Monday, May 21, 2007

Political Biography on Amy Ashwood Garvey: Pan-Africanist, Feminist

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Amy Ashwood Garvey: Pan-Africanist, Feminist and Mrs. Marcus Garvey No. 1, Or, A Tale of Two Amies

by TONY MARTIN

Marcus Garvey is now well known as arguably the greatest Pan-Africanist of all time. His Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), founded in Jamaica in 1914, had a membership at its peak in the 1920s of many millions of people spread over more than forty countries, from Australia to Zimbabwe. The headquarters division in Harlem, New York had about 40,000 members.

Garvey built his organization on the principles of Black Nationalism, which inevitably meant having to do battle with integrationists, Communists, and powerful white governments in the Americas and Europe.

What has only been dimly known before now is the fact that Garvey also had to build his movement in the face of an almost unbelievable struggle against a scorned first wife who pursued him relentlessly for most of his adult life and who continued to assail his remains and his memory for three decades more, until her own death in 1969.

Garvey met Amy Ashwood in Jamaica in 1914, shortly before founding the UNIA. She subsequently moved to Panama but they were reunited in Harlem in 1918. They were married in 1919. Their marriage was effectively over in two months. There followed lawsuits and counter suits for annulment, divorce, alimony and bigamy.

Garvey divorced Ashwood in Missouri in 1922 and quickly married her namesake Amy Jacques, Ashwood’s former roommate and maid of honor. Garvey accused Ashwood of infidelity with several UNIA members, even becoming pregnant for other men, a fact which he was willing to overlook. He accused her of theft from the UNIA’s Black Star Line, of alcoholism and of laziness. Amy Ashwood never accepted the Missouri divorce and contended to the end of her days that she was still the real Mrs. Garvey.

She hounded Garvey by any means at her disposal. She wrote a biographical expose which never got published. She complained to President Calvin Coolidge about him. She toured the United States with musical comedies gloating over Garvey’s incarceration for alleged mail fraud.

She traveled the world opportunistically basking in the glory of the Garvey name. She sued him in the Jamaican courts when satisfaction was not forthcoming in the U.S. legal system. She obtained an injunction in London preventing the second Mrs. Garvey from repatriating Garvey’s remains to Jamaica in 1945.

She staged a coup within the Jamaica UNIA after Garvey’s death and assumed Garvey’s old title of president-general of the Parent Body. She held memorial meetings for Garvey in Jamaica during his last illnesses and after his death in 1940, in scant regard for Garvey’s widow, Amy Jacques, who was living in Jamaica at the time. News of her participation in these memorials after premature press reports of Garvey’s death may have helped induce the final round of strokes that killed him.

Yet Amy Ashwood managed to live a very full life and became an important Pan- Africanist in her own right. She founded the precursor organization to the important West African Students Union (WASU) in London in 1924 and befriended a veritable who’s who of important Pan-African figures. These included C.L.R. James, George Padmore, W.E.B. DuBois, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr, President W.V.S. Tubman of Liberia, President Kwame Nkrumah and J. B. Danquah of Ghana and many others. Her surviving correspondence with some of these figures contains historically important, sometimes startling, information.

Amy organized women’s organizations in West Africa and the Caribbean and became an important figure in the anti-racist movement in England. She accumulated a wealth of unpublished academic materials on the position of women in West Africa.

In 1947 she traced her ancestry back to Ashanti in Ghana in a manner so reminiscent of Alex Haley’s Roots (published three decades later) that one has to wonder whether Haley might have somehow heard of Amy’s story.

Amy was a gifted orator and a charismatic person, but never stuck with her many projects long enough to see them to complete fruition. Her story often reads like fiction. In London she induced a powerful Member of Parliament to buy her a house. Twenty years earlier she had as a benefactor a real English countess.

In Ashanti she persuaded the Asantehene to provide her with a parcel of land for a school which never got built. President Tubman gave her rights to a diamond mine on concessionary terms.

Running through Amy’s story is the fascinating sub-plot of her decades long romance and collaboration with Sam Manning, a Trinidadian calypsonian and one of the world’s pioneering Black recording artistes.

This biography was in the making for twenty-seven years. It utilizes a wealth of research materials, including the private papers of Amy Ashwood Garvey, the papers of many persons who knew her, the extensive court records of her divorce-related cases, the papers of Amy Jacques Garvey, British and United States government archives, interviews with a large number of her acquaintances in many countries, detailed research in Jamaican, African American, Ghanaian and other newspapers and much more.

The New Marcus Garvey Library, No. 4
ISBN 0-912469-06-4. $39.95 cloth. 450 pages.
Order now from The Majority Press
46 Development Road, Fitchburg, MA 01420, USA
Tel: 1-978-829-2521
Fax: 1-978-348-1233
Email: Orders@pssc.com

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