Henrietta Vinton Davis and the Garvey Movement by Professor William Seraille


Henrietta Vinton Davis from Women of distinction: remarkable in works and invincible in character. (Raleigh, N.C. : L.A. Scruggs, 1893.)

Henrietta Vinton Davis from Women of distinction: remarkable in works and invincible in character. (Raleigh, N.C. : L.A. Scruggs, 1893.)

Based on the article below Henrietta Vinton Davis should be canonized as a saint and elevated to a position of fame and glory for her distinct contribution to our history.  However, there is not even a marker on her grave.  The Henrietta Vinton Davis Memorial Foundation was founded in 2005 to raise funds to place a marker at her grave, stage performances of the play “Shero: The Livication of Henrietta Vinton Davis,” conceived by Clayton LeBouef, produce a documentary on her life and publish her biography.  No less is worthy a woman of her stature.

This article, the first scholarly article on the life of Lady Davis, was originally published in the journal “Afro-Americans in New York Life and History”, vol. 7, no. 2, July 1983.

Historians study the past with its emphasis on personalities and events. Sometimes the great doers of past decades are remembered. More often, men and women of achievement, while important in their own times, are overlooked by historians. Such a person is Henrietta Vinton Davis who made a name for herself not only as a major elocutionist but as a leading exponent of Marcus Garvey’s “race first” concept.

Davis, who was born in 1860, was the daughter of Mansfield Vinton Davis, a talented musician, and Mary Ann (Johnson) Davis. As a young woman, she studied under Marguerite E. Saxon of Washington, D.C., Edwin Lawrence of New York City, and Rachel Noah of Boston, where she attended the Boston School of Oratory. During her late teens she taught school in Maryland and Louisiana. In 1878 she became the first black woman to be employed by the Office of the Recorder of the Deeds in the nation’s capital. It was in this capacity that she met Frederick Douglass who held the position of Recorder from 1881 to 1886.1

Davis’ oratorical abilities, which proved valuable to the Garvey movement, were first developed in the nation’s concert halls. A brief survey of her acting career is necessary before we examine her role in Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Frederick Douglass, a life time friend, introduced her to the audience in her first dramatic appearance on April 25, 1883. Davis’ debut at Washington’s Marini’s Hall received a mixed review. “Our lady readers,” commented the editor of The Washington Bee, “has found fault with Miss Davis’ reading.” “There are none in Washington,” he added, “who can equal her in dramatic art.”

Newspaper Advertisement

Newspaper Advertisement announcing the debut performance of Henrietta Vinton Davis at Marini’s Hall in Washington DC.

The People’s Advocate of Washington praised her for her talented debut but indicated sadness that while one third of the audience was white more blacks should have been in attendance to provide her with moral support. John Edward Bruce, writing nearly forty years later, provided this recollection: “I can recall the wild enthusiasm of the audience which greeted [her] and the continuous applause that followed each number….” 2

While Davis possessed a fine voice, her acting style was sometimes criticized. Most papers, however, were quick to praise her for they recognized her talents as being unique. Mr. Thomas T. Symmons, her manager, and later her husband, sought in late April, 1884 to arrange a testimonial for Davis in New York. On May 9, Philadelphia, as reported by the New York Globe, provided Davis with “one of the grandest receptions ever given to a colored lady in Philadelphia.” Despite her success in America’s recital halls, critics still attacked Davis’ style. The Bee considered her performance of Lady Macbeth at Ford’s Opera House to be “a failure.” She was accused of “declaim[ing] her part like a school girl,” and of lacking “harmony in her voice.” Defending herself, Davis complained about the “unkind cut[s]” Nevertheless, the Bee replied that “we can not say that chalk is cheese when chalk is chalk.”3

Henrietta Vinton Davis as Pere Lavenge

Henrietta Vinton Davis as Pere Lavenge from the play A Tragedy in Prose of Imperial Haiti by William Edgar Easton.

Praised more than criticized, Davis in 1884 resigned her copyist position in the office of Recorder of Deeds to pursue her career full time. In 1888 the Cleveland Gazette hailed her and Alice M. Franklin as “two [black] females who give promise of a brilliant histrionic career.” By 1893 she had established her own company which produced “Dessalines.”4 Part of her success was due to her refusal to desert the legitimate stage. Timothy Thomas Fortune, editor of the New York Age, asserted in his overbearing way that Davis “could achieve fame and fortune on the regular stage, if [she] could get a backer.” Fortune argued that only “a manager with plenty of money behind him” could achieve success for Davis or other talented performers. Her attempt to dramatize Ignatius Donnelly’s novel, Doctor Huguet, the story of a white physician “whose soul and mind occupied the body of an evil black man” was unsuccessful. By 1894, Davis’ career had shown remarkable improvement. This was noted by the Cleveland Gazette which described her visit to Cincinnati as a major improvement over her 1885 visit.5

As a reader, Davis was widely respected by many of the nineteenth century’s black leaders. In addition to Douglass, Bishop Henry M. Turner, Booker T. Washington, and I.F. Aldridge thought highly of her.6 Their endorsements helped her to obtain church engagements where “she [was] a great help to the ministers in raising money….”7 Her delineations of Shakespeare, which was a first for her race, and her recitals of Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s dialectic work won her praise from many northern white newspapers.8

Due to missing records, little is known about her career during the years 1895 to 1911. Davis and Nonie Bailey Hardy, a contralto singer, toured in Jamaica in 1912. Later in the year, she managed Kingston’s Convent Garden Theater. While in the island she introduced to Jamaicans the Loyal Knights and Ladies of Malachite, an Afro-American benevolent society.9 In early 1913 the two returned to the United States after touring Central America.

Marcus Garvey, who came to the United States in 1916, managed to convince Henrietta Davis to forsake her stage career to become a missionary in the cause of African Redemption. It may seem highly unusual that a popular dramatist would leave the concert hall for politics. After all, she was then close to sixty years of age. Yet, Davis had on earlier occasions shown an interest in politics.

Marcus Garvey said, "We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, for though others may free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind."

Marcus Garvey with quote on emancipation from mental slavery, the next stage of human development.

