Born: Amy Ashwood; also known as Mrs Marcus Garvey / the first Mrs Marcus Garvey
Sector: Travel and Leisure
Amy Ashwood Garvey was first and foremost an activist, whose entrepreneurial activities served her progressive agenda. During the time she spent living and working in the UK, mainly in the 1930s and the 1950s, she launched a newspaper, set up a restaurant and a nightclub and staged theatrical productions. Few of these ventures had great longevity or even significant commercial success but she seemed to see them more as a means to an end than an end in themselves. As an outsider in British society and usually in a minority by virtue of being a Black woman, her business activities gave her much-needed routes to creating awareness and forging alliances that broke through traditional barriers of race, class, gender and political affiliation.
Amy Ashwood was born into a middle-class family in Port Antonio, Jamaica, in 1897. When she was a small child, the family moved to Panama, where her father, Michael, set up a number of successful businesses. When Amy reached primary school age, her mother, Maude, brought her back to Jamaica for her education. Amy was a pupil at the prestigious, multi-racial, Westwood High School for Girls. As she entered her teens she started to become more interested in her family history, asking her great-grandmother to share her memories of being transported to Jamaica from Ghana and connecting to her African heritage. Smart, self-possessed, articulate, she joined a local debating society and one night in July 1914, Marcus Garvey was in the audience as this impressive 17-year old made her arguments.
The Garvey effect
Ten years her senior, Marcus was also Jamaica-born. Trained as a printer, he had just returned to Jamaica after two years in London where he had ventured into journalism. Writing for the African Times and Orient Review had enabled him to give voice to his disgust at the impact of colonialism in Jamaica on the status and opportunities of Black Jamaicans. He was fired up with the desire to unite Black people across the world in a movement for change and was in the process of bringing this idea to life through the establishment of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). It would become the largest international African organisation in history.
In Amy he found a kindred spirit, equally passionate about this same agenda. A couple of months later, Amy became the first secretary of UNIA and joined the board of management. She worked with Marcus to organize the inaugural meeting in Kingston and used her family’s resources to rent larger headquarters. She was elected as the secretary of the ladies’s division and started to recruit members. She was determined for women to have a strong voice in this nascent political movement.
Amy’s mother was deeply concerned about the blossoming relationship between Amy and Marcus. She tried shutting her in her bedroom, but Amy just colluded with her maid and escaped out of the window so she could keep appearing on the platform at UNIA meetings. More drastic action was needed and her parents decided to take her back to Panama. In March 1916, Marcus moved to New York to set up a base in Harlem, where he soon drummed up support from backers including the cosmetics entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker. By late 1918, Amy was able to re-join him. For the rest of her life she would live a peripatetic lifestyle, bouncing between the Caribbean, the US, the UK and West Africa.
Despite their age difference, Amy was Marcus’s equal. A Bureau of Investigation special agent who had been detailed to keep an eye on UNIA described Amy as Garvey’s ‘chief assistant, a kind of managing boss.’ A month after she arrived in New York, Amy was made general secretary of UNIA and she and Marcus travelled together to drive up membership. The organisation had also established a commercial arm, the African Communities League (ACL), which launched a newspaper, Negro World, in 1918 and a shipping business in 1919, to carry both freight and passengers across the Atlantic. Amy wrote for the paper and was one of the first directors of the Black Star Line Shipping Company.
Amy and Marcus had been secretly engaged for four years when on 14th October 1919, a man called George Tyler invaded the UNIA offices and fired three shots at Marcus. Amy threw herself in front of him to prevent further injuries and two months later on Christmas Day the couple were married, with a huge reception at the UNIA headquarters, Liberty Hall, attended by 3,000 people.
However, this story was to have no fairy tale ending. Amy later described Marcus as an autocratic and vain man who craved the spotlight. There did not seem to be enough room in their relationship for two such charismatic personalities and as Marcus became more and more famous, Amy was not prepared to conform to her husband’s idea of a suitable leader’s wife, subservient, teetotal and socialising only with women. With work coming first and UNIA colleagues even accompanying them on their honeymoon, they also had very little privacy or time on their own as a couple.
Marcus quickly became involved with another UNIA member who had also been one of his wife’s bridesmaids and his marriage to Amy was over by early 1920. Marcus filed for divorce in 1922 and married his new lover soon afterwards. She was also called Amy and the two women’s maiden names – Ashwood and Jacques – are generally used to try to distinguish the two Mrs Garveys from one another, sometimes there is still confusion.
