by Nydia Swaby
“A nation without great women is a nation frolicking in peril. Let us go forward and lift the degradations which rest on the Negro woman – God’s most glorious gift to all civilizations.”
~Amy Ashwood Garvey
If you ask a Jamaican to name a national hero, the first person that usually comes to mind is Marcus Garvey, the Black Nationalist who popularized the movement of Pan-Africanism in the early 20th century. Based on his belief that the only way to improve the conditions of black people around the world was to unite them into one racial community Marcus Garvey founded the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Kingston, Jamaica in 1914. The influence of “Garveyism” can be traced throughout the Afro-Caribbean, United States, and Africa. People of African heritage from every corner of the world know of Marcus Garvey’s philosophy and writings.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Amy Ashwood Garvey, Marcus Garvey’s first wife and co-founder of the UNIA. Serving as a representative of the Pan-African movement Amy Ashwood lived a politically active life independent of her relationship with Marcus Garvey. She toured the United States, all islands of the Caribbean, South and Central America, Europe, the British Isles, and West Africa lecturing on the need for unity among people of African descent and chronicling the experiences of the people she encountered with the goal of publishing her findings. To date, none of Amy Ashwood Garvey’s manuscripts about her travels and humanitarian work have ever been published. However, two biographies have been written about her life, and she is referenced in several articles and books on Caribbean radicalism, Pan-Africanism, and Black nationalism.
Amy Ashwood incorporated feminist ideologies into her humanitarian work. Most Pan-African leaders of the time, such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, were focused on issues of race and class. But as a woman of African descent Amy Ashwood was particularly concerned with issues of race, class, and gender and how the intersection of all three uniquely affected the black woman. Amy Ashwood believed that women should fight for equal rights, so she focused her efforts on ensuring that women of color were part of the fight against oppression and colonialism. She believed in bringing women of color together “so that they may work for the betterment of all.”[i] She argued that “there must be a revolution among women” and that they “must realize their importance in the post-war world.” Throughout her travels in the United States, London, Africa, and the Caribbean, she aimed to build a non-hierarchical international woman’s movement that would appeal to all women of color.
Within the Pan-African movement Amy Ashwood served as a voice for women, ensuring that the predominantly male leaders of the movement heard their concerns and considered their needs. While she did not perceive black men to be the primary oppressors of black women she did believe that they were partially responsible for black women being “shunted to the social background to be a child bearer” and could only get positions working as a domestics.[ii] Amy Ashwood saw colonialism as the true oppressor of all people of color. From her perspective the race, class, and gender oppression that black women and other women of color experienced could be explained as existing as a result of colonialism. Like communist feminist Claudia Jones she believed that women were important allies in the fight for colonial freedom and perceived black men to be comrades in the struggle.
Lionel M. Yard, an amateur historian who was good friends with Amy Ashwood, wrote the first of biographic sketch of her life in the 1980s. While constructing his rendition of Ashwood’s life entitled Biography of Amy Ashwood Garvey 1897-1969: Co-founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, Yard traveled to London in search of information where he acquired a collection of her private papers that were scheduled for removal and dumping the following day.[iii] In order to write this biography, Yard utilized the letters and manuscripts he found at Amy Ashwood’s former residence in London; court records regarding her legal suits with Marcus Garvey; FBI interviews in Jamaica, London, Ghana, Liberia, and Panama; personal conversations with Ashwood; and an recording she did in the basement of his home honoring her late husband.[iv] Dr. Tony Martin, a former history professor who helped to found the Africana Studies Department at Wellesley College, wrote the second of the Amy Ashwood biographies entitled Amy Ashwood Garvey: Pan-Africanist, Feminist, and Mrs. Marcus Garvey No. 1 (2007). Martin, who’s written a series of eight books on Marcus Garvey’s life and teachings, spent 27 years researching Amy Ashwood, traveling to London, Africa, and Jamaica in search of information.
Both these historians inspired my own research on Amy Ashwood Garvey’s life and political activities. Thanks to a lead provided in the forward of Dr. Tony Martin’s work and the wonders of the internet, I was able to locate Lionel Yard’s daughter Patricia Maillard and his grandson Phil Maillard, still living in Brookyln, in possession of Lionel Yard’s research materials and several drafts of his manuscripts. The Maillards were kind enough to let me into their home on two occasions to review Amy Ashwood’s private papers and a collection of photographs, my personal favorite being a picture of Ashwood with Claudia Jones and Paul Robeson. According to Martin the documents in Lionel Yard’s collection are “invaluable historical information,” and I most certainly agree.[v]
Although the documents haven’t been catalogued, pouring through the handwritten letters, manuscripts, and photographs in the Yard collection provided a rare glimpse into who Amy Ashwood Garvey was separate from her relationship with Marcus Garvey. Amy Ashwood had her own understanding of how best to advance the Pan-African movement, her own ideologies of the role of the Black woman, and disagreed with some of Marcus Garvey’s own teachings. An analysis of Amy Ashwood’s political activities reveals that, as early as her teenage years, she was an ardent Pan-Africanist but first and foremost Amy Ashwood Garvey was a feminist. She believed empowering black women was essential to the establishment of a united racial community. Through my research on her political life before, during, and after her marriage to Marcus Garvey, I aim to shed light on the many contributions she made not only to the Pan-African movement, but also to the feminist movements in Africa and the African Diaspora. ▢
[i] New York Amsterdam News, April 1, 1944: reprinted in Pan-African History: Political Figures from the Africa Diaspora Since 1787 by Marika Sherwood and Hakim Adi, 72.
[ii] George Padmore, ed. Colonial and Coloured Unity: History of the Pan-African Congress. London: (The Hammersmith Bookshop LTD), 98-99
[iii] Tony Martin The New Marcus Garvey Library, vol 6, The Pan-African Connection: From Slavery to Garvey and Beyond. Rev. ed. (Dover, Massachusetts: Majority Press, 1983), X and Lionel M. Yard Biography of Amy Ashwood Garvey: 1897 – 1969. (Associated Publishers, Inc, 1908), 229
[iv] Yard, 210-212, 228-230
[v] Martin, X