The black activist women of 100 years ago

Amy Jacques Garvey, Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, and the “back to Africa” movement

Keisha N. Blain offers a dynamic counterhistory of black women’s involvement in black nationalist activism in the first half of the 20th century. Her compelling narrative illustrates the historical and cultural significance of black women activists and accounts for the reasons they are absent from mainstream histories of black nationalism. By painting a vivid picture of these women—their lives, means of empowerment, nuanced ideologies, and political beliefs—Blain provides an intriguing look into a story that is often oversimplified.

Much of the book narrates the ways black nationalist women pursued racial separatism and emigration to Liberia. After the decline of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Associ­ation, black women leaders like Amy Ash­wood, Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, Amy Jacques Garvey, Ethel Waddell, and Maymie De Mena continued to pursue relocation in the hopes of establishing an autonomous black community free from the threat of white supremacy.

However, this was not their only goal. Many of these women simultaneously used the UNIA’s decline as an opportunity to carve out greater space for women’s leadership. Gordon, for in­stance, founded the Peace Movement of Ethiopia. Whereas in the UNIA women leaders were required to work under a man’s authority, the PME had no such requirements. While the organization upheld the rhetoric of traditional gender roles, stating in its constitution that a woman would only serve as the PME’s president if a suitable man could not be found, the reality was quite different.  Gordon effectively ran the organization for more than a decade. Her ability to lead both men and women in the pursuit of black freedom demonstrates her nuanced navigation of the sociopolitical climate of the time.