A brief look at several episodes in her life would indicate that an activist role for her in 1919 was not out of character. In 1892, she wrote to Ignatius Donnelly, the Populist Party candidate for President, “I should like to take part in the present campaign ….” “I stand ready,” she indicated, “to deliver speeches … in any part of the country where I could do the most good among my brethren.” This plea to work with Donnelly was not just a passing thought because Davis apologized for writing him a second time. “but my eagerness, she indicated, “to serve my race and humanity must be my excuse.”10

Her interest in her race is further revealed by a 1916 letter written from Bermuda to John Edward Bruce in which she revealed: “That is alright about the recital in Yonkers [N.Y.]. I know you did your best, but I am well acquainted with my people. I know their lack of cohesiveness—and it is that very lack that the whiteman takes advantage of. He knows the weakness of the Negro better than the Negro knows it himself.”11

Garvey’s emphasis on race love and self-reliance appealed to Davis. He probably reminded her of her step-father, George A. Hackett, a leader of blacks in Baltimore, who often entertained in his home prominent race leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Henry H. Garnet, Peter H. Clark, and the noted philanthropist, Stephen Smith. Douglass often conversed with Davis and undoubtedly shared with her many of his views on race questions. Garvey’s ability to attract her to the U.N.I.A was a major coup for him because Davis, in 1918, had successfully avoided the vaudeville route, survived “radical shifts of popular taste,” won the “praise of the press of both races,” and was “doing the most brilliant work of her career”.

It is not clear when Garvey and Davis first met. In 1921 Davis indicated that she met him in the West Indies. However, in 1923 she recalled that she first saw Garvey in Jamaica in 1910 but did not meet him until 1919 when, in her words, “I spoke at the [Harlem] Palace Casino on the invitation of Marcus Garvey.” She immediately became one of the original thirteen members of the U.N.I.A. in New York City.12 The two probably met in Jamaica and Garvey being impressed, renewed the acquaintance in 1919.

Advertisement for the Berry & Ross,Inc.  manufacturers of the doll used by Henrietta Vinton Davis in her premiere presentation  supporting the UNIA

Advertisement for Berry & Ross,Inc. manufacturers of the doll used by Henrietta Vinton Davis in her premiere presentation supporting the UNIA.

The association between the two became an important one personally and professionally. Garvey quickly awarded her with positions of both prestige and importance. By June 7, 1919, she was the international organizer, a director of the Black Star Shipping Company, as well as second vice-president of the shipping corporation. She was one of the signers of the Declaration of Rights for Negroes on August 13, 1920. During the next twelve years, Davis served as international organizer, first and fourth assistant president-general, delegate to Liberia, and secretary-general. 13

As an organizer, Davis had several advantages. Her oratorical skills certainly helped her to “reach” people because she kept her public statements eloquent but simple. Secondly, because of her previous travels throughout the Americas, many already knew her as an actress and undoubtedly came to see this new political woman out of curiosity. Upon hearing her, many became convinced of the soundness of the U.N.I.A.

As an organizer her dedication to the cause of African redemption was without question. John Edward Bruce described her as a useful and valuable asset because “she.., put her whole soul into words.”14 Davis traveled widely in her role as the U.N.I.A. organizer. Her returns to Harlem’s Star Casino and later Liberty Hall were spectacular successes, often similar to opening night on the stage. After Davis and Cyril V. Henry had returned from a Central and South American trip, Bruce wrote, “the demonstration…was the most successful public meeting of the organization….The galleries and every available space was filled with people who had only been given two days notice. …Mr. Garvey was smiling from the crown of his head to the sole of his feet…” Bruce added that the “eloquent and dramatic address of Miss Davis…[was one] of the notable features of a notable gathering of notable people.”15

Amy Jacques Garvey, Henrietta Vinton Davis and Marcus Garvey

Amy Jacques Garvey, Henrietta Vinton Davis and Marcus Garvey

The year 1920 was very important for Garvey and the U.N.I.A. Branches mushroomed around the nation and the world, and many were not yet critical of his proposals for African liberation and self-reliance. On May 24, Garvey and Davis returned to New York after speaking in Baltimore and Washington. At Harlem’s Liberty Hall, showpiece of the organization, Davis commented favorably on the display of hats manufactured by the U.N.I.A.’s newly opened Negro Factories Corporation. She urged the audience to buy hats and to tell their friends to purchase from the corporation where they would receive fair value for their money. Davis informed the enthusiastic crowd that they had to learn to share Garvey’s greatness with the rest of America so that many would “know the great soul purpose … ambition…hope of this man divinely sent to us.” 16

negroworld2

Negro World Newspaper headline announcing the acquisition of the Black Star Line’s first ship.

Davis’ oratorical powers made her not only popular with the rank and file, but also with the U.N.I.A.’s leadership. After returning from a trip to Cuba, Davis entered the Harlem meeting place amidst “cheers and hand clapping.”17 At the organization’s annual August convention, Garvey honored her by bestowing upon her the Order of Lady Commander of the Sublime Order of the Nile. The convention voted to pay her $6,000 in annual salary. Later, Garvey, who was to have problems with some of his executive staff, argued that only George A. McGuire, Chaplain-General, and Davis earned their pay. The others, according to him, were not worth more than $1,200 a year as an office boy or lackey18 it is significant that Garvey thought highly of Davis because some of his contemporaries labeled him as a hater of mulattoes. Davis, a woman of fair complexion and an octoroon by race, certainly put to a misstatement Roi Ottley’s assertion that only “one hundred percent Negroid [types] could hold office in the organization…”19 On a personal level, Garvey was very fond of the matronly Davis. She was one of the first to have his confidence when he decided to separate from his first wife, Amy Ashwood Garvey. Later he arranged for Davis to share a Harlem apartment with Amy Jacques, his future wife. 20

The year 1921 was a busy year for the international organizer as she traveled widely in the Americas. She spoke at rallies in Los Angeles on January 7 and 8, addressed an audience in San Francisco on January 11, and lectured in Oakland on February 6 and 7. At San Francisco’s Bethel A.M.E. Church, Davis was introduced and “the audience went wild in their ovation, and it was some time before she was able to speak.” The enthusiastic audience heard her preach that the Negro needed his own home so that lynching and discrimination would be things of the past. Reiterating her theme that Garvey was divinely sent, Davis indicated that she was happy to put aside her elocutionist talents to go “from the torrid to the frigid zones” on behalf of her race.21