Betrayed and upset, Amy never acknowledged the legality of the 1922 divorce, even when she had moved on to relationships with other men. As UNIA grew across and outside the United States and Garveyism became the name of the ideology, Amy wanted her role in its creation to be remembered and acknowledged and being known as ‘the first wife of Marcus Garvey’ imbued her with a level of status she needed. So while she wanted nothing to do with Marcus personally, freezing out friends or acquaintances she felt were sympathetic to him, she continued to use her husband’s surname for the rest of her life and when he died in 1940 even fought successfully for control of his remains.
Forging her own path
When her marriage broke up, Amy was still only 23 years old and living in the midst of a Harlem Renaissance in full swing. The streets buzzed with cultural, as well as political, activity. In 1921, the show Shuffle Along opened on Broadway, making a star of Florence Mills and featuring then unknowns Paul Robeson, Adelaide Hall and Josephine Baker. All of them would come to Europe in the following years and become celebrities. By the mid-1920s, Amy had also branched out into the world of theatre, staging three musical shows with feminist and political undertones that debuted in Harlem at the Lafayette Theatre and then toured to major cities including Chicago, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Taking a starring role in each one was Sam Manning (1898-1960), who became Amy’s long-term on-off partner. They also started a short-lived newspaper together, the West Indian Times and American Review.
In 1934, the couple set sail for London. When Amy had been in the UK a decade earlier she had contacted a Nigerian law student, Ladipo Solanke, after an article he’d written in the journal West Africa struck a chord and they had met to discuss ideas. Solanke had gathered together a group of fellow students to create the Nigerian Progress Union (NPU). Its objectives were to raise funds to provide scholarships to young Nigerians, maintain and grow the school network in Nigeria, found a hostel in London for African students and promote research into West African laws, customs and institutions. Amy held informal meetings with some of the group during these formative stages and at a meeting in early August 1924, the NPU decided to confer on the 27-year old the title of ‘Iyalode’, loosely translated as ‘mother’ or ‘matriarch’. She returned to the States soon afterwards while Solanke stayed in London, in 1925 co-founding the influential West African Students’ Union (WASU), which adopted some of the policies of the NPU, particularly regarding provision of student accommodation.
Now Amy’s involvement in initiating these campaigning groups gave her a ready entrée into London’s Afro-Caribbean community. She opened the International Afro Restaurant in the basement of the same building she was living in, 62 New Oxford Street. Writers, artists, students and academics from the African diaspora gathered there to eat familiar food and listen to Sam Manning’s records playing late into the night. Among her many regulars were Una Marson, just embarking on her BBC career, the writer and historian C.L.R. James and the journalist, George Padmore. Also hanging out were a young anthropology student at the London School of Economics, Jomo Kenyatta and an Oxford history scholar Eric Williams, who would go on to lead Kenya and Trinidad and Tobago respectively. Learie Constantine, later the first Black member of the House of Lords, and Paul Robeson, now a West End star and national celebrity thanks to his performances in Showboat and Othello, could also be found there. Robeson had enrolled at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and was embarking on his own journey of political activism that would take a heavy personal toll. In 1936, Amy added a nightclub, the Florence Mills Social Parlour, at 50 Carnaby Street, named in honour of the American singer and actress who had died from tuberculosis in 1927, aged just 31.
One of the hot topics under discussion in Amy’s restaurant was the increasingly precarious situation of Ethiopia, one of only two African countries along with Liberia to escaped colonisation. Bordering Italian Somaliland, Mussolini now had it in his sights and during 1935 there had been a number of border skirmishes. Out of these debates came the formation of the International African Friends of Ethiopia (IAFE), with founder members including C.L.R. James, George Padmore, Chris Braithwaite and Amy, who presided over a meeting in July 1935 where resolutions were passed demanding “That the League of Nations takes measures to restrain Italy from her infringement of international laws and agreements” and calling upon the British Government to intervene.
On Sunday 25th August, 1935, hundreds of people gathered in Trafalgar Square to protest against Italy’s aggressive behaviour. The only woman to speak from the platform that day was Amy. “No race has been so noble in forgiving, but now the hour has struck for our complete emancipation. We will not tolerate the invasion of Abyssinia.” Her declaration was greeted with ringing cheers.
The original caption for this photo, published a week later, read:
“Ethiopian Sympathizers at London Meeting: The Friends of Ethiopia, a London organization composed largely of Negroes, recently held a demonstration in Trafalgar Square, to protest against Italy’s policy in her dispute with Ethiopia, and to demand the lifting of the British arms embargo against Ethiopia. The above photo shows Mrs. Amy Ashwood Garvey (left) wife of Marcus Garvey, famous Negro leader, with the two sons of Dr. Martin, Ethiopian minister in London, in London. The minister’s sons are wearing light trousers.”
