Women in the UNIA. The Garvey movement mobilized millions in the United States and across the globe.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
Laura Kofey and the Gendered Vision of Redemption in the Garvey Movement
by Barbara Bair from the book “A Mighty Baptism
edited by Susan Juster and Lisa MacFarlane, Chapter 2
In an evening meeting in March 1928, Laura Adorker Kofey stood before her congregation in a storefront church in Miami and began exhorting her audience from scripture. Kofey was a charismatic evangelist and preacher. She had been a highly successful organizer for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association in Alabama and Florida, and she was the founder of her own independent religious organization, the African Universal Church. Her powerful voice filled the meeting place as she stood with her Bible in her hands. As the worship began to build with enthusiasm, just as it had at many meetings before under Kofey’s ministration, gunshots rang out from the back of the church. The bullets struck Mother Kofey in the head. Stopped short in mid-sentence, she slumped to the floor. She had stood at her place at the pulpit tall with dignity, vital and articulate with the word. Moments later she lay deprived of agency, her voice silenced by death.
The story of the violent martyrdom of Laura Kofey can serve as a metaphor in examining the gender politics and ideas of power and authority that imbued the Garvey movement. Her fate at the hands of an assassin in her storefront church was not the work of a moment. Rather it was the culmination of a series of events that elucidate debates within Garveyism over the place of women and their rightful access to leadership and public voice. Her experience speaks, in both its opportunities and its limitations, to other women’s experiences in the movement. The varied responses to her success highlight the fact that among Garveyites, discourse---about whether women should preach or lead, about the gendered nature of spirituality and its link to political forms of redemption, and about the directions of the movement vis-à-vis the teachings of the church----was lively and multidimensional, a polyphony of multiple voices that defies a singular focus on Garvey himself or on a neat dualism of women and men.
Garveyism is often seen as a grassroots nationalist phenomenon springing from the heightened political consciousness that imbued the Black community in the years surrounding World War 1. Founded as a benevolent association by Marcus Garvey and Amy Ashwood in Jamaica in 1914, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was reformulated as a Black separatist and Pan-Africanist organization in Harlem in 1917 and 1918. The organization took root in the post-war environment of intellectual reconstruction and defiance, but it was equally produced by the nationalist aspects of the social movements of the past, and thus was part of an ongoing infrastructure of communal resistance and redefinition created by African Americans since emancipation. That infrastructure, including spiritual and social dimensions of religious practice, was itself built on foundations laid by African Americans and African West Indians during the period of slavery. Garveyism had its roots in the colonization movements of the nineteenth century and in the structures Black self-help that belied the negating aims of Jim Crow: business enterprises, financial institutions, schools, Masonic orders, benevolent associations, and community organizations organized by women such as mother’s clubs, Bible bands, and neighborhood unions. Most pointedly, the Garvey movement was built on the social foundation of the Black church, particularly the church as it existed and evolved in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth. It was on the foundation of the church that Garvey built a mass movement, and it was from the same population of the working poor and the petit bourgeoisie that both the Black church and the UNIA drew their memberships.
Church men and women recognized in the UNIA familiar gender roles and patterns. Like the Black church, the UNIA developed a very strong women’s auxiliary, in which women formed their own leadership and carried on their own functions. At the same time women participated in the gender-integrated hierarchy of the organization and strongly supported the concept of manhood rights upon which the organization was founded. Like women active in the church, UNIA women sometimes challenged the secondary and separate roles assigned to them within the organization as a whole. They offered both a feminist theology and a call for expanded opportunity for women to speak and interpret. The UNIA, like the Black church, was an oasis of racial dignity, affirmation, and self-determination within a dominant society of oppression. Within the UNIA, as within the church, African American gender relations and understandings were continually being challenged and defended, reevaluated and redefined through discourse and action. Much of this debate centered on religious conceptions of political and moral duty and on women’s and men’s relations to the power of the word.
Different visions of liberty and redemption were encoded in male and female form in the UNIA auxiliaries, based on the models of Black soldiers in battle and the nurses who ministered to them. Military drills of the male African Legion auxiliary displayed the organization’s commitment to assertiveness and self-defense, while plays and demonstrations of the nursing arts presented by the Black cross Nurses, a female UNIA auxiliary, proclaimed a similar commitment to the safety and protection of people of color in a more nurturing manner. The military uniforms of male UNIA leaders and of the paramilitary auxiliaries—imperial in design—conveyed an image of manhood that belied the dominant white construction of Black male subordination and substituted determination, dominance, and nationhood. The African Legion motto, “For God, For Africa, For Justice,” encapsulated the sense of the auxiliary as Christian soldiers marching unto war, spiritual and political. The Black Cross Nurses presented a different iconography of African liberation and resistance. The white habits worn by the Black Cross Nurses signified a revised image of Black womanhood, also imbued with Christian meanings. Not the wanton Jezebels of white imagination, the nurses were instead angels of charity and mercy, holy sisters united in purity and devotion to their own community and its redemption. The popular conception of the nurses as a religious sisterhood, with a calling to serve their people, was underscored by descriptions of the auxiliary in the Negro World as “Ministering Angels of Humanity” and “noble, self-sacrificing” women “following in the footsteps of Our Savior.”
