These articles were originally posted on Gants Hill United Reformed Church’s blog in 2020.
This image has been doing the rounds on social media over the last couple of years. Each named person lived during times when skin colour was more important than intelligence and personality. Whilst racism is nowhere near as bad as it was half a century ago, many people with ethnic backgrounds still face adversity, particularly in the United States. This poster encourages those people to dream, lead, fight, think, build, speak, educate, believe and challenge like the many heroes of the past.
Founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican political activist leader who influenced Rastafarians, the Nation of Islam and other activists, such as Malcolm X. Although often controversial, his ideas and dreams about the unification and empowerment of African-American people have become known as Garveyism.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey Jr. was born on 17th August 1887 in the Colony of Jamaica. Although it was an ethnic country, there was a colourist social hierarchy and Garvey’s family, with their very dark skin, were at the lowest end. Garvey’s grandparents had been born into slavery and had taken on their Irish owner’s surname. Despite this, Garvey’s parents were considered well-off in the peasant community. His father, Malchus Garvey, was a stonemason and his mother, Sarah Richards, was a domestic servant.
As well as a stonemason, Malchus Garvey was a layman at the local Wesleyan Church, so it was only natural that Marcus attended the church school. At 14, Garvey left school due to a lack of funds and was apprenticed to his godfather, who ran a printing business. Until then, Garvey had not fully felt the effects of racism. He had friends with various skin tones, including a white girl, and he never thought his race would be a problem.
In 1905, Garvey moved to Kingston to work at P.A. Benjamin Manufacturing Company, where he became the first Afro-Jamaican foreman. He was able to provide for his mother and sister, who had moved in with him after leaving his father. Sadly, an earthquake struck in 1907, destroying his home. The family were forced to sleep in the open for several months, and his mother died the following year.
Whilst living in Kingston, Garvey converted to Catholicism. He also started to voice his opinions, which led to him being sacked from the manufacturing company. By this point, he was very angry with the inequalities in Jamaican society. After getting a job as the first secretary of Jamaica’s first nationalist organization, the National Club, Garvey enrolled in elocution lessons with Bahamian-born clergyman Dr Robert Love (1831-1914) and began entering public speaking competitions.
Between 1910 and 1914, Garvey travelled abroad, beginning with Costa Rica, where he worked as a timekeeper on a large banana plantation. He also briefly set up his own newspaper Nation/La Nación, in which he expressed his strong opinions. Garvey gradually worked his way through Central America, moving from job to job until he decided to travel to London in the hopes of improving his education.
In London, Garvey found a job as a labourer in the city docks. His sister, Indiana, came over to join him and found herself a position as a domestic servant. Garvey noted there were not many black people in the city, and those he came across were usually some form of labourer. Garvey visited the House of Commons during his stay and was impressed by the politician David Lloyd George. He also visited Hyde Park Corner and began to regularly speak there.
In 1913, Garvey got a job at the African Times and Orient Review as a runner and began writing for them the following year. After a brief trip through Europe, during which he had a short engagement with a Spanish-Irish heiress, Garvey had run out of funds and decided to return to Jamaica. During the journey, he met and spoke to an Afro-Caribbean missionary who inspired Garvey to envision a movement that would unite all black people of African descent.
This idea formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, commonly abbreviated as UNIA, which Garvey launched in July 1914 with the motto “One Aim. One God. One Destiny”. The association aimed to establish a brotherhood among the black race, to promote a spirit of race pride, to reclaim the fallen and to assist in civilising the backward tribes of Africa.” The association got off to a very slow start but Garvey was enthusiastic and attended many meetings, including with the Queen Street Baptist Literary and Debating Society, where he met Amy Ashwood, with whom he secretly became engaged.
Having failed to gain many members in Jamaica, Garvey moved the UNIA to the USA, where he initially lodged with a Jamaican expatriate in New York City. He travelled the country lecturing, having been inspired by black Baptist and Episcopal preachers. Back in New York, Garvey targeted his speeches at Afro-Caribbeans as well as African-Americans. Membership of the UNIA began to grow rapidly.
Within 18 months of its establishment in the USA, the UNIA had branches in 25 states as well as some Central American countries. It is not certain how many people became members of the association, but at one point, Garvey boasted over 2 million members. Unlike other activist groups, the UNIA had a blacks-only policy, so Garvey was often accused of hindering attempts at racial integration. Things came to a head when Garvey called the writer Cyril Briggs (1888-1966) and other members “white” because of their mixed heritage.
In October 1919, a vendor of Negro World attempted to assassinate Garvey, who survived with a couple of gunshots to his legs. The shooter, George Tyler, was arrested but died attempting to escape from prison. With his mortality in mind, Garvey married Amy Ashwood at a private Roman Catholic service on Christmas Day. Sadly, the marriage lasted little more than three months, and they soon separated.
Garvey moved on to new and bigger ideas, including the Black Star Line, a ship for black people run by black people. The ships travelled between Africa and the Americas, and after a few monetary problems, began to do quite well. Unfortunately, many people were beginning to dislike Garvey for his views, and he was often booed at his speeches.
In 1922, Garvey and three other UNIA officials were charged with fraud involving the Black Star Line. Their finances were in a mess and contained many inaccuracies, so it was difficult for them to defend themselves. Garvey was found guilty and imprisoned for five years. On his release in 1927, Garvey was deported to Jamaica.
Garvey continued to work with the UNIA, but people were confused when he collaborated with organisations like the KKK. Garvey reportedly claimed he respected white supremacists because they acted on their word, unlike other white people. As a result, Garvey lost a lot of support within the Black population.
