The Veiled Garvey: The Life and Times of Amy Jacques Garvey

by Ula Yvette Taylor

In this biography, Ula Taylor explores the life and ideas of one of the most important, if largely unsung, Pan-African freedom fighters of the twentieth century: Amy Jacques Garvey (1895-1973).

 Born in Jamaica, Amy Jacques moved in 1917 to Harlem, where she became involved in the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the largest Pan-African organization of its time. She served as the private secretary of UNIA leader Marcus Garvey; in 1922, they married. Soon after, she began to give speeches and to publish editorials urging black women to participate in the Pan-African movement and addressing issues that affected people of African descent across the globe. After her husband's death in 1940, Jacques Garvey emerged as a gifted organizer for the Pan-African cause. Although she faced considerable male chauvinism, she persisted in creating a distinctive feminist voice within the movement. In her final decades, Jacques Garvey constructed a thriving network of Pan-African contacts, including Nnamdi Azikiwe, Kwame Nkrumah, George Padmore, and W. E. B. Du Bois.

 Taylor examines the many roles Jacques Garvey played throughout her life, as feminist, black nationalist, journalist, daughter, mother, and wife. Tracing her political and intellectual evolution, the book illuminates the leadership and enduring influence of this remarkable activist.



Chapter 1 The Formative Years, 1895-1917

Little is known about the early life of Amy Jacques Garvey—the woman who became not only the second wife of Marcus Garvey but also a prominent Pan-African activist and intellectual in her own right and, for a time, the unofficial leader of the worldwide Universal Negro Improvement Association and African (Imperial) Communities League (subsequently referred to as the UNIA). But the scant information available—especially in terms of racial/color attitudes and class—is important because these complex issues were crucial in Jamaican society and undoubtedly influenced Amy Jacques's formative years as a member of the "brown" middle/upper class. Two other factors seem to have also been significant but less typical: her formal schooling and her role in the family. Thus, though we do not have much information on Jacques's upbringing, it is important to underscore what we do know, since it gives us some thin threads that were woven into the tapestry of her later life, sometimes in surprising ways.

Amy Jacques never described the island of her birth, Jamaica, as a tourist paradise. She did not share memories of visiting the North Coast (Montego Bay), where the blue-green water is serene and hummingbirds abound. Nor did she write about the sun warming her "brown" face or describe walking through the countryside or playing in waterfalls. The girlhood recollections found in her essays and interviews are limited to a few vivid accounts of how her father, George Samuel Jacques, challenged her intellectually and prepared her for adult responsibilities. In hindsight, she gives the impression that her childhood was filled with serious duties; other than private piano lessons, her social engagements—whether festive or formal—were apparently so few that she elected not to mention them. And evidence to the contrary has not yet surfaced, despite the fact that the island offered a variety of amusements.[1] Though it is difficult to draw many conclusions from such sketchy remembrances, it is important to glean what we can from the record of Amy's early life in Jamaica, because it was there that she blossomed into a bright, cultured young woman—one in whom both her parents would take pride. What neither could have anticipated was that she would ultimately be transfigured, after living in the United States, from a typical debutante into a disciplined Pan-African thinker and leader.

Amy was born on 31 December 1895 in Jamaica's capital city of Kingston, the heart of the island's commercial, industrial, and professional life.[2] Horse-drawn wagons and carriages still roamed the poorly paved streets, but the loud cable cars gave this otherwise tranquil place a citified air. The geographic beauty and amply stocked stores attracted sophisticated urbanites to this seaport. The wealth of Kingston was largely generated by black workers, and, to some observers, women were the most visible laborers. Edgar Mayhem Bacon, who visited the island in 1890, reported that "women are the workers among the blacks in the neighborhood of Kingston. They carry the coal on the wharves, load and unload vessels, drive donkeys and mules with produce, break stones on the road, carry stone and other building material for house builders, wash, bake, dig in the fields."[3]

As was the case in most colonized communities, black labor overwhelmingly benefited elite Europeans, and Amy's own lineage was deeply rooted in an upper-class British heritage. Her great-great-grandfather, John Jaques or Jacques, had been the first mayor of Kingston.[4] (Only prosperous European men could participate in the political process and hold public office.)[5] As mayor, John Jaques was one of forty-seven members of the Jamaican House of Assembly. During his tenure, and well into the mid-nineteenth century, the assembly seems to have been shamelessly corrupt and controlled by privileged planters who lacked "fitness in character, education or morals."[6]

Mayor Jaques was not noted as an exceptional politician. For example, after much debate Britain abolished the trading of Africans in 1807 (though slavery remained legal for another thirty-one years), but apparently Jaques did not participate in this discussion and ultimately resigned his assembly seat in 1812 for health reasons.[7] Today, like many councillors, Jaques is celebrated in Kingston by his namesake, Jacques Road.