The religious connotations of gender in the male and female auxiliaries were also extended to the UNIA vision of Africa and its redemption from colonial rule. In the discourse of the Garvey movement Africa was metaphorically conceived as a woman. The scripture repeated most often in the Garvey movement spoke directly to the Garveyite longing for redemption, personifying Africa (often the ancient Africa of Egypt and Ethiopia) as a woman and promising her succor. This was the prophecy of Psalms 68:31—“Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto God.” It was precisely this vision of African redemption that Mother Laura Kofey used to urge her followers on to a Pan-African consciousness—an image underscored by her own self-definition as an African and as a representative, in female form, of West Africa in America.
Gender, Authority, and the UNIA
The Central force of religion, the missionary attitude of many Garveyites toward Africa, the call for collective Pan-African identification, and the prevailing unity of authority in the Garvey movement were all reflected in the various meanings of the official motto of the organization: “One God, One Aim, One Destiny” (a motto that Laura Kofey also adopted for her African Universal Church). The philosophy of the Garvey movement was framed by both religious ritual and a revised, neopolitical theology that stressed the importance of Africa and was often expressed in male and female terms.
The UNIA had official religious leaders who helped standardize the movement’s religious practices. The national Parent body, a council of officers, included a chaplain general who served as spiritual adviser to the movement’s leaders, conferred ceremonial titles upon honored members, and offered prayers to open UNIA meetings and conventions. Each local division also had its own chaplain, required by an amendment to the 1918 UNIA Constitution to be an ordained minister or one with his first license. Reverend George Alexander McGuire, a Protestant Episcopal priest, emerged as the UNIA’s principal chaplain general. He was the author of two key texts from 1921, the Universal Negro Ritual and Universal Negro Catechism, which were used as the foundations for the movement’s official religious teachings and ceremonies. McGuire’s neo-Anglican liturgy and his ecclesiasticism, combined with Marcus Garvey’s Roman Catholicism, gave the religious ritual of the UNIA a hierarchical, High Church tone (despite the fact that a majority of Garveyites were affiliated with Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, or Holiness/Pentecostal denominations, with a strong minority interested in Islam). Garvey turned to Papal decrees for precedents for some of his positions on UNIA policies, Also, in a pattern consistent with his criticism of Black folk and street culture and of the primitivism he saw manifested in much contemporary Black literature, Garvey scorned enthusiasm in worship and found the singing of spirituals denigrating to the race.
Although the preamble Garvey wrote for the UNIA Constitution spoke of the Fatherhood of God, the movement had an attraction to Marianism that was in accord with Garvey’s Catholicism. The UNIA’s veneration for Black womanhood, the strong spiritual and political meanings attached to mothering and motherhood, and the frequent rhetorical association of both Mary, the Mother of God, and the crucified Jesus with suffering and self-sacrifice were all manifested in the 1924 UNIA convention in New York. During the convention proceedings, religious ceremonies took place deifying the Lord Jesus Christ as the “Black Man of Sorrow.” And, in a motion from the floor, the delegates Hannah Nichols and Carrie Minus moved that “the canonization of the Virgin Mary as a black woman be adopted as the ideal of the Negro race.” This willingness to conceive of God’s will and goodness as manifested in female as well as male form may have contributed to converts’ acceptance of “Mother” Laura Kofey as a female spiritual and political guide. The Garvey movement went one step further in this theological revisionism by presenting Marcus Garvey himself as a Christ figure. In her Liberty Hall speech Mme. M. L. T. De Mena applied the connection between the Black Madonna, the importance of UNIA women as mothers of sons, and the religious interpretation of Garvey’s stature when she proclaimed that “even as from the womb of a good woman came the Son of Man who came to save the world, so from the womb of a good and lovable woman had Marcus Garvey come to save the Negro race.”
While religion permeated the UNIA and the constructions of gender and authority it created, reaction to the Garvey movement from the Black religious community at large was mixed. Church historians continue to debate the relative conservatism and progressivism of the Black church, which could in different communities and under different leadership be either a force for accommodation or a center for social activism. Just as some preachers in Miami resented Laura Kofey and her Sunday gatherings, so Black ministers in some locales disparaged the UNIA and aided white authorities in their repression of the movement. Meanwhile other pastors supported Garveyism and were among the strongest UNIA leaders in their towns and cities. In his extensive research on the UNIA as a religious movement, Randall Burkett has documented over 250 Black clergy active in the UNIA, most of them from Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal denominations. In the opposite vein, Nellie G. Whiting, a UNIA delegate from Newport News, Va., stood up at the August 1920 UNIA convention in New York to talk about the negative impact of “troublesome preachers” on the movement in her neighborhood. She told the story of how the UNIA had held a meeting in a church to celebrate the launching of a Black Star Line ship, only to be told they could not meet there again. Trips to the pastors of other Black churches yielded the same results. Whiting said that one minister had asked a deacon to go to the town’s mayor “assistance in suppressing us” and that the mayor had reportedly told him that it seemed the “thing for you to do is to go and join them too.” At issue were the Black pastors’ worries over the pool of funds available within the Black community. The pastors feared that congregants’ investment in international UNIA business enterprise would siphon off those funds from local use. Despite such opposition, local and mass meetings were often scheduled in churches and drew on church networks. Regular weekly meetings were held Sunday evenings to accommodate attendance at both UNIA affairs and Sunday morning church services.
