One of the things that gives me the most pleasure in my job is helping people to locate the information they need at a particular time. But an equally pleasurable result of that activity is that I invariably learn something – and the collections can benefit too.
Yesterday, Phil and I were asked if we could find a photograph of Amy Ashwood Garvey, the first wife of Marcus Garvey, for a documentary. Whilst I do, of course, know something about Marcus Garvey, I didn’t know anything about Amy Ashwood, or that he was married twice, or that his second wife was also called Amy (Jacques). This latter fact has led to some of the images we found on the web being wrongly attributed as Mrs Garvey no.1, whereas they are in fact of Mrs Garvey no.2. Fortunately, we soon found an entry for Amy Ashwood Garvey in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (accessible online in our reading rooms), which features a nice photo (which may or not be in the National Portrait Gallery). We also found the same photo on the cover of Tony Martin’s book Amy Ashwood Garvey: Pan-Africanist, Feminist and Mrs Marcus Garvey No. 1 or a Tale of Two Amies, Marjority Press: Dover, Mass, 2008. Sadly, we don’t have the book, but that will certainly be remedied shortly.
So, Phil and I discovered that Amy Ashwood, like Garvey, was from Jamaica, and that they had met in 1914, at the time of his formation of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Amy worked closely with him over the next few years and they eventually married on Christmas day 1919. Sadly the marriage was apparently effectively over by the following spring, although the divorce wasn’t final until 1922, when Garvey married Amy Jacques – who had been the chief bridesmaid at his first marriage. Amy Jacques remained his wife until his death in 1940, and is known as a pioneer journalist and publisher in the U.S.
But what of the first Mrs Garvey? Well, Amy Ashwood spent several periods in England during the 1920s and 1930s, and played a not insignificant role at several key moments of Black British history – such as her involvement in the founding of the Nigerian Progress Union, one of the precursors of the influential West African Students’ Union, and her work in the 1930s with notable activists such as C. L. R. James and George Padmore (during which time she also ran a restaurant and club and collaborated on musical shows with her longtime companion, the Trinidad calypsonian Sam Manning). She spent the remainder of her life moving between the U.S., the Caribbean, and West Africa, as well as making several further visits to England. We discovered that she chaired the first session of the 5th Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945 (also attended, of course, by the likes of Dubois, Padmore, Appiah, Nkrumah, and Kenyatta), as well as setting up the Afro Peoples Centre in Ladbroke Grove in 1953. Later, in the wake of the Notting hill riots in 1958, she was also involved in the founding of the Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.
After a lifetime of seeking to further the rights of Black people – and Black women in particular, Amy Ashwood Garvey died in Kingston, Jamaica on 3 May 1969. I'm very pleased to have had the chance to learn a little about her, and I hope that the future documentary makes her better known.