There are no records of what Amy's father, George, inherited in terms of material wealth from his great-grandfather, John Jaques. It is clear that he had the opportunity to receive a formal education and travel to the United States and Cuba before accepting a managerial position at the La Paloma Cigar Factory. The tobacco trade was not a lucrative Jamaican industry, since there was insufficient profit to entice planters to manufacture cigars and cigarettes as compared to sugar, coffee, cocoa, and bananas. Planters also resisted tobacco production because it required large growers to employ "a special manager" who was familiar with the Cuban cultivation and curing process.[8] Further, it was generally conceded that Cubans grew a superior leaf. Nevertheless, by the early 1900s consumption of Jamaican cigars in England and Germany had begun to generate a greater demand for tobacco, and George's employment at the cigar factory must have seemed relatively secure.

Sometime in 1891, George married Charlotte Henrietta from the parish of St. Elizabeth. Charlotte's mother was a black woman named Jane, and her father, Frank South, was an English farmer. Like George, Charlotte was formally educated. With few exceptions, only members of the capitalist elite received a higher education during this period, and because of their class status it was incumbent on both George and Charlotte to socialize with, and ultimately marry, someone of comparable means. George demonstrated his financial security by purchasing seven acres of property on Long Mountain Avenue, located in the eastern section of Kingston where he built the family home. In addition, he bought real estate in the Windward Road area, a popular section for the "brown"/colored elite on the outskirts of the city.[9] Charlotte and George were married for five years before the birth of their first child. (George had fathered children prior to his marriage, but they did not count as "legitimate" heirs.)[10] They had prayed for a son but were blessed with Amy.

Though Amy was later to serve as the archivist for the UNIA, she provided little documentation of her personal life before migrating to the United States and meeting Marcus Garvey. Her reluctance to share the details of her earlier life may be accounted for in several ways. Perhaps she believed that it was not until she met Garvey that her life had profound meaning. Or her decision not to fully disclose her well-to-do Jamaican upbringing could have been tied to her need to maintain a public image of modesty and thrift in spite of her access to wealth. Nevertheless, a look at what it meant to be a part of the Jamaican middle/upper class in the early twentieth century provides some clues about her girlhood.

The middle/upper class is difficult to define precisely in any culture or community, because class is a relative term that is linked to the conditions of a particular situation. In Jamaica, level of formal schooling and training strongly influenced earning power and, therefore, class standing; however, skin color was another important variable in class divisions. Amy's family fell in the category of—and received all the privileges accorded to—formally educated "brown" Jamaicans.

The venomous seeds of the color/class system in Jamaica germinated in the course of slavery. During that time, inhabitants were legally divided into free (white), slave (African Caribbean), and freedmen/women (former slaves who lacked the full rights of a free person). In terms of legal rights, political power, wealth, and prestige, the whites of Jamaica were at the top of the hierarchy. Occupying the oppressive role of "masters," they had definite color preferences among the enslaved population; their obsession with pigmentation is evident by the color-coded records in all of the slave registration returns from the British Caribbean.[11] Skin color and physical features were just as important as gender and age. Phenotype functioned as a means to categorize enslaved people into specific occupations; later it determined treatment and labor expectations. A ranked order, based on a racial gradation between "African" and "European," was first established by the Spaniards but later adopted by the British, who used it crudely to label individuals and ultimately to create contested identities. Under this system, fluid racial classifications were divided, subdivided, and then diced into well-defined but confusing categories:

Negro—child of a Negro and Negro Mulatto—child of a White and Negro Sambo—child of a Mulatto and Negro Quadroon—child of a White and Mulatto Mustee—child of a White and Quadroon Mustifino—child of a White and Mustee Quintroon—child of a White and Mustifino Octoroon—child of a White and Quintroon.[12]

In addition to bearing the labels that were assigned them by this classification system, members of the miscegenated population (largely produced by the bodies of black women) were collectively regarded as "colored" people. During slavery, coloreds far outnumbered Africans in skilled trades and were underrepresented in field gangs because they were generally regarded by planters as more intelligent. Clearly, the ability to think was linked to a lack of "color." Everywhere in the British Caribbean, the darkest Africans were relegated to the hardest field work because snide colonists linked their ancestry with savagery.