Despite Marcus Garvey’s claim that “Liberty Halls [UNIA meeting places] were not to be used as churches, and we did not organize as any church,” creating new UNIA divisions was not unlike “digging out” new churches, with organizers in the role of evangelists. Amy Jacques Garvey has recalled that as a youth, Marcus Garvey listened carefully to different local sermonizers, modeling his own oratorical style on that of pastors he had heard in Jamaica. (Later Garvey was phenomenally successful in winning followers during organizational tours of the United States.) Jacques Garvey herself defied standard gender boundaries when she described her own role in visiting grassroots divisions as that of a preacher. On one organizational tour of the South she recalled that at a meeting in Baton Rouge “after the prayers and the singing of hymns, I preached the sermon. My text was from Isaiah 40, verses 1—6, ‘Comfort ye my people.’ By the moans from the ‘Amen corner’, and expressions such as ‘Tell it Sister, tell it! Hallelujah!’ I felt that they were indeed comforted.” Successful founding of new divisions often meant that an organizer demonstrated an intimacy with the rich oral tradition of which the Black church played a part—the norms of which were well understood among those converted to the movement, and the good practitioning of which won respect. It was just such a command of discourse, honed in her experience as a preacher in churches in West Africa, that brought Laura Kofey so many converts. For many new listeners drawn to the UNIA, political dedication to freedom was an extension of their deep-seated religious faith. Religious metaphors, cadences of worship, and celebratory and participatory rituals infused the ceremonies and gatherings of the UNIA. Local UNIA meetings closely followed the format of a church service. Small rural divisions often began as gatherings in private homes, similar in form to prayer meetings. As they garnered membership, they move into church buildings.
The Structure of the UNIA and the Roles of Women
The sociological structure of the UNIA mirrored in many ways that of the Black church—both the dominant Baptist and Methodist Episcopal denominations and such Sanctified churches as the Church of God in Christ. Church scholars studying the role of women in Black denominations have discussed how men recognized women as the “backbone” of the church. They have also pointed out that a practice lies behind this recognition: collective activism and enabling the work of key men, who occupied most of the official leadership roles and positions of control within the denominations. Garvey similarly acknowledged that over the years male leadership had proven transitory and opportunistic while women, working mostly out of the limelight, were the most steadfast and faithful supports. Many women in the movement had been making this claim all along.
Like the Black church, the structure of the UNIA was bifurcated by gender and hierarchical in authority. Each local UNIA division had a male president and slate of main (male) officers, who had authority over the division as a whole (male and female). Each division also had a “lady president” and a female slate of officers who oversaw the work of the women’s division, the female auxiliaries, and the juvenile division. The lady president was answerable to the president in the affairs of the women’s division, and he had censorship rights over her reports to the division at large. Similarly, women in the female paramilitary auxiliary, the Motor Corps, were under the jurisdiction of the male officers of the African Legions. Male presidents of divisions were in turn guided and regulated by the Parent Body leadership. Over it all reigned Garvey as president general. Women could be delegates to international conventions, but they had difficulty being recognized from the floor by the men, who presided over the sessions. Women were also in the minority in the committee assignments and the diplomatic positions that shaped the policy of the UNIA and represented it in the world at large.
In this environment, women UNIA activists, like women in the Black church, “created for themselves a variety of roles, careers, and organizations with great influence but with variable access to structural authority. Black Cross Nurses in some divisions were highly organized, with networks throughout the community and a high profile in weekly programs and meetings. The foundation of the Nurses in the healing arts also had its religious meanings and bore a direct relation to historical avenues of Black women’s power. As healers, the Nurses were part of long African-American tradition of respected community midwives and herbalists—a tradition that reached back to African religions in which women held ceremonial roles as healers and prophetesses.
As in the church, the UNIA gave respect to women who may not have received it in the labor force. As in the Sanctified church, many Garveyite women chose to be identified by their first initials rather than by their first names, and the term “ladies” was applied to all women of any class or occupation (as in the official titles of “lady president” and “ladies’ division”). “Lady” was also a title bequeathed to the two outstanding women organizers on the national and international level—Lady Henrietta Vinton Davis and Lady M. L. T. De Mena—a trend that reflects both Garvey’s nobility bestowed on men as well as women, such as “knight commander of the Nile”) and honor given these women leaders by the mass membership (much as in the church women leaders are given the respectful title of “mother”). Like women in Church of God in Christ, who wore uniformlike dresses, the Black Cross Nurses had a dress code and a daily uniform (green with white cuffs) as well as their white parade habits.
UNIA women were teachers. Just as women in the church taught Sunday school and led prayer bands, so Garveyite women ran women’s meetings and taught courses preparing young people to join the adult auxiliaries and to work in the divisions. Women had an important economic function within the UNIA, just as they did as tithers and fundraisers in the church. They raised funds and supplied unpaid labor for the administration of the divisions. They bought stock in UNIA enterprises (like the Black Star Line) and contributed to the divisions from their pocketbooks. Women were also important as managers and workers in UNIA enterprises—the restaurants, millinery shops, and other small businesses begun in Harlem—and as stenographers or secretaries in offices at the Black Star Line, the Negro World, and UNIA headquarters. As in many churches, they ran supper kitchens, grew community gardens, and distributed food and help in times of sickness or death to the poor and shut-in. Professional women—educators, social workers, musicians, nurses, businesswomen, editors elocutionists—brought their skills into the movement just as they did into the church.
