The Lady Vanishes
Meet Henrietta Vinton Davis-one of the most amazing women you've probably never heard of
Davis’ interest in politics surfaced during her acting career. She so identified with the cause of the Populist Party, a short-lived progressive third party built on a base of farmers and aligned against the power and wealth of the Eastern elites, that she wrote party leader Ignatius Donnelly several times in 1892 to offer her services as a speaker, touting her “eagerness to serve my race and humanity.” And in the early 1910s, during her travels to Jamaica, she encountered Marcus Garvey.
Born in 1887 in Jamaica, Garvey was a labor organizer and activist whose ideas about addressing the plight of black people around the world grew beyond simple protest. Through his travels in the West Indies, Europe, and Africa, he envisioned what might be possible if all people of African ancestry everywhere united toward a common good, with their own economic and political power, totally unbeholden to whites. From the mid-1910s through the mid-1920s, he and the growing millions of members of his Universal Negro Improvement Association worked to develop black-owned-and-operated factories and schools. Garvey set out to launch a black-owned shipping company, Black Star Line, which would ferry goods and people around the world. One key destination planned for the Black Star Line was the West African nation of Liberia, where Garvey hoped to establish a homeland for descendents of the African diaspora to return “back to Africa” on their own terms.
Exactly how Davis came to join Garvey’s cause is uncertain, but she spoke on his behalf at a gathering in Harlem in 1919 and was soon an important member of his fledgling U.S. organization. According to a 1983 account of Davis’ career researched and written by historian William Seraile (which Azikiwe has posted on his blog, henriettavintondavis.wordpress.com), Davis was one of 13 charter members of the U.S. iteration of the UNIA, and was among the signers of the 1920 Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World. She was bestowed several important titles and duties in the UNIA, but the one that best defined her work over the next dozen years was “international organizer.”
“She was evidently a great speaker,” says Seraile, a professor emeritus at Lehman College in the Bronx, N.Y., in a phone interview. “And she was a drawing card for Garvey. A lot of people came out to hear her speak because of her theatrical background.”
Davis went back on tour, this time using her star power and elocution skills to recruit new members to the UNIA and Garvey’s cause. Traveling throughout the United States and Caribbean Basin, “Lady Vinton” railed against the term “colored” and advocated the more self-empowered term “Negro.” She proclaimed to the audiences who gathered to hear her that Garvey was “a man chosen by God to lead his people.” She hammered home the UNIA’s message of black separatism and political and economic self-reliance; according to Seraile’s research, she told an audience in New York that “as long as we depend upon the white man for a job, so long we will be his football.” Though in her 60s, she spent months traveling through the humid tropics and exhorting the assembled crowds.
“This lady’s in Liberia,” LeBouef says. “This lady’s raising money and buying [ships] with Garvey and traveling to Cuba. This lady’s talking about African liberation, [and] black people just a few years out of enslavement owning shit. These people were not playing.”
The Garvey movement certainly captured the attention of white authorities. In 1922, Garvey was arrested by the FBI and slapped with charges of mail fraud in relation to his attempts to raise funds for his Black Star Line. He was tried and convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.
Davis continued to speak on his behalf, and on behalf of the UNIA, but internal dissension began to weaken the movement as much as external pressures. The UNIA lost members in droves. In 1927, Garvey was deported to Jamaica and Davis was one of his few U.S. supporters who followed him into exile, remaining by his side as he started a new iteration of his still extant organization, which he dubbed the UNIA of the World.
“I think she believed in the cause, like a lot of people did at the time,” Seraile says. “Even in ’24 or ’25, when a lot of people started to desert, she was out there lecturing, telling people to stick with Garvey, stick with the message.”
But Davis’ dogged loyalty found its limits. Whether because of the tensions generated by the rift between Garvey’s UNIA in exile and the U.S. UNIA, or because of some more personal reason, she eventually returned home to the United States. In 1934, she even became president of what was left of the stateside UNIA for a time. “She was almost 80 years old, but she still made a big impression on people,” Nnamdi Azikiwe says. Still, Davis had been in poor health for years. At some unknown point, her association with the UNIA ended, and she died on Nov. 23, 1941.
Seraile unearthed a 1921 quote from The Negro World, the UNIA newspaper, that said of Davis “when the history of this giant movement shall have been written, [her name] shall be emblazoned in letters of gold as the lady, the stateswoman, and the diplomat.” But that’s obviously not what happened.
David Franks (1/27/2010)
Birthdate unknown-Jan. 14, 2010
A. Robert Kaufman (1/6/2010)
March 8, 1931-Dec. 25, 2009
People Who Died (12/30/2009)
Our annual homage to late, little-known greats
Blaster Master (7/14/2010)
Landis Expandis can't live without his radios
The Black Box (6/16/2010)
Baltimore's African-American indie filmmakers search for an audience
Get Them To The Creek (5/19/2010)
Family fun is as close as the nearest running water
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201