Monday, October 15, 2007

Vicki Ama Garvin (1915-2007), Organizer and Pan-African Internationalist

Vicki Garvin, African-American Activist, Dies at 91

Activist Vicki Garvin Dies at 91

Victoria H. Garvin, African-American liberation activist and dedicated internationalist, died at the age of 91 on June 11, 2007, after a long illness.

Vicki, as she was affectionately known, was born in Richmond, Virginia and grew up in a working class family in Harlem. Her mother was a domestic in rich white homes; her father a plasterer who often was unemployed due to racism in construction unions. Vicki spent her summers working in the garment industry to supplement her family's income.

From high school on, she became active in Black protest politics, supporting efforts by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. to obtain better paying jobs for African-Americans in Harlem and creating Black history clubs dedicated to building library resources. After earning her B.A. in political science from Hunter College, she became the first African-American woman to earn a Master's degree in Economics from Smith College, and did graduate work in French literature. She spent World War II working for the National War Labor Board in New York, organizing a union there and serving as its President. When the wartime agencies ended, she became National Research Director of the United Office and Professional Workers of America and co-chair of its Fair Employment Practices Committee. During the postwar purges of the Left in the CIO, she was a strong voice of protest and a sharp critic of the CIO's failure to organize in the South.

She was married briefly to a trade union organizer, and although they divorced, she kept his last name. In 1951 she took part in the formation of the National Negro Labor Council (NNLC), and became a national Vice President and Executive Secretary of the New York City chapter. With the NNLC, she worked closely with Coleman Young, later Mayor of Cleveland, and she organized cultural programs featuring Paul Robeson, then under persecution. He was a close friend until his death. In 1955, under pressure from the House Un-American Activities Committee and other repression, the NCLC disbanded.

In the wake of McCarthyism, Vicki traveled to Africa in the late 1950s, worked in Nigeria, and then went to Ghana, where she worked closely with Dr. W.E.B. DuBois and Shirley Graham DuBois, Alphaeus and Dorothy Hunton, and others on the African Encyclopedia and anti-colonialist efforts. In Ghana she lived with Maya Angelou and Alice Windom. When Malcolm X, whom she had known in Harlem, visited Africa, Vicki introduced Malcolm to the ambassadors from China, Cuba, and Algeria whom she knew from teaching English at their embassies. Using her French language skills, she interpreted for his meeting with the Algerians.

In 1964 Vicki was invited to China by the Chinese ambassador. Both Malcolm X and Dr. DuBois encouraged her to go. She taught English for six years in Shanghai. She became close friends with many of her young students and kept in touch with them over the years. In China, she also became close to then political exiles Robert F. Williams and Mabel Williams. When Mao Tse-Tung issued his proclamation in support of the Afro-American movement in 1968, Vicki made a speech about the statement to a rally of millions. Also in China she met and married Leibel Bergman in a Red Guard ceremony during the early days of the Cultural Revolution, and became a loving stepmother to his daughter and two sons.

On their return to the U.S, they lived in Newark, where Vicki was Director of the Tri-City Citizens' Union, a community organization for children and teenagers. In Manhattan, Vicki worked for four years as Area Leader for Community Interaction at the Center for Community Health Systems of the Faculty of Medicine of Columbia University. Later they moved to Chicago, but when the marriage ended Vicki returned to her parents' home in Brooklyn and cared for them until their deaths.

She remained active in political and international circles, traveling back to China several times, and making many trips to Africa and the Caribbean, often with her dear friend Adelaide Simms. She was an active supporter of many organizations, including: Sisters Against South African Apartheid/Sisters to Assist South Africa (SASAA); the Committee to Eliminate Media Offensive to African People (CEMOTAP); Black Workers for Justice; and the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Vicki spoke at community events and joined rallies in support of Mumia Abu Jamal and other political prisoners. She was recognized by many organizations as an "honored elder" for her contributions to the freedom struggle of her people and the world's peoples. In speeches made just before her serious health decline, Vicki urged the younger generations forward. She wrote: "Of course there will be twists and turns, but victory in the race belongs to the long-distance runners, not sprinters. Everywhere the just slogan is reverberating --'­no justice, no peace!'"

She is survived by two stepchildren, Miranda and Lincoln Bergman. A memorial celebration of her life will be scheduled in New York City later this year.

For information on this event, please contact Lincoln Bergman by email at or phone 510 367-8922.

To hear Vicki Garvin's speech at a 1991 International conference on Malcolm X held in New York City at the Bourough of Manhattan Community College:

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
415 863-9977

Gore, D. "To Live and Work in Africa:" African American Women, Cold War Travels and Transnational Politics in Ghana, 1957-1963 Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association . 2006-10-05 from

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript

Abstract: This conference paper examines the transnational activism of a group of black women radicals who traveled to Africa during the 1960s. The paper centers Vicki Garvin’s travels to Nigeria and Ghana and Pauli Murray’s work as a law professor and legal consultant in the formation of Ghanaian constitutional law.

Pauli Murray, who held strong ties to the anti-Communists left in the U.S, including a brief membership in expelled Communist Party leader Jay Lovestone’s Marxist faction and a working relationship with black socialist A. Philip Randolph, lived in Ghana for almost two years.

Vicki Garvin, a labor activist with the CIO’s United Office and Professional Workers of America Union and a Communist Party supporter, made the move to her imagined “homeland” in 1961. As products of 1930s radicalism, Murray and Garvin were politicized during a particularly vibrant and radicalizing moment of Pan African activism and internationalism in the United States.

Garvin and Murray attempted to actualize their transnational visions by traveling to the African continent and joining a politically varied expatriate community in Ghana. As relocated African Americans living and organizing in Africa, these women participated in a range of activities from organizing campaigns against the U.S. embassy, to lending their skills to Ghana’s nation building efforts and helping to sustain black diasporic networks and political spaces.

A detailing of these women’s experiences presents an, often absent, perspective of transnational politics that reveals the cultural and economic complexities of expatriate life and underscores the range of gendered and political challenges these women faced.

In addition, this paper explicates the power and limits of a transnational activisms that connected black liberation struggles in the United States to anticolonial struggles in Africa, while negotiating a range of Cold War politics.

It also illustrates the ways such experiences were influenced by political alliances within the organized left. Therefore the paper’s examination of Cold War travels references not only the impact of U.S. Cold War policies internationally and African American’s relocating to Ghana, but also the ways political differences among black leftists traveled to Africa and were reframed within this context.

Such inquiry suggests a new framework for understanding the legacies of 1930s U.S. radicalism as well as the relationship between left internationalism and Pan African activism in the 1960s.

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