Like church conventions, UNIA conventions featured “women’s days,” when clothes, food, and other products produced by women members were displayed (exhibiting women’s skills and artistry, as well as their economic importance to the movement). During the business sessions of women’s days women were given unusual opportunities to speak from the floor and debate the policy issues at hand, but these sessions were still presided over by men; women had to be called on or recognized before they could speak. Thus while many outstanding women succeeded in fulfilling roles on the local, regional, or national level based on an individualistic, hierarchical model (like male leaders), the majority of women exercised their skills and alternative modes of authority locally and in collective ways.
Cheryl Townsend Gilkes has argued that in the Church of God in Christ different styles of leadership developed between women and men: Women were oriented toward consensus and the group, and were inclusive and egalitarian, while men were “hierarchical, individualistic, and dominating.” The idea of the existence of “multiple authorities” in the church, and the embracing of women as inclusive and consensus building, is at the heart of modern Black womanist or feminist theology. In some ways the split in styles of leadership that Gilkes observed in the church is true of the Garvey movement as well; in other ways it is not. The dominant models of leadership were those of male agency and authority versus female support and collectivity. The Black Cross Nurses offered a perfect model for feminine separatism and group action mixed with assertive female leadership and wider female networking through community interaction and service. Women attending the UNIA conventions definitely made efforts to build consensus among women delegates. However, many individual women acted in autonomous “male” ways, and there is little evidence of many close ties of affection or camaraderie among leading women in the movement. Also, while Garvey represents a clear case of autocratic leadership, the male African Legions were based on principles of domination and authoritarian values, but were collective, not individualistic, in nature. A small coup staged by women delegates conspired to seize temporary control of the proceedings in order to voice their concerns, offers one of the rare documented accounts of representative women discussing their own status and the principles of leadership within the organization. While calling for women’s access to leadership positions that had up to that time been reserved for men, and for women’s greater control over the affairs of women in the organization, the debate led to no consensus. The discussants presented a plethora of viewpoints that ranged from “sameness” to “difference” in the essential nature of women, and from free agency to complementarity or subordination in their relation to men. Women’s desire for greater access to top leadership positions and for an unfettered voice can be seen as an inclusive impulse. It was a desire to serve, not for individualistic ends but in loyalty to the group endeavor, without squandering the abilities of any who could contribute—as in the biblical injunction, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female in Christ Jesus.
Despite their lack of access to higher office and their usually secondary status on convention floors and speaking platforms, a small number of individual exemplary women emerged among the movement’s most important orators. The “teacher” (female) versus “preacher” (male) division of the Black church and its “double pulpit” practices (woman not supplanting the male pastor but complementing his function) had their parallels on the place of the exceptional women on the national UNIA platforms.Like female evangelists in the church, women such as Henrietta Vinton Davis, M. L. T. De Mena, Amy Jaques Garvey, and Laura Kofey spoke and traveled independently as regional organizers, encouraging the formation of new divisions and reforming old ones. Sometimes they were spectacularly in the spotlight: Davis was revered by the local divisions where she had traveled over the years, and she chaired a historic mass meeting of the UNIA at Carnegie Hall in 1919; De Mena epitomized the movement in female form when she led one of the UNIA convention parades through the streets of Kingston, on horseback like a Black Joan of Arc. But their primary role in programs where Garvey was present was to give the preliminary address before his keynote speech, warming the audience for his approach to the podium. The relative importance given their words was reflected in the coverage given such meetings in the Negro World. Women’s speeches were often briefly paraphrased, while Garvey’s were usually printed word for word. As in the church, where the pastor’s wife was often the most powerful woman in the congregation, UNIA women often derived power from their relationship to a prominent male—lady presidents were frequently married to (male) presidents or other officers, and Amy Jacques Garvey wielded great influence as Garvey’s wife. Just the wives of deceased or debilitated church founders would sometimes succeed their husbands in an unofficial capacity as pastors, so Amy Jacques Garvey, who had never held official office in the movement, acted in her husband’s stead during his incarceration in the federal penitentiary.
Women, Christianity, and the Pulpit in the Negro World
UNIA women had the power of the word in many ways in addition to oratory. They became distributors of the Negro World. Like women who worked on church publications like Tidings or Home Mission Echo, UNIA women contributed articles, poems, and essays to the paper; they served as reporters on the affairs of local divisions; and over the years they had some presence on the editorial staff. Amy Jacques Garvey played a crucial role as the major propagandist of the movement. She edited the Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey during the period of her husband’s trial and imprisonment, and during his incarceration she edited a new page for the Negro World. Called “Our Women and What They Think,” the page served for three years (1924-1927) as a unique forum for women’s views and for the debate over masculinity, femininity, and women’s proper roles.
Under Amy Jacques Garvey’s direction, the page featured a range of Black feminist, womanist, and feminine perspectives. She encouraged women to extend their “holy influence outside the realms of the home, valued, as was the vision of the wife as valued helpmate to her husband, a good comrade in the home and in the arena of racial politics. Motherhood was particularly discussed in relation to the Madonna-like role of a woman, to be as the mothers of future leaders who would work for the cause of racial redemption. Maternity was also valued as a matter of group survival, a contribution to racial continuity and resistance. The home as much as the world represented a sphere of spiritual and racial calling.