At the end of February, Davis was back in New York exhorting the race to teach their children race love and pride so that they might redeem Africa. She urged them to become missionaries to reach the “lost” ones. Davis called for the putting out of the race the indifferent Negro who cannot accept the U.N.I.A. Shortly thereafter Davis and Garvey began an extensive recruiting drive throughout the West Indies, Central and South America.22

Photo of UNIA International Organizer Henrietta Vinton Davis from the Negro World

Photo of UNIA International Organizer Henrietta Vinton Davis from the Negro World

In early May, Negro World readers began to hear about the pair’s successes. On April 14 Davis was in Moron, Cuba where the audience became agitated waiting for Davis to be introduced. While another was speaking and before being introduced, “there were thunderous applause, the windows and doors became darkened by the number who rushed from the outside to see and hear her.” Four days later Davis spoke in Camaguey, Cuba where the local leaders called her Joan of Arc. On May 1 she witnessed the unveiling of the U.N.I.A.
charter at Santiago, Cuba. There she thrilled the crowd by telling them since they had fought to free Cuba they should fight to free Africa.23

Harlem became alive with excitement as Davis triumphantly returned on July 19. Speaking on behalf of the U.N.I.A. members and the High Executive Council, Fred A. Toote praised her in an address of welcome. Toote cited her as “an example of noble womanhood [and as] a mother in [the] great work.” He praised her for being to Garvey what “Miriam was to Moses.”24

At the annual convention held in August, Davis was designated by Garvey as Lady Commander of the Nile. The gala celebration took on a liberating spirit as even the menu of shredded Liberian chicken, liberty special ice cream and Lady Vinton Black Cross Macaroons reminded the celebrants of the need to redeem Africa.25 Davis’ knighthood pleased the Lady President of the Philadelphia Division, Estelle Matthews, who wrote, “we now look for you for our standard of womanhood. H. stands for [your] honesty…V. stands for your virtuous life…. D. stands for the devotion you have for the people.”26

Memorandum from the Black Star Line to J.R. Ralph Casimir

Memorandum from the Black Star Line to J.R. Ralph Casimir

Throughout September and October of 1921 Davis spoke about the organization and Garvey’s leadership. On September 4, after returning from Washington, she told the Liberty Hall audience that people were tired of so-called leaders like Robert R. Morton, principal of Tuskegee Institute, telling veterans to “take the inferior place we had before. God gave…Marcus Garvey to redeem Africa or die.” Boston audiences heard her refer to Garvey as “a man chosen by God to lead his people.” Davis described the month of recruiting efforts in the Boston area as a place where blacks were “hungry and thirsting for the truth…” Speaking for Garvey and often like him, Davis attacked those who preferred to address themselves as colored which she said meant “something dyed.” Like her leader she found the word Negro to be “a strong…virile word…full of life.” Those blacks who sought petty political appointments and who were contented in cleaning white men’s cuspidores were castigated by Davis for seeking so little when they could “be President of Africa.”27

Davis’ popularity as a speaker knew no bounds. On October 28 thousands paraded through the streets of Newark, New Jersey but were disappointed when Davis was unable to keep a speaking engagement. Many, according to the Negro World, “felt like leaving” when they heard that she was not coming.28

Lady Davis closed out 1921 by storming Kansas City, Kansas where she organized the Universal African Legion and Black Cross Nurses. The Negro World reported on December 31 that Davis, in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, converted many of her critics to the cause of African redemption.29

In 1922 Garvey was arrested and indicted for allegedly using the mails to commit fraud. His leadership was challenged by J.W. Eason who was eventually expelled from the U.N.I.A. Eason’s assassination in New Orleans was cited as an example of Garvey’s machinations.30

A great portion of Davis’ time was used to defend Garvey against the mail fraud charges. She had a difficult assignment because many had bought shares in the Black Star Shipping Line, perhaps, because of her eloquence on behalf of the organization’s economic programs. At the beginning of the year, Davis, despite suffering from a severe cold, told a New York audience that women had to “stand by this noble man.” She pledged that “the woman militant [would] continue to fight by [his] side ….” 31

January 14, 1922 Negro World Article on Lady Davis in Los Angeles, CA. Lady Vinton Davis Tells Los Angeles Children What African Redemption Means "I Shall be glad indeed, when we can found a nation in Africa where our children can grow up free and untrammeled from Prejudice," She says in farewell address--Mr. Michael, California Hebrew, likens conditions of Negro and Jew.

January 14, 1922 Negro World Article on Lady Davis in Los Angeles, CA.
Lady Vinton Davis Tells Los Angeles Children What African Redemption Means

While Davis did not seek to compete with Garvey, she was a forceful speaker in her own right and a person who spoke her mind. After a recent trip to California, she told New Yorkers that “as long as we depend upon the white man for a job, so long we will be his football.” 32 At the end of January, Garvey and Davis addressed hundreds at Wilmington, Delaware’s Bethel A.M.E. Church. Davis was so eloquent in her presentation that a skeptical minister said, “Lady Davis is not only a wonderful elocutionist, but she is a perfect angel.” From February 1-3, the two spoke at Baltimore’s Trinity Baptist Church. The F.B.I. quickly sought the services of a “competent and reliable negro [sic] informant…to spy on them.” Baltimore’s audience heard Davis say that blacks in Tulsa were afraid to be on the streets because of recent Klan activity. She urged them to follow the teachings of Garvey and to emigrate to Africa where they would have a country to protect them.33

Garvey and his international organizer spoke in Philadelphia on February 4, in Rochester, New York on the 17th and 18th, and in Buffalo the following day. The two arrived in St. Louis on March 1 and remained there for three days. In St. Louis several hundred attended St. Paul’s Baptist Church where, according to the F.B.I., Davis spoke about the aims of the organization and urged blacks not to “bow down in suppression and segregation.” She told them that they were superior to whites. She ended her speech dramatically by shouting “Beware! Ye Stumbling blacks, for Marcus is coming.”34

As was previously stated, Davis speaking ability was legendary. The Negro World edition of February 18 contained correspondence from Guatemala pledging support for the organization because that Central American nation had “hundreds of Vinton Davises ready to go out into the world While speaking in Fort Wayne, Davis’ eloquence caused a correspondent to write that she so bewitched people “that even the very stones would rise to pledge there must be a redeemed Africa.”35

August in New York is usually a time of rising temperatures and high humidity. The 1922 U.N.I.A. August convention raised the temperature a few degrees as Garvey fought to maintain the loyalty of his followers. Realizing that his authority was being challenged because of the federal indictment and because of his contact with the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Garvey sought to dominate the convention. He accused many on the Executive Council of being incompetent. In an exaggerated report, a F.B.I. informant indicated that the American delegates who were not on salary to Garvey were opposed to him because he had created “strife amongst the American Negroes and the white man.”

