Amy Ashwood Garvey: The Woman Behind Jamaican Pan-Africanism

The cover of Tony Martin’s book about Amy Ashwood Garvey’s life (from

Marcus Garvey’s fame has been heralded far and wide. He has been honoured as one of the most outstanding leaders of the black consciousness movement of the early  1900s, and is one of only seven persons conferred with the Jamaica’s highest national honour, the Order of the National Hero. But not nearly as much is said about the contribution of the women who worked alongside him on his historic journey. Garvey had two wives. The first was Amy Ashwood Garvey (1919-1922), and the second was Amy Jacques Garvey (1922-1940). This article’s focus will be on the first, Amy Ashwood Garvey.

Birth and early days

Amy Ashwood Garvey was born in the town of Port Antonio in the parish of Portland, Jamaica, on January 10, 1897. She was the third child to Michael and Maudraine Ashwood. She spent her early years and got her early schooling in Panama, but was sent back to Jamaica to attend high school. She went to Westwood High School in the parish of Trelawny. In a semi-autobiographical article, Amy highlighted Westwood as the place where, at age 12, she became “racially conscious”. She heard the principal’s wife commenting that it was a pity a collection which had been taken to aid a committee was not going to “her people”, meaning Africans.

This led Amy to find out more about “her people”, and she found out about the transportation of Africans to the Caribbean to be slaves. This led to her being taken to meet her grandmother, a former slave who still had memories of her original hometown in Ghana, Africa.

Meeting Garvey and UNIA genesis

After she completed school, Amy was very active in cultural and social welfare circles. She used to organise debates at East Queen Street Baptist church, and it was at one of these debates that she met Marcus Garvey. He introduced himself to her after the meeting, and in the time that followed, they got to discussing Garvey’s hopes of setting up an organisation for the improvement of African people.

Shortly after, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was launched, and Amy was a founding member. Her tombstone says that she is the co-founder of the association. Amy referred to herself as its first member. She played a crucial role in the organisation, helping to form its ladies’ division, and also serving as secretary of that division.

They say her parents did not approve of her relationship with Garvey, and, as a result, encouraged her to return to Panama. Garvey migrated to the United States, and that was where Amy reunited with him, taking up the role of one of the UNIA’s organisers. According to the Gleaner’s article, Amy Ashwood-Garvey: Mother of a Movement: “She was a platform speaker, worked on the newspaper ‘Negro World’ and served on the board of the Black Star Line.” 

Amy married Marcus Garvey on Christmas Day, 1919. They separated the following year, and her work with the UNIA came to an end.