Comparisons with Joan of Arc, who was called by God to go forth as a leader of men in battle, was a major theme in women’s page debates about the status of women in the movement. Women often expressed disappointment over the failure of UNIA men to take action, and they frequently threatened to go forth instead of men. In androgynous imagery that combined the religious aspects of the Black Cross Nurses with the militarism of the African Legions (and of Garvey’s vision of God), and in violation of the supposedly clear gender boundaries that dominated the movement, UNIA women spoke of themselves as self-sufficient women warriors. “If our men hesitate,” wrote Henrietta Vinton Davis in an article for the women’s page, “then the women of the race must come forward, they must join the great army of Amazons and follow a Joan of Arc who is willing to be burned at the stake to save her country. Africa must be saved!” Amy Jacques Garvey echoed this militancy in her editorials, stating that UNIA women were notifying the men that they demanded “equal opportunity to fill any position in the Universal Negro Improvement Association or anywhere else without discrimination because of sex.” She apologized if this hurt men’s “old-fashioned tyrannical feelings,” but the women not only made the demand, they intended to enforce it. They were tired of hearing from Black men that there is a better day coming “while they do nothing to usher in the day.” Women were impatient and getting into the front ranks themselves, brushing aside cowards, and “with prayer on our lips and arms prepared for any fray, we will press on and on until victory is ours…. Ethiopia’s queens will reign again, and her Amazons protect her shores and people.” It was the success of just such compensatory displacement that made male leadership view Laura Kofey as such a threat, although her earlier role as a prophet of Garveyism—leading in Garvey’s name—had been acceptable.
The women’s page of the Negro World also debated religious issues and questions regarding the place of the Black church in the community and the roles of women in the church. A scriptural citation was part of every page in its first several months of publication. Women were disturbed by the connections they saw between Christianity and world aggression, citing occurrences in the world where forces from Christian nations were acting in barbaric fashion toward Third-World peoples. They discussed the intellectual deterioration of the church and its failure to uplift the people. The page featured articles about the economic position of the Black church and its centrality to the social organization of African Americans, arguing that the investment that went into churches might vest be broadened into establishing Black industries and economic enterprises. There were also debates over whether or not churches should be politically active. Evangelical issues were discussed in regard to African Americans’ relationship to Africa, including arguments that Black churches should do all they can to support the spread of Christianity and the suppression of Islam in Africa, so no “further breach will be created between Africans at home and Africans abroad.” The women’s page also announced women’s affairs and talks and discussed the place of personal faith in community life and in organized worship.
Just as the women’s page presented news of women in secular professions and occupations usually filled by men, so it debated women’s access to authority and leadership positions in the church. Amy Jacques Garvey printed news of successful women preachers—sisters to Laura Kofey in the outer world. Efforts by male church leaders to bring greater equality to women were also reported, such as Rev. Dr. John Howard Melish’s criticism of the Episcopal church as “too undemocratic and asked that women have an equal voice with men in the affairs of the church.” During a diocese convention in Long Island Melish entered a resolution that the “womanhood of the church should be represented in the councils of the church equally with the manhood of the church,” arguing that “educated young women” were being pulled away into settlement work because no opportunities for self-expression existed for them in their church homes. The measure failed by a vote of 191 to 49. The Negro World addressed this argument, that church positions on the status of women were driving female members elsewhere, in a women’s page article titled “Women Should Be Working Inside Church, Not in Vestibule: Empty Pews Caused Through Discontent.” This article spoke to women’s reaction to the General Council of the Presbyterian Church’s denial “to grant women equality in the government of the church.” A woman member interviewed on the subject spoke of how the churches had for decades profited from women’s free labor. Women defrayed church expenses by cooking church suppers, organizing fundraisers and festival, “blinding herself” sewing for bazaars, and packing missionary barrels when they really wanted to do more: change child labor laws, reform schools, encourage the use of diplomacy not war to solve world problems, and have a voice in questions of spirituality and work of the church. Not using women in these capacities was like letting a limb of the atrophy—it would in time affect the body as a whole and bring about its annihilation.
The women’s page also kept abreast of various denomination’s policies on the ordination of women. Arguments in favor of women pastors ranged from references to the roles women had played in biblical history to the need for compensatory action due to the failures of men—“Women want to enter the ministry, and they have the right to do so, mainly because men ministers have nearly let the copyright of Christianity run out.” One article reported on a 1926 speech by Dr. Anna Lee-Starr before the International Association of Women Pastors claiming sexism in the translation of the Bible. She argued that male translators, personally “ unable to grant equality to women,” had reworded original meanings that had since been taken as gospel and used to silence women in the church. Dr. Lee-Starr went so far as to suggest that the names of “accomplished women” had been altered in translation “to read Masculine,” so that some of the apostles and ministers of Biblical times that Biblical scholars chose to describe as men had actually been women.