The delegates were shocked as they witnessed the wheeling and dealing of Garvey and others. Sensing that some of his followers were wavering in their support for him, Garvey astutely resigned as President-General and Provisional President of Africa effective August 31, 1922. His resignation was followed by that of Davis and F.W. Elligor, Auditor-General. Confusion reigned as J.W. Eason, the American Leader, and Garvey became engaged in a bitter fight over charges and counter-chargers of fiscal mismanagement and collusion with the Klan. Although impeachment charges were brought against both, only Eason was found guilty and expelled from the U.N.I.A.36

Henrietta Vinton Davis seated next to William Sherrill acting UNIA President General in parade.

Henrietta Vinton Davis seated next to William Sherrill acting UNIA President General in parade.

Out of the confusion surrounding Garvey’s resignation and Eason’s expulsion, officers were elected. As expected Garvey was returned to his leadership role. It was decided that the fourth assistant president-general would be a woman. Henrietta Davis easily defeated two candidates for the position. In her acceptance speech she declared her loyalty: “I have sworn that should he go up, I will go up, and should he fall, I shall fall by his side.”37

Despite Garvey’s triumph at the convention, some of the women delegates were not happy with their lack of influence. On August 31 a number of resolutions concerning their grievances were presented. One in particular called for Lady Davis to make plans, with Garvey’s approval, so that women could function without restrictions from men. Garvey’s reply was that the U.N.I.A.’s constitution protected women’s rights. He suggested that the resolution be reworded so that it would not be interpreted that the men were not to be involved equally with women in the organization’s work.38 No one protested against Garvey’s sugary answer.

Garvey’s tribulations at the August convention was only a prelude to the problems that confronted him in 1923. His black critics increased their pressure against the government to prosecute him. On January 3, the U.N.I.A. issued a press release describing how Garvey, William Ferris, editor of the The Negro World, and Davis were going on a one year tour around the United States and the world. Garvey expressed a desire to take his message to white America to offset the negative feelings that his critics presented about him and the U.N.I.A. A special F.B.I. report noted that Garvey could not obtain a passport because of his legal difficulties, and that he was only trying to create sympathy from a future white jury.39

Internal arguments over salaries caused some to leave the organization. Others began to question whether Garvey was emphasizing the race question too much.40 Agent Battle of the F.B.I. reported on March 1 that Sidney De Bourg, leader of the Negroes of the Western Provinces of the West Indies, Central and South America, believed that several officials including Fred A. Toote and Davis, “are all waiting for the Government to call them so they can give evidence as will convict Marcus Garvey.” De Bourg added that they had remained silent because Garvey would put them out of office. Therefore, they would not be re-elected and would be unable to take over after Garvey’s death.41

The charge against Davis is not supported by any concrete evidence. One would not expect a woman, who was then sixty-three, to wait for a man twenty-seven years younger to die. More importantly, she continued to speak on behalf of Garveyism. On May 28, she told Garveyites in New York that Garvey had support around the country. She believed the answer to the black man’s problem was migration to Africa where they could exist “under their own flag of Red, the Black and the Green.”42

Proclamation by Washington, DC Mayor Adrian M. Fenty designating August 25, 2008 as Henrietta Vinton Davis Day.

Proclamation by Washington, DC Mayor Adrian M. Fenty designating August 25, 2008 as Henrietta Vinton Davis Day.

Garvey was brought to trial in the spring of 1923, and charged with using the mails to commit fraud in the selling of shares to the Black Star Shipping Line. Acting as his own lawyer, Garvey called many witnesses, including Henrietta Davis. Testifying as a former member of the Board of Directors of the shipping corporation, Davis reported that she never saw Garvey receive money at meetings when donations were given or when stock was sold for the steamship line. She embarrassed him by describing how in Jamaica his funds were so low that she loaned him five dollars. More damaging to Garvey’s case was her numerous “I don’t know,” and her “I don’t remember” replies to many of his questions.43

Garvey, according to the F.B.I., was furious at Davis’ “failure to give proper testimony.” According to the report for June 24, Garvey “ordered the discharge of Miss Davis” and others. William Ferris reported that the discharge involved only salaries, and that Garvey had no objection if they went out into the field “and raise money for the U.N.I.A.” If they did, “they could take 15 percent of the all the money they raised.” On June 26, Rudolph Smith confirmed that G.L. Gaines, G.O. Marke, Davis and himself “had received word their salary had stop. . . , and when they received their letters [of confirmation] they would split. . . and call a convention … of all the presidents so they could vote against Garvey managing the organization while in prison.” Agent Battle reported on July 1 that Davis revealed that Garvey was “still insulting the government.” She thought that he should stop writing for The Negro World so that race relations between whites and blacks and between West Indians and Afro-Americans could improve. Davis indicated that she would travel to try to save the organization. 44

While Garvey was incarcerated in New York City’s Tombs Prison, after being convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment, Davis, despite the F.B.I. insinuation of disloyalty, maintained public support for her leader. Prior to departing New York, Davis spoke in Harlem and told Garvey’s followers on July 1, that “they cannot imprison that grand soul. . . .” She indicated that the organization could not be destroyed “while the love of liberty remains in the Negro’s heart.” The Negro World, recognizing Davis’ extraordinary efforts on behalf of her imprisoned leader, reported in the July 28 issue that people were being tested. They were happy to grade “favorable” in regards to Lady Davis.

Plaque on the former residence of Henrietta Vinton Davis in Washington, DC

Plaque on the former residence of Henrietta Vinton Davis in Washington, DC

After traveling around the country drumming up support for Garvey, Davis returned to New York. In late August she spoke in Harlem where, according to Agent James W. Amos, Davis said, “we want to let him know that we live .. . [and] die by him. We will give up our last drop of blood for him.” While some were willing to die for Garvey, few were willing to contribute towards the goal of raising five hundred dollars to purchase a loving cup for his birthday. The plea yielded only twenty-seven dollars.45

After staying in the Tombs for several months, Garvey managed to get out on bail while his sentence was being appealed. With the possibility of still spending five years in prison, Garvey saw 1924 as an important year in his effort to recoup the psychological damage of his conviction. Not one to mourn his setbacks, Garvey quickly organized the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company to take the place of the dissolved Black Cross Shipping Line. Garvey sought also to gain a foothold in Liberia to begin his African colonization scheme. Davis was to have major responsibilities in both endeavors.