One woman who shared Amy’s concerns about what was happening in Ethiopia was Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960). Her home in Woodford Green, Essex became another gathering point for campaigners, including Amy. Amy gave Sylvia a small Benin bronze statue, which Sylvia treasured, and they had an enduring friendship as a result of their shared agendas. Sylvia set up her own paper, The New Times and Ethiopian News, in 1936 and became a friend and advisor to Haile Selassie, eventually moving to Addis Ababa in 1956. When she died there in 1960 she was given a full state funeral. Amy later called Sylvia ‘the outstanding feminist of the century.’
Alongside her campaigning and hospitality businesses, Amy were also continuing with her producing partnership with Sam. They created a new show, Harlem Nightbirds, which toured the country, drawing on local Afro-Caribbean talent in Liverpool and Cardiff, before a week’s run in London. One fan of Sam Manning was aristocrat-turned-socialist, Daisy, Countess of Warwick. She offered to finance a tour to the Caribbean to recruit more entertainers and came to the restaurant to discuss the plans in more detail, but died in 1938, before they came to fruition.
Amy had left the UK by the time war broke out and spent most of the early 1940s in Jamaica where she continued with her political activism and tried to start a School of Domestic Science for women. In 1944 she was back in the US, campaigning for Adam Clayton Powell, who became the first African-American to be elected to Congress from New York, and the following year she was back in the UK.
The IAFE was the predecessor of another hugely influential group, the International African Service Bureau (IASB), co-founded by Amy, George Padmore and others in 1937. Now re-constituted as the Pan-African Federation, it had played a key role in the organisation of the 5th Pan-African Congress which opened on 15th October 1945 in Chorlton-on-Medlock Town Hall on the outskirts of Manchester.
The conference played out against what the historian Christian Høgsbjerg described as ‘a new mood of militancy among colonial Africans, Asians and West Indians.’ It was attended by many future country leaders and played a significant part in advancing Pan-Africanism and accelerating the decolonization of the African continent,
Amy chaired the first session which looked at ‘The Colour Problem in Britain’, exploring unemployment among young Black people, the ‘colour bar’ and discriminatory work practices as well as wider issues of racial discrimination. She then left for Liberia and Ghana, where she travelled around speaking to women’s groups and began a relationship with the president of Liberia, William Tubman, who proposed to her. After much heart-searching she eventually decided that she wanted to retain her independence rather than becoming another First Lady and turned him down but they remained friends for the rest of her life.
Amy returned to Britain in 1949. She spent some time living in the Handsworth area of Birmingham and tried to tackle issues of racial discrimination there, touring schools speaking on racial relations. She also joined forces with the Reverend Reginald Stallard, a Methodist minister, to address the ‘colour bar’ that left Jamaicans, Indians and West Africans in Birmingham facing exorbitant rents and banned from clubs and bars. Stallard had already set up a ‘Cosmopolitan Club’ at the back of Trinity Methodist Church where couples in inter-racial relationships could meet safely. Together they appealed for funds to build a large centre that would be welcome to all and encourage mutual understanding though there is no evidence this was ever built.
The Notting Hill years
By late 1953, Amy was back in west London. She wanted to set up an Afro-Women’s Centre for the ‘spiritual, social and political advancement of women’ and with financial assistance from Conservative MP Sir Hamilton Kerr she purchased 1 Bassett Road, just off Ladbroke Grove in 1954. As well as being a multi-racial community centre offering accommodation and a restaurant, it also served as the headquarters for several small business ventures, many led by women.
Amy’s network continued to broaden out, reaching into the heart of the British establishment. She became a vice-president of Racial Unity, an inter-racial organization founded by Mary Attlee, sister of the former Prime Minister. Other members included the M.P.s Harold Wilson and Fenner Brockway. Closer to home, she formed strong connections with neighbours in Ladbroke Grove including the actress and singer Pearl Prescod and theatrical agent Pearl Connor, who both shared her activist attitudes. Most significant, however, was her collaboration with Claudia Jones.
Born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1915, Claudia’s communist party membership had resulted in her being imprisoned in and then deported from the country that had been her home for most of her life, the United States. She arrived in London in December 1955 and might have been introduced to Amy by their mutual friend, Paul Robeson, though he would have had to have done that by letter. Also a communist sympathiser he was at that point in the opposite situation to Claudia: the US government had confiscated his passport in 1950 to limit his political activism and so he was unable to leave his own country, a situation which continued until 1958.