“Should Women Preach?” was the title of a key article reprinted in the 24 May 1924 women’s page. It covered the furor created during a Baptist Minister’s Alliance meeting when Rev. George E. Stevens, pastor of the Central Baptist Church of St. Louis was called to task for “allowing a woman to occupy his pulpit in the capacity of a preacher.” Instead of humbly recanting, Reverend Stevens told his tribunal that not only did he not regret his action, “he would ordain a woman to preach if he thought she was called by God,” citing the examples of Deborah acting as a judge for the Israelites and Huldah declaring God’s law in the time of King Josiah. He went on to say that God “in the face of this age-long contempt for women, signally honored” these. He also pointed out that the resurrected Jesus had first appeared to women, who were his witnesses to men, and that women present at the Pentecost “had that same tongue of flame as the men”—a fulfillment of Joel and Peter’s prophetic claim that God had said, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” Reverend Stevens felt that these ancient events pointed “to this day when women as the result of gospel emancipation are coming gloriously into their own” and should be used by God “not any limited, circumscribed capacity, but on a par with men.” He went one step further, arguing that God’s will should be done through women not only as pastors in churches but in the public arena. “What a glorious galaxy of women we could name whom the gospel has emancipated, that are leaders on the mission fields, in the Salvation Army work, in the temperance cause, in the Sunday School work and in all forms of social uplift, which work requires that they stand out on the lecture platform as well as in the pulpit to direct and inspire the people in all this work. Truly this is women’s day of opportunity in Jesus Christ.” It was in this spirit, and within the context of such ongoing debates over women’s rights as orators and preachers, that Laura Kofey emerged on the scene as a prophet of Garveyism.
Laura Kofey and the UNIA
Laura Kofey emerged on the horizon of Garveyism during a time of crisis in the movement’s history, and she came, to use one of her own favorite metaphors, like a meteor brightening the sky. Marcus Garvey had been imprisoned in the Atlanta federal penitentiary in February 1925, and the controversies surrounding him had dimmed enthusiasm for the UNIA in many circles. Kofey, along with Amy Jacques Garvey and De Mena, emerged as major organizers in the movement during this period of doubt and crisis. Kofey began her career in the UNIA through invitations from women in Central America and the United States to appear as a guest speaker at division meetings. Everywhere she appeared her presence was described in the language of conversion and revival.
In the summer of 1926 she was the guest speaker at a series of UNIA meetings in Panama, introduced as a “distinguished traveler and missionary from Accra Gold Coast, West Africa.” She addressed the meetings on the subject of Africa and African culture and showed the UNIA members African arts and wares. New members gathered at the alter of Garveyism after each of her appearances, pledging loyalty to the imprisoned Garvey and expressing their commitment and devotion. As one Panama City member put it, they showed adherence to the “doctrine of ‘stick-to-itiveness.’ “ In the next year Kofey moved from involvement in the UNIA division in Detroit to guest speaking at the often-troubled division in New Orleans, not far from Garvey’s location in Atlanta. She “spoke for several weeks at meetings sponsored by the Garvey organization” in New Orleans in the fall of 1926, then moved from city to city through Alabama and on to Florida. “Through her,” as a Garvey representative later acknowledged, “thousands joined in Mobile, Ala., Jacksonville, Tampa, West Palm beach, St. Petersburg and Miami, Fla.” She established a number of new divisions in small Black communities in Alabama. Jacksonville UNIA leaders proclaimed that Kofey came to them “as a real conscientious race-lover, and a real product and representative of Garveyism.”
By the spring of 1927 her influence as a highly charismatic apostle of Garveyism had gained her wide recognition. She was now a stellar phenomenon on the UNIA scene. She held camp-style revival meetings that drew thousands of new members into the movement, with parts of Alabama and Florida as the “burned over” district that responded to her electrifying call. She came to the Jacksonville UNIA division in early April 1927 and held the capacity audience in the regular Sunday meeting at the local Liberty Hall spellbound for well over two hours. Her success was such that additional meetings were scheduled at the nearby First Baptist Church on Monday and Tuesday nights. After 247 new members joined at her meetings, Kofey announced she would stay “until the enrollment reaches 500.” This turned out to be a modest goal. For the next three weeks Kofey spoke every night of the week and twice on Sunday, and at each meeting “from four to fifty-two persons [were] added to the UNIA.” By the end of the month almost a thousand new members had joined the ranks of Garveyism, with larger crowds arriving each night as her reputation spread. “Billy Sunday can congregate no more people than the princess is now carrying in Jacksonville,” a division member reported to the Negro World, adding that the new goal for converts had been upped to 1,500.
Kofey’s ascendancy as a UNIA organizer, seemed so quick and dazzling because she appeared out of almost complete obscurity. Her origins were mysterious to those who followed her rise, and they remain so. Although J.A. Craigen, one of Garvey’s representatives, later claimed that she was an African American from Georgia with a husband and sisters in Detroit and a brother in Cincinnati, it is likely that she was, as she claimed, from the Gold Coast. There is no question that she lived part of her life in West Africa. She claimed to be the daughter of a paramount chief (thus the title “princess” used by her admirers) and was part of African religious networks in the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone. She also had prior experience in the UNIA before emerging as a major regional organizer during Garvey’s imprisonment. She had “always aspired to be a preacher and was a member of the Garvey movement in Detroit” in 1924, when she made a visit to West Africa. While in the Gold Coast she became the pastor of a church in Asofa and a missionary in Kumasi. Upon her return to the United States in 1926, she preached the combination of nationalist religion, Pan-Africanism, education, and enterprise that formed the core ideology of the Garvey movement, reinforcing it with her direct personal knowledge of Africa.
