Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Sunday 28th May 2017 | Manchester, UK

Women on the move: Ella Baker and Amy Ashwood Garvey


During the early to mid-20th century, five million African-Americans made the passage from the former slave-holding south to the industrialised cities of the north and west United States. Cruel Jim Crow laws and tough financial situations forced families to move hundreds of miles to states such as New York, Illinois and Michigan, where demand for blue-collar workers was increasing due to the onset of the First World War. It was also during this period that migrants, particularly from the West Indies, began to make their move toward America in search of a ‘better’ lifestyle. This mass movement from the 1910s to the 1970s became known as the ‘Great Migration’. As with much of African-American history, women are often under-represented, if at all, within scholarship. It is because of this that the role played by millions of female migrants, be they mothers, wives or daughters, is frequently diminished. However understated the part played by female members of the household may be it is difficult to deny that life journeying north would have been much more problematic had women not taken on responsibility. Families of working-class backgrounds regularly relied on wives and daughters to bring in a wage additional to that of the (usually male) breadwinner. Whilst moving through the southern and mid states, these women typically hired themselves out as domestic servants or nannies to white households, whilst their husbands and children worked in the fields. More often than not, women were then expected to come home and attend to household jobs such as cooking, cleaning and sewing. These jobs were harsh and offered a bleak outlook for those in the south. Conditions were poor for any person of colour, but were even poorer for women. It was for this reason that for black women the northern states held promise of a better life. Perhaps it was because these women faced such tough conditions within society – where they were mostly seen as labourers (as opposed to white women who were expected to remain at home as housewives), whilst repeatedly facing sexual and physical violence, as well as encountering the daily racism of the United States – which spurred so many of them into activism. Two significant women who made the move to the northern states were Ella Baker and Amy Ashwood Garvey. Born in Virginia, and raised and educated in North Carolina, Ella Baker was the typical African-American woman trying to ‘make it’ by moving to New York at the height of the Great Migration during 1927. Though Baker had opportunities that many other black women of the time did not, (she studied at Shaw University in Raleigh, graduated as Valedictorian of her class and family connections enabled her to move north), she certainly used these advantages to the best of her ability. By joining groups such as the Young Women’s Christian Association, Baker became an avid activist in all aspects of African-American life. These initial engagements meant she later became involved with Martin Luther King Jr.’s organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Additionally, Baker continued her commitment to women’s rights by remaining a part of organisations such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom until her death in 1986. As for Ashwood, later becoming Ashwood-Garvey (following her brief but significant marriage to political orator and activist of Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism movements, Marcus Garvey), migration from her homeland of Jamaica to the bustling streets of Harlem was one which would hopefully help the spread of activism for black women; her move to the US was largely a way to further her activist career. As co-founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) at the tender age of seventeen, her relocation to the New York neighbourhood of Harlem four years later in 1918 meant Ashwood was in the centre of all things African-American, at a time when African-Americans as a whole were struggling to find a voice.As secretary of the women’s division of the UNIA, Ashwood encouraged women of African descent to celebrate their heritage within communities such as Harlem, and across cities like Chicago and Detroit. Ultimately, without the migration of these women – whether they were passionate activists such as Baker and Ashwood, or those women who remained in jobs in order to keep their families from going hungry – life across the States would have resulted in a much more difficult journey, for both those part of the Great Migration, and for activists eagerly advocating the Civil Rights Movement.

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