In 1935, Garvey moved to London, where he died after a series of strokes in 1940. By this time, he was far less popular than he had been a decade ago, but in 1964, Jamaica hailed him as a national hero. Although he alienated a lot of people through his radical beliefs and actions, he was the spark that influenced many civil rights activists, for instance, Malcolm X. Most of his Black Nationalist views have been ignored, but his key messages live on, particularly “Black is beautiful”.
“We must canonize our own saints, create our own martyrs, and elevate to positions of fame and honour black men and women who have made their distinct contributions to our racial history … I am the equal of any white man; I want you to feel the same way.” – Marcus Garvey
Madam C.J. Walker was the first female self-made millionaire in America; she was also the first black female millionaire. Despite racism being rife in the country, Madam C.J. built an empire from nothing, developing a line of hair and beauty products for black women. She is also remembered for being a civil rights activist.
Born on 23rd December 1867 in Louisiana to Owen and Minerva Breedlove, Madam C.J. was originally known as Sarah. She had one sister and four brothers, the elder of whom were born into slavery. Sarah was the first Breedlove child born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1862. Sadly, her mother passed away from cholera in 1872, and her father died the following year.
From the age of ten, Sarah was brought up in Mississippi by her much older sister Louvenia and her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell. Around the same time, Sarah began working as a domestic servant. As an orphan, she had no time or money to go to school, and the only education she received was at Sunday school before the death of her parents.
Sarah had a rough time living with Louvenia. Jesse was an abusive man, and Sarah took the first opportunity to escape from the household: getting married. Sarah was only 14 years old when she married Moses McWilliams in 1882. Three years later, Sarah gave birth to a daughter, A’Lelia (1885-1931), but in 1887, their lives were shattered by the death of Moses.
To earn money, Sarah moved to St Louis, Missouri, where her brothers lived to work as a laundress. She was determined to earn enough money to send her daughter to school, which was a difficult task earning less than $1 a day. Sarah also wanted to live an educated life and was jealous of the educated women at the African Methodist Episcopal Church she attended.
In 1894, Sarah married John Davis, but their marriage was not a happy one, and she left him in 1903. Meanwhile, Sarah was battling severe dandruff, leading to baldness, which was a common problem for black women at the time. Hair products were made for white-skinned customers and were unsuitable for African-Americans.
Sarah knew a little about haircare from her brothers, who were barbers, but she was determined to do something about the quality of products available for black women. In 1904, she became an agent for Annie Malone (1877-1957), a black inventor and businesswoman, who specialised in cosmetics. Using the knowledge she gained working for Malone, Sarah began to develop her own products. Meanwhile, she continued to work for Malone in Denver, Colorado, where she had moved in 1905. When Malone found out about Sarah’s products, she accused her of stealing the formula despite it having been around for centuries. From then on, Sarah and Malone were rivals.
In 1906, Sarah married a newspaper advertising salesman, Charles Joseph Walker (d.1926), and took on his name. Soon she was known as Madam C.J. Walker, a name under which she marketed her products. To begin with, Sarah sold her products door-to-door whilst her husband began to arrange advertising and promotion. When business improved, A’Lelia became involved with the business, setting up a mail-order operation in their home. Charles and Sarah travelled to the southern states to promote the business, eventually moving to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to set up a beauty parlour and training college.
A’Lelia joined Madam C.J. in Pittsburgh in 1907 and persuaded her mother to open a beauty salon and office in New York. In 1910, Madam C.J. relocated to Indianapolis, where she established the headquarters for the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company and began hiring staff to help with the management.
Despite the competition, Madam C.J.’s products were popular because they helped hair to regrow and prevented them from becoming brittle. Between 1911 and 1919, she employed thousands of women and trained over 20,000 people. Unfortunately, Charles and Sarah divorced in 1912, meaning she lost her business partner.
As well as training her staff in haircare, she taught black women how to build their own businesses and become financially independent. In 1917, she established the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents, which welcomed 200 people to its first annual conference. This was also the first-ever conference for businesswomen in the USA.
“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there, I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there, I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.” This is what Madam C.J. told the National Negro Business League (NNBL) when she spoke at one of their meetings in 1912. As well as concentrating on her business, Madam C.J. involved herself in many good causes, wishing to put her well-earned money to good use.
Madam C.J. helped to raise funds for the YMCA and donated money to various churches and schools. She also became a patron of the arts and became friends with notable people, such as the author Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). In 1917, she joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the following year, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC), making sizable monetary donations to both.
Around this time, Madam C.J. began to suffer from kidney failure and hypertension, passing away on 25th May 1919 at the age of 51. At her death, she was worth an estimated one million dollars, making her the wealthiest African-American woman in the country. Her daughter took over the company as its president, which continued to operate until 1981.
Madam C.J. Walker has been honoured several times since her death, including in recent years. Her company’s building in Indianapolis has been designated a National Historic Landmark, which now houses the Madam Walker Legacy Centre. In 2006, American actress and playwright Regina Taylor wrote The Dreams of Sarah Breedlove about Madam C.J.’s journey from rags to riches. Her most recent honour occurred in 2016 when the French beauty company Sephora launched a line of hair products called “Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culture”, which are suitable for many different hair types.
Not only did Madam C.J. Walker create a successful business at a time when black people were struggling for equality, but she also improved the lives of thousands of others. Thanks to her, black women were able to start their own businesses, thus helping them escape poverty and oppression. Madam C.J. was also a huge inspiration for future hair care and cosmetic businesses and will continue to be looked up to in years to come.