The murkiness of her personal history did nothing to dispel the impact of her public voice. By May 1927, the Jacksonville UNIA division was petitioning President Calvin Coolidge to pardon Garvey on the strength of signatures from fifteen hundred members—that membership goal having been reached through Kofey’s electrifying organizing. On Sunday, 29 May 1927, Kofey enrolled eight hundred new members in Miami and some three thousand persons “gathered on the grounds, in the hall and in the street, hungry for the truth.” The local secretary reported that “Mrs. Coffey is marvelous. Garveyism is spending like wild fire down here in Miami. Mrs. Coffey has done untold good and is still doing it.” By mid-June she was beginning a series of ten meetings for the UNIA division in Tampa, presiding over mass meetings held at St. Matthew’s Baptist Church and at Lafayette Hall. Three hundred twenty-two men and women joined the movement at her call, and at the end of her stay the division sponsored a banquet in her honor to thank for having captured the “hearts of the people.” Her success was capped by a personal audience with Marcus Garvey at the Atlanta penitentiary in August 1927.
The meeting with Garvey was a turning point in the reception given Kofey by the male leadership of the movement. At first praised as a witness to Garvey’s greatness and as a female John the Baptist for his cause, she began instead to be resented as a rival to Garvey’s autocratic control over the organization. Her phenomenal ability to draw people and win their adoration threatened to dilute the hero worship that sustained Garvey’s power, and the threat she posed was all the greater because of his own removal from the public arena due to his imprisonment. In September, of the same year, Claude Green, the president of the UNIA division in Miami and a longtime UNIA activist in Florida, visited Garvey at the prison. In October, J.A. Graigen, an attorney and a respected leader in the Detroit UNIA who acted as a Garvey lieutenant, was sent down to Miami to investigate Kofey’s influence. The campaign to discredit Kofey and cool the fervor she had awakened had been set into motion. Craigen pointedly warned UNIA members in Tampa not to confuse the UNIA with a church. Soon after, Garvey began to malign Kofey and encourage local harassment of her through public notices he had printed in the Negro World.
Directives to UNIA members appeared in October and November 1927 ordering local UNIA divisions not to entertain Kofey and, if they heard that she was appealing for funds, to seek her arrest. In December 1927 Garvey’s personal representative announced that the UNIA charter of the Jacksonville division—the division that had so thrilled to Kofey’s presence—was revoked, and in early 1928 Miami division members who had supported Kofey were expelled from the movement (including, significantly, the division’s religious leaders, the chaplain and assistant chaplain). By February 1928, Garvey felt it necessary to mention Kofey in a postscript to his weekly front-page editorial. “This woman is a fake and has no authority from me to speak to the Universal Negro Improvement association,” he told Negro World readers, “Should she attempt to raise funds from any member or division in the name of the organization or with the pretence of my authority, have her arrested.” Kofey had been officially declared a false prophet. She was arrested by local authorities in Florida on two occasions, held briefly (in one case subjected to a demeaning strip search) and released for lack of cause. Meanwhile, male leaders of the Garvey movement were not the only ones enlisting the help of the police in repressing Kofey’s influence. Local Black ministers were none too happy with Kofey’s presence in their communities. “Her program,” as one UNIA member who witnessed her rise put it, “gave the churches a shake-up, so she then had two sets of enemies. So it was the old organization and the preachers that formed the mob” that opposed her and her meetings.
In response to this organized opposition, Kofey founded her own organization and gave it a name similar to the UNIA—the African Universal Church and Commercial League. She first held meetings in the Miami Liberty Hall (a UNIA division’s meeting place was called the Liberty Hall in any given city or location). Most members of the local UNIA male paramilitary auxiliary, the Universal African Legions, remained loyal to Garvey in the factionalism. They appeared at Kofey’s meetings in UNIA uniform, heckled her during her sermons, and disrupted the meetings by using such methods as shooting out the lights. She responded to these confrontative demonstrations by moving her congregation to a storefront church made available through one of the expelled Miami division members, but her opposition followed her. She continued to give her inspired sermons based on biblical texts, and she encouraged African Universal Church members to embrace the Pan-African and Afrocentric matters that had long been central to her Garveyite message—to look to Africa, to give funds for African development, to educate children in the love of blackness and a knowledge of African history, to treat one another as brothers and sisters, and to trust in god.
The murder of Laura Kofey took place on 3 March 1928. As Kofey lay dead at the front of the church, felled by her assassin’s gunshots, her followers, witnesses to her martyrdom, erupted in shock and rage. They turned in pandemonium on a man they knew opposed Kofey’s leadership, and in the anger of the moment they beat him to death there in the meetinghouse. The murdered man was Maxwell Cook. He was well known to Kofey and to her followers. He had been a bodyguard for Kofey when she was with the UNIA, and after the split between Garvey and Kofey he remained an officer in the Miami African Legion. Two other UNIA leaders—Claude Green, the Miami UNIA division president who had visited Garvey in prison and was a close ally to J.A. Craigen (Garvey’s representative), and James Nimmo, Cook’s commander in the division’s African Legion—were arrested for the murder and held for four months without bail. Craigen handled their defense, with extended appeals for funds for legal expenses published regularly in the Negro World, along with castigations of Kofey and her ministrations. Though both Green and Nimmo were, like Cook, well known for their opposition to Kofey and readily admitted their loyalty to Garvey, no evidence linked them directly with the assassination, and both had alibis showing that they were else where at the time of the shooting. Their case was finally heard and they were released from custody in the summer of 1928. Garvey at the time of the murder had been released from federal detention in Atlanta and deported from the United States. He was reestablishing his political life in Jamaica and directing UNIA affairs from a new headquarters there. The case of Laura Kofey’s murder was never solved. It was widely believed in the street and among UNIA members that Garvey had ordered the assassination, or had indicated to those loyal to him that he would not mind should Kofey in some way be removed from the scene.