Lady Davis was the only woman sent by Garvey to Liberia on December 11, 1923. The delegation arrived in Liberia on February 1, 1924, and after initial promises from the government, met with disappointments in their colonization scheme. The setbacks of that venture will be highlighted later in this paper.

Henrietta Vinton Davis with UNIA commissioners in 1924 sent to Liberia in 1924

Henrietta Vinton Davis with UNIA commissioners sent to Liberia in 1924

On June 25 Davis left New York for Panama, Colon, Costa Rica, Jamaica, British Honduras and Guatemala. Garvey praised her after the ship had departed by saying, “on the high seas we have Lady Davis . . . carrying the message of good will….”46 Davis’ voyage was taking her to familiar territory where undoubtedly she sought to keep support for the organization alive.

A major purpose for blacks owning a ship was to eliminate the humiliating Jim Crow experience of second-class treatment. Although the voyage was her thirteenth, it was difficult for her to accept the inferior accommodations and discriminations. Davis and her travel companion, S.A. Haynes, were forced to bunk in the annex, and eat their meals after the whites had theirs. These embarrassing incidents not only occurred to them with their first-class tickets but within sight of the Statute of Liberty.47

In Panama and Central America, Davis won many converts and successfully solicited funds for the shipping line. Haynes described Davis as being treated like “the queen of some foreign nation….”48 The pair arrived in Jamaica on July 19 where Davis referred to Africa as being the “brightest” rather than the “darkest” continent. In Spanish Town, listeners were impressed with her comments about Liberia’s potential for settlement.49

On August 24, Davis returned to New York to catch the end of the annual U.N.I.A. Convention. During her absence, she was chosen with six others to present on September 3 a petition to President Coolidge asking for his cooperation in helping to establish a homeland for Afro-Americans.50 After describing her trip to the Caribbean, Davis urged the delegates to raise funds to purchase a ship so that the world could witness black people willing to sacrifice for a noble cause of African redemption.51

Henrietta Vinton Davis on front steps of the Negro World Newspaper as part of delegation presenting petitions.

Henrietta Vinton Davis on front steps of the Negro World Newspaper as part of delegation presenting petitions.

On August 27, Davis and others presented the Liberian Delegation Report which indicated that despite the enthusiasm of both the “civilized people … [and] the Aborigines,” President King reneged on his earlier agreement to let the U.N.I.A. colonize part of Liberia. Garvey bitterly accused the Liberian officials of selling out to British and French pressures. The Liberians in return advised the United States Department of State that it was “opposed, both in principle and in fact, to the policy of the [U.N.I.A.].” Davis urged the delegates to have hope of settling in Liberia for she intended until death came to “knock at the door of liberty…. “52

After the convention ended, Davis traveled to Bermuda. On November 9, she told New York’s Liberty Hall audience that Garvey had support from that Atlantic island. The following week she provided Liberty Hall with a magnificent oratorical account of African redemption. She mentioned how some had forsaken Garvey while others had remained true and “are working towards an opportunity that a race has waited for thousands of years.” She urged the membership to support the shipping venture so they could emigrate to Africa where the strength of the black man would be on display after the world has learned of the birth of a new nation.53

Shortly before Christmas, Davis informed Garveyites in New York that African redemption was ordained because “it is the call of the blood in our veins.” Prophetically, she stated that one day Africa would be under black rule.54 As 1924 came to an end, this Ethiopian Amazon urged the membership to “rectify the mistakes of the past year, [and] strengthen the weak points. . . .” They were urged to make 1925 “the banner year for the Negro….55

The year 1925 was pivotal for the U.N.I.A. The Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company acquired a ship. More importantly, Marcus Garvey, the reigning spirit of the organization, lost his right of appeal and began serving his sentence at Atlanta prison.

On January 4, Davis, speaking at Liberty Hall in Harlem, stated that the organization was close to having its own ship. A week later she prematurely announced that the last payment had been made to purchase “The Booker T. Washington.” She exhorted them to carry on race progress because they were showing the world the stamina of the New Negro.56

On January 18, approximately two or three thousand paid one dollar each to board the pride of the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company. The maiden voyage to the Caribbean left amidst a cheering multitude. Aboard the ship were fourteen passengers, including Davis, and six white officers led by the Norwegian Captain, J. DeRotter Hiorth. The crew as Garvey proudly proclaimed were black men. The enthusiastic crowd proudly watched as Garvey launched the ship and remarked, “she also carries that person that is always aboard, Lady Henrietta Vinton Davis.”57

Proclamation by Mayor Sheila Dixon designating August 25, 2009 "Henrietta Vinton Davis Day" in Baltimore, Maryland

Proclamation by Mayor Sheila Dixon designating August 25, 2009 “Henrietta Vinton Davis Day” in Baltimore, Maryland

The scheduled three week voyage turned into a fiasco as it took lour months for “The Booker T. Washington” to return. Speaking in 1929, Davis recollected how the Klan had attacked the ship in Norfolk while she was the only person aboard. She did not mention if they attempted to board the vessel. In Cuba, officials confiscated the vessel for payment of the defunct Black Star Line debts. The crew’s salary was stolen in Jamaica. The ship with about one hundred aboard was docked in Jacksonville, Florida from May 8 to May 15, while Davis and others gave lectures. Some of the crew requested police intervention so that they could receive their back pay and leave the ship. The F.B.I. became involved when the local authorities wanted the vessel out of the harbor before Will Douglass, a fugitive, was to be extradited from New York. They feared trouble if Douglass was returned and managed to get on the ship. The F.B.I. used its influence to get “The Booker T. Washington” out of Jacksonville because clearance was being held up since the Chief Engineer was an alien.58

