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Black women activists in Britain

The history of Black women’s activism in Britain is a long, rich and deeply inspiring one, yet the narratives of Black women activists have often been erased or minimised. Kelly Foster and A S Francis explore some of the individuals and organisations involved in activism, and their movements and campaigns since the late 19th century.

Women have long led the way in organising strategies and mobilising communities in the fight against systemic racism, colonialism, capitalism and justice for people racialised as Black. Yet too often they are eclipsed from activist history. Providing an overview of Black women activists in England since the turn of the 20th century is an ambitious task, as the impact of these women and an interconnected network of women is often represented in fragmented and individualist narratives.

Yet the voices and actions of Black women activists have profoundly shaped Britain. For each named individual who fought tirelessly, there are hundreds of other women who stood by their side whose names are unknown – many deserve further recognition.

Alice Kinloch and the African Association

The beginning of the 20th century saw the birth of the Pan-African movement which was initiated by Alice Kinloch. She arrived in Britain in 1895 and quickly involved herself in speaking engagements that campaigned against the ‘oppression the blacks of Africa’ faced in southern Africa. Born in 1863 in present-day South Africa, Kinloch was active in Britain during the late 19th century. Despite the educational barriers experienced by the native Black population in South Africa, she obtained a good education and had a talent for reading, writing and delivering speeches. Upon settling in Britain with her husband, Kinloch co-founded the African Association with Henry Sylvester Williams and Thomas John Thompson as ‘an association of the Africans and the descendants of Africa, from all parts of the world’. Kinloch said that ‘with some men of my race in this country, I have formed a society for the benefit of our people in Africa’. The African Association worked to educate and mobilise people in the fight against colonialism and imperialism in Africa and convened the pioneering Pan-African Conference at Westminster Town Hall in London in July 1900. Kinloch spoke widely throughout England, including on behalf of the Aborigines’ Protection Society – which advocated for the human rights of native peoples subject to colonial rule and exploitation. An appeal by Kinloch to audiences in Newcastle in 1897 prompted a motion to petition Queen Victoria ‘to take such action as shall effectually stop the cruel and violent measures by which the native races in South Africa and elsewhere are being deprived of their lands and liberty’.[1]

Alice Kinloch was instrumental in rallying support for the fight against colonialism in Britain. She was the most influential Black woman active in British-based anti-imperialist politics during this time. The African Association she co-founded became the conduit for a transnational movement that shaped the liberation movements of the 20th century and that continue to unite people of African descent today.[2]

Amy Ashwood Garvey (1897–1969) and the Florence Mills Social Club and Afro Women’s Centre

The Afro Women’s Centre, established in 1959, is probably the earliest Black women’s organisation in the UK. Its constitution states that it was established for ‘spiritual, cultural, social, and political advancement’. It was founded by Pan-African activist and entrepreneur Amy Ashwood Garvey, who also opened the Afro-Woman Service Bureau at Egerton Gardens in London to provide an income for herself and employment opportunities for women.

Ashwood Garvey is perhaps best known for co-founding the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) with her then husband Marcus Garvey in 1916. Born in Jamaica in 1897, her work with the UNIA shaped the early Garveyite movement, which became the largest mass movement in the African diaspora with 1,000 UNIA chapters in North America, the Caribbean, South America and Africa. By 1924 Ashwood Garvey had travelled to London after divorcing her husband. She wrote that at least her desire to help Black women ‘find themselves and rise in life’ was a reason for leaving her husband.[3] While in London she co-founded the Nigerian Progress Union with law student Oladipo Solanke. Solanke recognised that the NPU was ‘conceived, born and mothered by Miss Amy Adeoyla Ashwood’. The NPU would become one of the first African-led nationalist organisations to call for home rule.

During her second term living in London, Ashwood Garvey’s organising consolidated her entrepreneurial instincts with her political drive. Ashwood Garvey set about creating spaces for Black people to congregate in London, such as her International Afro Restaurant and the Florence Mills Social Club, a jazz club in London's West End. When word spread regarding the imminent threat of invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini’s fascist Italy, Ashwood Garvey and the Trinidadian journalist C L R James established the International Friends of Abyssinia in 1935 to campaign against it.