In 1957 Amy and Claudia both became involved in the West Indian Workers and Student Association, and from this emerged the West Indian Gazette, the first commercial Black newspaper in Britain, which was launched in March 1958. Amy provided an article for the first issue and became a contributing editor, working in the background to help find the funds needed to keep the paper running. That summer, Oswald Mosley’s White Defence League stirred up violent riots in Notting Hill, a brick’s throw from the doorstep of what was now the Afro-Peoples’ Centre, open to men as well as women. In the aftermath, Amy sought solutions.
With her hair now dyed a flaming red and customarily dressed in kente cloth, Amy was a highly recognizable figure in the community. She hosted meetings between different interest groups at 1 Bassett Road and founded the Association for the Advancement of Colored People (AACP) with support from prospective Hampstead MP, David Pitt, as well as Fenner Brockway and Claudia as secretary.
In November 1958, a Caribbean Carnival committee was set up under the sponsorship of the West Indian Gazette. Claudia’s idea was to bring the community back together by celebrating its culture and heritage. It was to be an indoor festival, timed to coincide with the traditional time of carnival in the Caribbean. On Friday 30th January 1959 ‘Claudia’s Caribbean Party’ was held in Camden Town Hall on the Euston Road and broadcast by the BBC. Although not named on the official programme it is generally agreed that Amy played a major role in the first incarnation of what is now the internationally-renowned Notting Hill Carnival and she was there on the night as a judge of the Caribbean Carnival Queen Contest.
A few months later, there was more trauma for the local community when Kelso Cochrane, an Antiguan carpenter, was murdered by six white assailants on 17th May 1959. No one was ever charged. Amy again played a high-profile role in pushing for action, part of a deputation including Pearl Connor and David Pitt, that visited the Home Office with a list of demands for the Home Secretary, Rab Butler.
The final decade
Amy was now 62, spreading herself very thin and struggling to make ventures like the Afro-People’s Centre financially viable. In 1960 she travelled to Liberia with Sam to pursue a last-ditch money-making scheme linked to mining. Not only did this fail to materialise, Sam died there in December. Amy continued to move around in the last decade of her life, travelling between Liberia, Ghana, the Canary Islands, the US and the Caribbean but never returning to the UK.
Claudia’s death at the end of 1964 was soon followed by the folding of the West Indian Gazette and when Pearl died in 1966, aged only 46, another link to London was lost. When Amy died in Jamaica on 3rd May 1969, her death went unnoticed and unremarked by the mainstream British press.
In 2006, the Nubian Jak Community Trust was formed to memorialise the historic contributions of Black and minority ethnic people in Britain and beyond through plaques and sculptures. Three years later, and forty years after Amy’s death, a plaque was unveiled in her honour at 1 Bassett Road.
Amy’s nomadic lifestyle, collaborative approach and wide-ranging interests have meant it has taken time for historians to piece together her story and truly understand the extent of her influence. Research continues into many of the people with whom Amy interacted and the different organisations in which she was involved and I am sure there is still more to learn and appreciate about this remarkable woman.
I would like to thank Colin Prescod for sharing his early memories of Amy Ashwood Garvey.
Update: 9/6/2022: Amy Ashwood Garvey now appears on the City of Women London map, which re-imagines the London Underground map, replacing the names of stations with those of women and non-binary people who have shaped the city.
The Scotsman 29/7/1935; Daily Herald 24/8/1935; 26/8/1935; Jamaica Gleaner 11/7/1936; Birmingham Gazette 18/2/1950; Daily News 28/5/1959
‘Women in the Garvey Movement’ by Nzingha Assata (2008); ‘Negro With a Hat’ by Colin Grant (2008); ‘Marcus Garvey: Life and Lessons’ ed. Robert Hill (1987) ‘Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel’ by Rachel Holmes (2020); ‘The Life of Una Marson 1905-1965’ by Delia Jarrett-Macauley (1998); ‘Amy Ashwood Garvey: Pan Africanist, Feminist and Mrs. Marcus Garvey No. 1 Or A Tale of Two Amies’ by Tony Martin (2007); ‘Black London’ by Marc Matera (2015); ‘Claudia Jones: A Life in Exile’ by Marika Sherwood (1999)
‘The first Mrs Garvey: Pan-Africanism and feminism in the early 20th century British colonial Caribbean’ by Rhoda Reddock (2014) in Feminist Africa Issue 19; ‘The Nigerian Progress Union’ by Takehiko Ochiai; ‘Creolising London: Black West Indian activism and the politics of race and empire in Britain, 1931-1948’ by Daniel James Whittall (PhdD thesis)