In early June, Davis made her first appearance in New York since her exit nearly six months earlier. Garvey was in prison, the shipping line was in jeopardy and Liberty Hall in Harlem was threatened with sale by auction. Davis gallantly sought to rally the troops. She reminded them that “Africa is waiting for Marcus Garvey.” To show her loyalty to the organization she joined others on the Roll of Negro Patriots by donating ten dollars to the U.N.I.A.59

Garvey’s troubles increased in 1926 as dissidents turned against him and sought to reform the image of the U.N.I.A. Supporters of the Jamaican held a special emergency meeting in March where Garvey and Davis were reelected to their respective positions. Critics of Garvey, however, met in New York on August 1 to attack their former leader.60 Six hundred delegates heard Garvey denounced for his impractical schemes, for his machinations that forced men of character and vision to leave the organization. The dissidents urged that the organization’s motto should be “build from the ground up and not from the air down.” 61

Garvey’s supporters held their own convention on August 15 but the damage had been done. The dissidents elected George A. Weston president. Significantly they held title to the incorporation papers and controlled Harlem’s Liberty Hall. Garvey’s supporters still maintained control over the newspaper.62

Garvey’s luck changed for the better in 1927 when President Calvin Coolidge pardoned him and had him deported to Jamaica. His friend and associate Henrietta Davis joined him there where she handled the “Foreign Headquarters” throughout much of 1928 while Garvey was in Europe. By 1929, when the U.N.I.A. held its annual convention in Jamaica, the organization had no constitutional leadership except for Garvey and Davis.63

Garvey, back in his native land, minced no words as the convention opened. He warned his followers that a coalition of whites and “cheap, brainless . . . treacherous . . . Negro[es]. . . .” were out to destroy the organization. Chaos broke out as Garvey indicated that the convention’s purpose was to “create a new organization” because the name U.N.I.A. was bankrupt. Many in attendance were alienated by Garvey’s comment that while he was in prison “wicked.. vicious.. . greedy men” cheated the organization. Even Davis, one of his most devout associates, was not spared Garvey’s wrath. He accused her of doing “nothing to give new life to the organization” during his prison stay. He chastised her for asking for back salary when he had personally paid salaries and bills out of his own pocket. His attack on her was malicious in view of her support for him during the chaotic years of his imprisonment, particularly when in 1926 only Davis and Bishop McGuire did not sue for back salaries.64

Davis made no effort to publicly defend herself. She continued to take part in the convention but was “conservative during most of the deliberations.” Despite Garvey’s vicious attack, delegates unanimously elected her to the office of secretary-general. 65

Advertisement from the Negro World Newspaper supporting the African Redemption Fund

Advertisement from the Negro World Newspaper supporting the African Redemption Fund

In 1930 Davis returned to the United States on vacation and spoke on behalf of Garvey’s organization now known as the U.N.I.A. (August, 1929) of the World, to distinguish it from the dissident U.N.I.A. Inc. Garvey apparently forgiving her, indicated that while men were often disloyal, two women, Davis and Madame M.L.T. DeMena, International Organizer, were loyal to the organization. Still devoted to Garvey, Davis, while in Chicago, promised to stick with her leader “until Shiloh comes, till Africa is redeemed.”66

Despite a comment of loyalty, Davis and Garvey drifted apart in 1931. During the first half of the year she managed to speak around the country, but ill health kept her confined to bed for weeks at a time.67

On August 15 a bombshell exploded off the pages of The Negro World. Editor H.G. Mudgal attacked the American leadership and urged Garvey to appoint a capable leader because the job was too difficult for “feminine hands.” Davis remained silent while Madame DeMena replied in a forceful manner.68 Sometime after the editorial was published, Davis, whether saddened at the implications against her, or Garvey’s silence, or other reasons drifted away from the organization and joined the rival faction headed by Dr. Lionel A. Francis, a former leader of the Philadelphia branch of the original U.N.I.A.69 Neither Garvey or The Negro World commented on her defection.

Aerial view of {Columbian] Harmony Cemetery original burial location of Henrietta Vinton Davis.  This was the  second location along Rhode Island Avenue NE in Washington, DC.

Aerial view of {Columbian] Harmony Cemetery original burial location of Henrietta Vinton Davis. This was the second location along Rhode Island Avenue NE in Washington, DC.

After serving as first assistant president-general in the U.N.I.A. Inc., Davis, in 1934, became acting president after Dr. Francis was expelled for conduct unbecoming an officer. The position became hers in August when she was elected president after George LeMond declined the position. She made it clear that the organization was “upholding” Garvey’s principles because of his “contribution to Negro progress … despite his mistakes and shortcomings.” Under her leadership the organization continued to insist upon civil rights for blacks. The depression hit blacks hard economically, and in the fall of 1934, the U.N.I.A. Inc., developed plans for the creation of “a national employment exchange” to notify blacks about the available job market.70

This effort at finding employment for her people might have been her last major effort on behalf of the U.N.I.A. Inc., as no other news items have been located mentioning her association with the organization. By 1940, Dr. Francis was once again the leader of the U.N.I.A. Incorporated. The organization, long known for its efforts on behalf of African redemption, was reduced by then to aiding “Negroes to get the benefits of the various forms of public assistance.” 71

Location of Henrietta Vinton Davis' unmarked grave in National Harmony Memorial Park, Largo, Maryland.

Location of Henrietta Vinton Davis’ unmarked grave in National Harmony Memorial Park, Largo, Maryland.

Henrietta Vinton Davis, the “queen of [Garvey's] royal court,” died on November 23, 1941, eighteen months after the death of Marcus Garvey. The woman that urged African redemption, race pride and self-reliance died in total obscurity. A survey of leading black newspapers, as well as The Washington Post and The New York Times failed to turn up an editorial or even a death announcement.72

How do we honor this majestic woman with the golden voice? Not a single Who’s Who in the Theater mentioned her dramatic career. Historians of the Garvey movement have either ignored her or at best granted her one or two lines in passing. To honor her we must go back to those who observed this grand lady in action. In recognition of her unceasing fight for racial uplift, Crummell Lambert wrote in 1925:

I went to hear a lady Sunday night.
A lady who is foremost in the fight.
I sat enraptured as I heard her speak.
Condemn the mighty and defend the weak.
Tell how we’ve suffered in this alien land.
Ruled by the white man with an iron hand.73

Her ability as an African freedom fighter was recognized by The California Eagle, a Los Angeles newspaper. After hearing Davis speak, a reporter wrote in 1921, “she is by sentiment and deed a genuine African patriot, full-fledged, sincere, uncompromising, ready to do, dare and die for her convictions.” The reporter added that her oratorical abilities easily approach that of Eugene Victor Debs. Although “her skin is fairer and whiter than [others] she is entirely oblivious to her own Ethiopian-Caucasianized pulchritude and prefers.. . the true. . . beauty of her original black sisters.”74

Marker placed at the gravesite of Henrietta Vinton Davis on the 99th anniversary of the founding of the UNIA.

