January 30, 2018 6.33am EST
Black History Month is an opportunity to reflect on the historical contributions of black people in the United States. Too often, however, this history focuses on black men, sidelining black women and diminishing their contributions.
This is true in mainstream narratives of black nationalist movements in the United States. These narratives almost always highlight the experiences of a handful of black nationalist men, including Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan.
Contrary to popular conceptions, women were also instrumental to the spread and articulation of black nationalism – the political view that people of African descent constitute a separate group on the basis of their distinct culture, shared history and experiences.
As I demonstrate in my new book, “Set the World on Fire,” black nationalist movements would have all but disappeared were it not for women. What’s more, these women laid the groundwork for the generation of black activists who came of age during the civil rights-black power era. In the 1960s, many black activists – including Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Robert F. Williams, Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael – drew on these women’s ideas and political strategies.
So, let’s use this Black History Month to begin to set the record straight.
The Universal Negro Improvement Association
In 1914, when the Jamaican black nationalist Marcus Garvey launched the Universal Negro Improvement Association, Amy Ashwood – who later became his first wife – was the organization’s first secretary and co-founder.
Amy Ashwood Garvey; 10 January 1897 – 3 May 1969) was a Jamaican Pan-Africanist activist. She was a director of the Black Star Line Steamship Corporation, and along with her former husband Marcus Garvey she founded the Negro World newspaper.
In addition to serving as general secretary in the New York office, Ashwood helped to popularize the Negro World, the organization’s official newspaper. She also contributed to the financial growth of the organization, relying on her parents’ money to meet some of the growing expenses.
In 1922, months after Garvey’s divorce from Amy Ashwood, Amy Jacques became Garvey’s new wife – a position she used to leverage her involvement and leadership in the organization. During these years, she helped to popularize and preserve her husband’s ideas. When her husband was imprisoned in 1925 and later deported – on trumped-up charges of mail fraud orchestrated by the FBI – Amy Jacques Garvey oversaw the organization’s day-to-day activities.
The Peace Movement of Ethiopia
During the Great Depression, Chicago was one of the key cities where black nationalist women organized. In 1932, Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, a former member of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, established an organization called the Peace Movement of Ethiopia which became the largest black nationalist organization established by a woman in the United States. At its peak, the organization attracted an estimated 300,000 supporters in Chicago and across the country.
In 1933, Gordon initiated a nationwide emigration campaign, utilizing her widespread political networks in Chicago and across the Midwest. With the assistance of other black nationalist activists, she collected signatures for a pro-emigration petition. In August of that year, she mailed the petition to President Franklin D. Roosevelt with approximately 400,000 signatures of black Americans willing to leave the country. Drawing inspiration from FDR’s New Deal programs, Gordon requested federal support for those who desired to relocate to West Africa in hopes of securing a better life.
Today, these women’s stories are largely absent in popular accounts of black nationalism. More often than not, the assumption is that men exclusively established and led black nationalist organizations. This could not be farther from the truth. As these few examples reveal, women were key players in black nationalist movements, and their efforts helped to keep black nationalist ideas alive in U.S. politics. No history of black nationalism is complete without acknowledging women’s significant contributions.
Ella Baker speaks her truth in 1968. AP Photo/Jack Harris
Ella Josephine Baker (December 13, 1903 – December 13, 1986) was an African-American civil rights and human rights activist. She was a largely behind-the-scenes organizer whose career spanned more than five decades. In New York City and the South, she worked alongside some of the most noted civil rights leaders of the 20th century, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Author Keisha N. Blain. Associate Professor of History, University of Pittsburgh