Photograph of Amy Ashwood Garvey campaigning with The International African Friends of Abyssinia

Black and white photograph of Amy Jacques Garvey and four men including the sons of the Ethiopian minister, standing against a wall at a International African Friends of Abyssinia demonstration in Trafalgar Square

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Amy was a key organiser of the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945, one of the most important events in Pan-Africanist history. At this Congress, Ashwood Garvey chaired the first session on freedom from British colonial rule. She and fellow Jamaican Alma La Badie were the only two women presenters. At the conference Ashwood Garvey challenged those attending with the statement: ‘Very much has been said about the Negro but for some reason very little has been said about the Black woman’.

Photograph of Amy Ashwood Garvey and John McNair at the 1945 Pan-African Congress, 1945

Black and white photograph showing Amy Ashwood Garvey chairing a session alongside John McNair at the Manchester Pan-African Congress in 1945. Anti-colonial signs are posted on the stage and delegates sit on benches.

This photograph shows Amy Ashwood Garvey chairing a session at the Manchester Pan-African Congress in 1945.

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Ashwood Garvey also demonstrated her commitment to London’s Black communities by chairing an enquiry on race relations in the aftermath of the racist murder of Kelso Cochrane, an Antiguan carpenter, in Notting Hill.

The League of Colored Peoples

Although the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP), founded in London in 1931, is most associated with its founder, Peckham resident and physician Harold Moody, women were a core part of its membership. One of the League's founding members, Stella Thomas, was called to the bar in 1933, becoming the first woman barrister in West Africa. Jamaican playwright and BBC producer Una Marson edited their magazine, The Keys, while Christine Moody and Amy Barbour James would hold central roles in the organisation.

The Keys (January–March 1935 issue)

Page from The Keys, January–March 1935 issue, listing the aims of the League of Coloured Peoples and its officers

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Claudia Jones (1915–1964) and the All African Women's Freedom Movement

‘Negro women – as workers, as Negroes, as women – are the most oppressed stratum of the whole society’,[4] wrote Trinidad-born Claudia Jones, a tireless Black activist and committed communist organiser. One of the highest ranking women in the Communist Party USA, the liberation of Black women was central to Jones’s work both in the USA and the UK. After two terms of incarceration, Jones was deported to Britain under the McCarran Act in 1955. In contrast to her successful activist career with the CP USA, Jones received a cold welcome from the British chapter of the Communist Party, and received very little financial, emotional or political support. Her founding of the West Indian and Afro-Asian Gazette (WIG) in 1958 – her friend Amy Ashwood Garvey sat on the editorial board – was a pivotal moment both in her personal career and in the history of Black British journalism. From her role as editor of WIG, Jones was well positioned to continue her support of Black women.

Her commitment to Pan-Africanist socialism was demonstrated with her involvement in the All African Women’s Freedom Movement held on African Women’s Day in 1961.

Photograph from Africa Women's Day, December 1961

Photograph of Eslanda Goode Robeson and Claudia Jones speaking at Africa Women's Day gathering. They are on a platform, behind a table alongside a couple more unidentified participants

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Jones might be best known and celebrated in Britain for commencing Carnival in the UK in 1959, as an attempt to heal the Black community in London after the murder of Kelso Cochrane and the Notting Hill race riots. Jones’s Carnival included the Carnival Queen beauty contest. Her friend actress Corinne Skinner remembered the competitions: ‘this was before Black Power day. This was before we all knew we were beautiful. We might not have known it but she knew that we were beautiful…’

In December 1964, Jones passed away in her sleep at her London home at just 49 years old. One attendee of her funeral service summarised her role in British-based Black community activism well when he stated: ‘we have lost the only person who had qualified as the national leader of the Afro-Asian Caribbean peoples in Britain’.[5] Earlier that month, Martin Luther King Jr had visited London on his way to collecting the Nobel Peace Prize. Dr King’s visit acted as a catalyst for the creation of the racially integrated Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) that pressed for anti-discrimination legislation. The late Dame Jocelyn Barrow was a founding member and general secretary, later becoming vice-chair. Her experience with CARD propelled her to a career as an educationalist and publisher.