Though the execution was planned to silence Kofey, she lived on in her martyrdom. In the spring of 1928 her body lay in state in Miami, Palm Beach, and Jacksonville. At some points so may hundreds of people from the Black community crowded the sidewalks waiting to pay their respects to the slain leader that street traffic had to be rerouted. Kofey’s African Universal Church continued in Florida. It sent missionaries to Africa, and it established prayer bands, industrial clubs, and classes in Black history. It had churches and church representatives in Florida and Alabama and in the Gold Coast, and in the early 1940s it established a utopian Christian community, called Adorkaville, on the outskirts of Jacksonville. Mother Kofey’s image continued to permeate the church’s memory. It was featured in church literature and on banners, and the day of her death was ritually commemorated.
Kofey even achieved something of a victory in regard to having the last word in the New World, the paper that had been used to suppress her. In 1930 the paper announced that the Native African Union of America, Inc., was celebrating their first Ladies’ Day by commemorating two great women from the UNIA—Mary Sharperson Young, the founder of the UNIA women’s elite Royal Court of Ethiopia auxiliary in New York, and the “martyred African Princess [Laura] Adorka Kofey.” A representative of the Harlem Housewives League was the principal speaker.
“This Woman … Has No Authority from Me to Speak”
Death is the most effective means of censorship, of quieting a voice you do not want heard. Laura Adorker Kofey’s life is a metaphor for the dialectics of gender and religion that existed within the Garvey movement—both in the opportunities afforded her and in the limitations placed upon her when she overstepped the unspoken boundaries of what a woman in the movement should do and be.
Kofey, a riveting speaker whose interpretations of scripture stirred her hearers to action, is emblematic of the women orators and organizers who worked at every level of the Garvey movement. She was mirrored in the hundreds of other women who gave addresses in their local division meetings, who organized auxiliary work, who voiced their concerns from the floor of conventions, or who were in the forefront of public discourse, appearing at podiums and representing the UNIA on an international scale. But all these women operated within restrictions of deference that granted ultimate authority within divisions and within the Parent Body leadership to men. Kofey the female apostle presenting Garvey as a savior figure and stirring audiences in his name was considered laudable; Kofey displacing Garvey as an authoritative voice and winning her own messianic following was not. In crossing the lines from pew to pulpit—from the accepted rules of female self-actualization within the bounds of service and support to self-proclaimed autonomy and authority—she became a threat to the fundamental structure of the UNIA and to the constructions of gender with which its dominant male leaders were comfortable. Ceasing to be a servant, except to her God, and claiming to be a leader in her own right, she was silenced. Hers was the abbreviated voice.
There is a tendency to interpret the Garvey movement as a new phenomenon springing from the New Negro era, but the circumstances of Kofey’s life and death connect her to a much larger tradition. Just as women’s activism in the movement had its ties to the church and to Black Women’s neighborhood organizations, mother’s clubs, and uplift work of the preceding generations, so Kofey’s dedication to a life as a preacher and prophet is tied to the experiences of nineteenth-century Black women who felt similar callings (and to contemporary women who left established denominations and started storefront churches in order that they might speak). Just as importantly, Kofey’s career as an orator was part of Black women’s ongoing roles in preserving and conveying oral tradition and in honoring literacy (including the reading of scripture and the knowledge of God’s Word) as a medium of empowerment.
In emerging with such force and controversy upon the scene of Garveyism, Kofey made explicit some of the internal contradictions of the movement and laid bare its system of authority. Her success as a woman challenged the pyramidal hierarchy of control and gender dichotomy that prevailed in the UNIA. Kofey’s career as a Black woman preacher and interpreter of scripture also looked to the future of contemporary Black womanist theology and thought. Her function as an organizer and pastor raised continuing debates about the ordination of women as pastors, their position in church power structures, and respect due women as biblical and spiritual authorities. Her success as an evangelist built on everyday ways of knowing rather than on formal intellectual conventions. Her power of voice and the loyalty shown her were testaments to a strong oral tradition and a consensual sense of ethics. And her belief in her right to the pulpit demonstrated claims for equity and inclusion. Her experience added to the tales of female heroism already attached to other women in church history. The example of her martyrdom and her message of redemption weakened understandings of the person and work of the Savior. These principles of equality, transformative self-actualization, inclusiveness, and mutuality are at the heart of new feminist visions of the church and of Black feminism in general. Despite its censorship, Laura Kofey’s life laid claim to female participation in the arena of secular and spiritual discourse. It signified women’s right to speak, to interpret, and to lead with the same tongue of flame as the men.