Marker placed at the gravesite of Henrietta Vinton Davis on July 20, 2013, the 99th anniversary of the founding of the UNIA.

Also in 1921, Fred A. Toote, in praise of her organizing skills told her, “when the history of this giant movement shall have been written, [your name] shall be written emblazoned in letters of gold as the lady, the stateswoman and the diplomat.”75

Henrietta Vinton Davis has been dead for over forty years. All over the Americas there are people who still recall her majestic figure walking down the street.76 Let this paper be a start in telling to the world the contributions of this amazing woman who faithfully served Marcus Garvey for twelve years, and who assisted Garvey in making the Universal Negro Improvement Association the largest mass organization in the African world.

NOTES

1 Who’s Who of the Colored Race, 1915. A General Biographical Dictionary of Men and Women of African Descent, Vol., 1, 87. Annotation to Vol 1, The Marcus Garvey Papers (to be published). Robert A. Hill, editor, to William Seraile, December 10, 1980.
2 The Washington Bee, April 28, 1883, 3; May 5, 1883, 3. The People’s Advocate (Washington), April 28, 1883, 3. John E. Bruce Papers, Schomburg Collection, New York Public Library, Group D, BMS 11-21, Bruce Grit’s column,n.d.
3 New York Globe, April 26, 1884, 3, May 3, 1884, 3; May 10, 1884, 4; May 17, 1884, 4. The Washington Bee, May 10, 1884, 2; May 24, 1884, 2. For other criticisms see New York Globe, November 22, 1884, 3.
4 Hill to Seraile, December 10, 1980 (Annotation). Cleveland Gazette, May 12, 1888, 1. New York Age, September 19, 1891, p. 2.
5 Henrietta V. Davis to Ignatius Donnelly, July 12, 1892 in Ignatius Donnelly Papers. Archives/Manuscripts Division of the Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul. Microfilm reel 104, frame 74 75. Cleveland Gazette, April 28, 1894, 2.
6 Frederick Douglass to [unknown], November 18, 1883, Henry M. Turner to [unknown], January 21, 1891, I.F. Aldridge to [unknown], January 21, 1891 in Donnelly Papers, roll 158, frame 630-631.
7 Aldridge to [unknown], January 21, 1891, Ibid.
8 Who’s Who of the Colored Race, 1915, 87. Donnelly Papers, roll 158, frame 630 631.
9 The Daily Gleaner (Kingston, Jamaica), May 2, 1912, 10. Hill to Seraile, December 10, 1980 (Annotation).
10 Davis to Donnelly, July 12,1892, roll 104, frame 74-75.
11 Davis to Bruce, April 30, 1916, Group A, MSS 155, Bruce Papers.
12 Negro World, October 8,1921, 10; June 16, 1923, 5. I am grateful to a former Garveyite, Reverend Hilton R. Jordan for his personal recollections of Davis. See the Baltimore Afro-American, February 24, 1917, p. 6 for Davis’ views on Frederick Douglass. The Washington Bee, March 9, 1918, p. 4; April 16, 1918, p. 5.
13 Hill to Seraile, December 10, 1980 (Annotation). Negro World, October 29,
1921, 4. Davis claimed that her great grandfather signed the Declaration of Independence.
14 Bruce Papers, B MS 11 21, Group D-Miscellaneous Manuscript-Bruce Grit’s Column, nd.
15 Ibid, B 9-57, un-identified letter, nd. [1920-1923?].
16 Negro World, June 5,1920 in Marcus Garvey Clipping File, 1925-1974, Schomburg Collection, NYPL.
17 Ibid.
18 Elton Fax, Garvey The Story of a Pioneer Black Nationalist. Forward by John Henrik Clark. (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1922), 125, 175.
19 Roi Ottley, Inside Black America. (London, Eyre & Spottiswoode, Ltd.,
1948), 58. George Padmore, Pan-Africanism or Communism. Forward by
Richard Wright. Introduction by Azinna Nwafor. (Garden City, New York:
Doubleday & Co., 1971), 68.
20 Amy Jacques Garvey, Garvey & Garveyism. Introduction by John Henrik Clarke. (London: Collier Books, 1963), 4,3.
21 Negro World, February 12, 1921, 9,10.
22 Ibid., February 26, 1921, 3; March 5, 1921, 3; March 12, 1921, 4.
23 ibid., May 7,1921, 8; June 4, 1921, 8; July 2, 1921, 4.
24 ibid., July 30, 1921, 3; August 20, 1921, 12.
25 Ibid., September 3, 1921, 3, 12, in Marcus Garvey Movement, Schomburg Collection Clipping File, 1925-1974.
26 Negro World, September 17, 1921, 4.
27 Ibid., September 10, 1921, 3; October 8, 1921, 10; October 15, 1921, 5.
28 Ibid., November 12, 1921, 10.
29 Ibid., December 10,1921, 11; December 24, 1921, 10; December 31,1921, 7.
30 Garvey was arrested on mail fraud charges on January 12, 1922.
31 Negro World, January 21, 1922, 5 ; January 28, 1922, 2. For Davis’
reiteration that Garvey was heavenly sent see February 25, 1922, 11 and April 1, 1922, 9.
32 Ibid., February 4, 1922, 3.
33 Ibid., February 10, 1922, 9. Report of Harold Nathan February 8, 1922 for the period February 1-3 in Henrietta Vinton Davis FBI File in author’s personal collection.
34 Negro World, February 25, 1922, 8. Report of W.L. Buchanan February 20,
1922 for the period February 19-24; Report of M.F. Blackman, February 20,
1922, for period February 19; Report of Emil A. Solanka March 6, 1922 for
period March 1-3 in Davis FBI File.
35 Letter to the Editor, n.d. from women of Guatemala, Puerto Banns
Division No. 34, Los Amates Division No. 212 signed by Amy Boaster, Emily
Chandler and Caroline Gray. Negro World, February 18, 1922, 8; July 22, 1922,
5. For similar comments see April 22, 1922, 8; May 6, 1922, 22; May 20, 1922, 3;
July 15, 1922, 12.
