, achieved through organized purpose and organized action.” Embracing the core tenets of black nationalism, including black political self-determination, racial pride, and African redemption, Jacques Garvey played a crucial role in popularizing and preserving Garvey’s ideas. When her husband was imprisoned in 1925 on charges of mail fraud, Jacques Garvey served as the de facto leader of the UNIA, overseeing much of the organization’s day-to-day activities. From 1924 to 1927, Jacques Garvey edited the women’s page of the Negro World, “Our Women and What They Think,” providing a significant platform for UNIA women to articulate their views without direct male censorship.

Indeed, from its first issue, the short-lived women’s page of the Negro World openly challenged many of Garvey’s views on women as well as the core principles of the UNIA. One of the featured articles, “The New Woman,” written by Garveyite Saydee E. Parham, a law student residing in New York, challenged traditional notions of gender roles. A frequent writer for “Our Women,” Parham discussed the process of evolution by which all species experience growth and maturation. Along these lines, she implied that women’s roles and opportunities needed to expand in an ever-changing society: “From the brow-beaten, dominated cave woman, cowering in fear at the mercy of the brutal mate... from the safely cloistered woman reared like a clinging vine, destitute of all initiative and independence... we find her at last rising to the pinnacle of power and glory.” Blanche Hall reinforced these sentiments in her article, “Woman’s Greatest Influence Is Socially,” published in October 1924. “Show me a good, honest, noble man of character,” Hall wrote, “and I will show you a good mother or wife behind him.” Addressing the important responsibilities that women held in society and emphasizing men’s dependence on women, Hall reminded readers that the UNIA could not advance without women’s assistance. “There is much that the woman can do to make this organization a success,” she carefully noted.

Carrie Mero Leadett, another frequent writer for “Our Women,” demanded change within the UNIA along similar lines of gender equality. A resident of New York, Leadett worked as a clerk at the UNIA headquarters in Harlem and for the organization’s shipping company during the 1920s. In her 1924 article, “The Negro Girl of Today Has Become a Follower — Future Success Rests with Her Parents and Home Environment,” Leadett challenged young black women to build better futures for themselves through innovation rather than imitation. She went on to argue that although black women should aim for the same successes as women of other races, they needed to become leaders and not followers. Florence Bruce reinforced this position in her 1924 article, “The Great Work of the Negro Woman Today.” Bruce, an active member of the UNIA, was the wife of John E. Bruce, who served as a contributing editor of the Negro Worldfrom 1921 until his death in 1924. Citing women’s impact in society since antiquity, Mrs. Bruce contended that women’s influence would help the advancement of the UNIA and the black community. “No race has succeeded without a good and strong womanhood,” she wrote, “and none ever will.”

Importantly, the debut of “Our Women” coincided with Garvey’s legal troubles and increasing turbulence in the UNIA. A year prior to the introduction of “Our Women,” Garvey had been convicted on charges of mail fraud, allegedly for using the U.S. mail to promote and sell stock for Black Star Line ships he had yet to purchase. In February 1925, after his appeals were denied, he began serving a five-year term at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. During this period, Amy Jacques Garvey became increasingly involved in organizational affairs, serving as de facto leader in her husband’s absence. With Garvey unable to wield full control from his Atlanta prison cell, Jacques Garvey used the pages of “Our Women” to articulate her proto-feminist views, openly denouncing what she described as the “antiquated beliefs” of men in the UNIA.104 With each successive issue of “Our Women,” Jacques Garvey became increasingly more outspoken and critical of black men in the organization.

Not all Garveyite women held these convictions or accommodated these views, of course. Women pioneers in the Garvey movement often wavered between feminist and nationalist ideals, articulating a critique of black patriarchy while endorsing traditionally conservative views on gender and sexuality. But women drew from the UNIA a wide range of skills, experiences, and networks from which they were able to build and expand in the decades to follow. Above all, they drew from the UNIA a sense of empowerment and foundational black nationalist ideals, including racial pride, political self-determination, and economic self-sufficiency. Building on yet also expanding beyond these core principles, women moved in various directions, utilizing black nationalism as an organizing tool around which to challenge global white supremacy during the twentieth century.

Keisha N. Blain teaches history at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). Follow her on Twitter: @KeishaBlain.

This post is excerpted and adapted from Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom, courtesy of University of Pennsylvania Press.