The Black Women's Movement

CARD wound up around 1967, but by 1968 the first British-based Black Power group, the United Coloured People’s Association (UCPA), was born. Out of the UCPA emerged several other Black Power organisations, including the Marxist–Leninist Black Unity and Freedom Party (BUFP). One early member of the BUFP, Jamaica-born Gerlin Bean, attended the UK’s first National Women’s Liberation Conference in Oxford in 1970. Bean found that she was one of only two Black women present, despite the Conference being attended by over 600 women, and she ‘couldn’t really pick on the relevance of it as it pertained to Black women’.[6] In the aftermath of the Conference, Bean set about forming a women’s group within the BUFP, called the Black Women’s Action Committee. She went on to establish similar women’s chapters in other sections of London’s Black Power network, eventually creating the autonomous Black Women’s Group (BWG) in 1973, alongside Olive Morris, Liz Obi, Beverley Bryan and Zainab Abbas who all attended its first meeting. The BWG later adopted the localised name Brixton Black Women’s Group, after multiple other Black women’s groups sprang up around the country, in Liverpool, Leicester, Manchester, Birmingham, as well as the ELBWO (East London Black Women’s Organisation), United Black Women’s Action Group and many others. BWG opened the Black Women’s Centre in Brixton – also known as Mary Seacole House – which served as both a space for women and for support for the wider community. In 1978, the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) emerged as an umbrella group for the national network of Black women’s groups, and the following year they convened the first National Black Women’s Conference, held in Brixton, that was attended by over 300 women.

An especially intense era of collective action around issues faced by the Black community took place during the 1970s, and early 1980s. During these years, the Black women’s, or Black Feminist movement was formulated by a network of committed Black radical women located all over the country. This movement serves as a blueprint for the continuation of efforts by young Black women today. A major bone of contention at the third National Black Women’s Conference in 1981, was the topic of sexuality and lesbianism. Many attendees of the conference have since pinpointed arguments around sexuality as a reason for OWAAD’s demise. In October 1985, the first Black Lesbian Conference was convened, titled ‘Zami’. The Black LGBT community would form the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre in the same year, which eventually found a home in Peckham.

Black women against police brutality

Activists, campaigners and entire communities have worked for decades to demand justice for victims of state-sanctioned violence. The police action that led to the deaths of Cherry Groce Cynthia Jarrett and Joy Gardener was met with protest and rage. Black women, and in particular the mothers of the teenage victims of racist attacks, were at the forefront of campaigning for justice and to hold to account the institutional racism of the police. From Mavis Beat’s leadership in the Stop Sus Campaign, Baroness Martha Osamor’s association with the Broadwater Farm Youth Association Mothers' Project, Baroness Doreen Lawrence’s decades’ long campaign for justice for the murder of her son Stephen and Marcia Rigg’s demands for justice for her brother Sean who died in police custody: Black women in Britain have been at the forefront of many of the campaigns against police violence in Britain.

In the instances mentioned above, and of course in many more, Black communities throughout Britain, and Black women in particular, have always fought back against the racist terrorism and antagonism experienced by Black people in Britain at the hands of the state.

Footnotes

[1] Transactions of the Aborigines’ Protection Society, 1 July 1897, pp. 233–34.

[2] David Killingray, ‘Significant Black South Africans in Britain before 1912: Pan-African Organisations and the Emergence of South Africa's First Black Lawyers’, South African Historical Journal, 64:3 (2012), pp. 393–417

[3] Hakim Adi and Marika Sherwood, Pan-African History: Political Figures from Africa and the Diaspora since 1787 (Routledge: London, 2003), p. 70.

[4] Claudia Jones, ‘An End to the Neglect of the Negro Woman’, Political Affairs, 1949.

[5] ‘People of all races pay homage to Claudia Jones’, West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian News, Vol. 7, No. 1, December 1964/January 1965.

[6] Gerlin Bean. Oral testimony. ORAL/1/3: Black Cultural Archives.

This blog piece is dedicated to the memories of the late Marlene Bogle and Dame Jocelyn Barrows who died this year, and to those Black women whose names and stories have yet to be recovered.

  • Kelly Foster
  • Kelly Foster is a public historian and has worked with community/independent archives in London for over 15 years and is a founding member of TRANSMISSION, a collective of archivists and historians of African descent. She is a member of the Remembering Olive Collective and served on the advisory group for the Unfinished Business exhibition.

  • A S Francis
  • A S Francis is a PhD candidate at the University of Chichester and the coordinator of the Young HIstorian’s Project. Francis’s research concerns Black women’s involvement in Britain’s Black radical movement of the late 20th century and the development of the intertwined Black women’s movements. https://www.younghistoriansproject.org/