36 Report of Andrew M. Battle, August 29, 1922 for period August 18 in Davis FBI File. Negro World, August 26, 1922, 9.
37 Negro World, September 2,1922, 2, 11, 12. Others who were elected were
Dr. Leroy N. Bundy, 1st assistant president-general; William Sherrill, 2nd
assistant president-general; Rudolph Smith, 3rd assistant president-general.
Davis received 107 votes to A.I. Robertson 50 votes and Lillian Wills 5 votes.
For Davis additional support for Garvey see September 30, 1922, 2, and January
6,1923, 2.
38 Ibid., September 9,1922, 5, 6.
39 Ibid., January 6, 1923, 2. Special Report from William E. Dunn, Jr., January 13, 1923 in Davis FBI File. The proposed trip scheduled a five month tour of the U.S., with one month each in Canada, West Indies, Africa, and Japan, and two months each in South and Central America and Europe. For views of Garvey’s critics see Marcus Garvey, The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey or Africa for the Africans. Compiled by Amy Jacques Garvey with a new introduction by E.U. Essien-Udom. 2 vols., in one. (London: Frank Cass& Co., 1925), II: 293-309.
40 Fax, Garvey The Story of a Pioneer, p. 178.
41 Report of Andrew M. Battle, March 1, 1923 for period February 28 in Marcus Garvey FBI File in author’s personal collection.
42 Negro World, June 2, 1923, 3.
43 Ibid., June 16, 1923, 5.
44 Ibid., July 7, 1923, 10. Report of Mortimer J. Davis, July 2,1923, for period June 28 29 in Garvey FBI File. Report of Andrew M. Battle July 1, 1923 for period June 24-26 in Davis FBI File. Report of Battle July 5, 1923 for period July 2 in Garvey FBI File.
45 Report of James W. Amos August 20, 1923 for period August 20 in Davis FBI File. Negro World, July 28, 1923, 7; August 25, 1923, 8.
46 June 21, 1924,2; July 5,1924, 3,16.
47 Ibid., July 19, 1924, 7.
48 Ibid., August 2,1924, 5.
49Jamaican Times, July 26, 1924 as cited in Negro World, August 16, 1924, 7.
50 Ibid., August 16, 1924, 3; August 23, 1924, 11; September 13, 1924, 3.
51 Ibid., August 30, 1924, 5; September 6,1924,11.
52 Ibid., September 6,1924, 3, 10. New York Times, August 27, 1924, 10; August 28, 1924, 10, 16.
53 Negro World, November 15, 1924, 3; November 22, 1924, 5.
54 Ibid., December 27, 1924, 3.
55 Ibid., January 10, 1925, 2.
56 Ibid., January 10, 1925, 3; January 17, 1925, 3.
57 New York Times, January 19, 1925, 18. New York Age, January 24, 1925,
3; Negro World, January 24, 1925, 2.
58 Negro World, August 31, 1929, 3. Report of H.P. Wright, May 15, 1925 for May 14, 1925 in Davis FBI File.
59 Negro World, June 13, 1925, 3.
60 New York Times, August 2, 1926, 7. Negro World, March 28, 1926, 2.
Marcus Garvey, The Black Man: A Monthly Magazine of Negro Thought and
Opinion. Compiled with an introductory essay by Robert Hill (Miilwood, New
York: Kraus-Thomson Organization limited, 1975), 8, 9. Others elected include
Fred A. Toote, 1st assistant president-general; Dr. J.J. Peters, 2nd assistant
president-general, William A. Wallace, secretary-general and J.S. St. Clair
Drake as international organizer.
61 New York Times, August 2, 1926, 7. New York Age, August 7,1926, 3.
62 New York Times, August 30, 1926, 17. New York Age, August 21, 1926, 3; September 11, 1926, 3.
63 Garvey, The Black Man,, p. 9 (introduction).
64 Negro World, July 20, 1929, 4; July27, 1929; August 17, 1929, 1; August 24,
1929, 1, 3. Garvey, Garvey & Garveyism, 170.
.1
65 Ibid., September 7,1929,3; September 14. 1929, 3; September 21, 1929, 1.
66 For Garvey’s comment see Ibid., June 7, 1930, 1. For Davis’ comment see Ibid., January 31, 1931, 3.
67 Ibid., July 11, 1931, 3, July 18, 1931, 3.
68 ibid., August 15, 1931, 1, 4; September 19, 1931, 3.
69 Tony Martin suggested that Davis might have left because of the Isaiah Morter estate that the two groups were contesting. The U.N.I.A., Inc., had a better legal claim to the fortune which they eventually received in 1939. Tony Martin to William Seraile, January 9,1981.
70 New York Age, August 13, 1932, 1; August 20, 1932, 1; August 27,1932, 1; May 5,1934,1: August 18, 1934, 9; October 13, 1934, 3. Norfolk Journal & Guide, September 1,1934, 5.
71 Memorandum of the Progress, Ideologies, Tactics and Achievements of
Negro Betterment and Interracial Organizations, June 7, 1940, reel 1 in the
Carnegie-Myrdal Study The Negro in America Research Memoranda for use in
preparation of Dr. Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (Interview with
Dr. Lionel A. Francis, January 3,1940 by Ralph Bunche(. 419, 422, Schomburg
Collection, NYPL.
72 New york Post, May 17, 1940 in Marcus Garvey FBI File. Hill to Seraile, December 10, 1980 (Annotation).
73 Negro World, January 3,1925, 4.
74California Eagle (Los Angeles), n.d. [1921] as quoted in Negro World, March 19,1921, 3.
75 Negro World, August 20, 1921, 12.
76 Hilton H. Jordan, known as ‘Young Marcus,” is one of many who remembered Davis’ triumphal marches through Harlem. Jordan to William Seraile, January 28, 1981.

3 thoughts on “Henrietta Vinton Davis and the Garvey Movement by Professor William Seraille

  1. Pingback: Livication « Henrietta Vinton Davis's Weblog

  2. Pingback: Livication Marker Unveiling 2013 | Henrietta Vinton Davis's Weblog

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