Alice Wingdom (82395)

Fifty years ago, in April of 1964, Malcolm X began his tour of Africa and the Middle East. One of the most important stops he made was in Ghana, where he met with a number of African-American expatriates, including Shirley Graham Du Bois, the wife of the esteemed W.E.B. Du Bois, authors Leslie Lacy and Julian Mayfield and the soon to be illustrious Maya Angelou, then known as Maya Make. There were also two less noted women in this entourage, Alice Windom and Vicki Garvin, both of whom, in their own way, became notable contributors to international affairs and the struggle for Black liberation.

In the meticulous diary Malcolm kept, the two women are not neglected; in fact, in several ways they emerge as significant players during Malcolm’s two sojourns. Garvin, the older of the two activists, joined the ancestors in 2007. She was 91, and not until her final moments was her commitment to freedom and justice at all diminished. Born in Richmond, Va., Garvin spent her youth in Harlem as a child of a working-class family. Instead of summer vacations, she worked in the garment industry to supplement the family’s meager income.

A political prodigy, Garvin was still in high school when she became active in Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s various protests against job discrimination. The activism did not interfere with her educational pursuits, and they may have even enhanced them, as she acquired a Bachelor of the Arts degree in political science from Hunter College and later became the first African-American woman to earn a master’s degree in economics from Smith College. She was also well-versed in French literature.

During World War II, Garvin was a prominent fixture in several important wartime agencies, most notably as the president of a union affiliated with the National War Labor Board of New York City and later as the national research director of the United Office and Professional Workers of America. Also, she cochaired the organization’s Fair Employment Practices Committee. Her tireless efforts as a member of the Congress of Industrial Organizations were often contentious, as she pushed the organization to devote more time to the Jim Crow issues facing African-Americans in the South. When the National Negro Labor Council was formed, she once again was among the key coordinators working in conjunction with Coleman Young, later to become Detroit’s first Black mayor.

The NNLC, like many leftist formations, was targeted during the rightwing McCarthy period and pressured out of existence. The harassment and intimidation forced Garvin to seek safer shores, and by the late 1950s, she was in West Africa and would be there when Malcolm passed through. She, along with Windom and Angelou, were like personal chaperones and guides to Malcolm, and the photos taken by Windom attests to that association.

Garvin’s facility with French helped when Malcolm had his meetings with revolutionaries from Algeria. By 1964, thanks mainly to her close ties with the Du Boises, Garvin was invited to China, and she lived in Shanghai for six years. She was in China during the country’s Cultural Revolution under Mao Tse-Tung, and she voiced her support for the movement. With her second husband, Leibel Bergman, whom she met and married in China, it was back to the states, where they took up residence in Newark, N.J.

Her leadership skills were immediately secured in community organizations both in New Jersey and in Manhattan, where she had a position in the health systems at Columbia University’s Faculty of Medicine. Always intrepid and restless, the wanderer was once more on the road, this time to Chicago, but it was only a brief stint, and when her marriage ended, she returned to New York. But there was no rest for her, and she threw herself into practically every relevant cause of the day. She was relentless in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and for the liberation of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.

In 1990, she had a marvelous reunion with Windom when they appeared on a panel in New York City to discuss the legacy of Malcolm X.

Windom is still very much alive in St. Louis Mo., and at 82, she has lost none of her spirit and recall, as the media besieged her recently to talk about the passing of Angelou, whom she knew for more than 50 years.

A social worker by training, Windom was born March 30, 1936, in St. Louis Mo. Unlike Garvin, she was raised in a home of educators. Her grandfather Christopher Columbus Jones was the first African-American student to attend Southern Illinois University. Her attending college was expected, and she enrolled at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. There she came under the tutelage and influence of such distinguished scholars as Thurgood Marshall, J. A. Rogers and the college’s president, Charles Wesley.

By 1957, her activist career was underway after she organized a successful sit-in at a restaurant in Xenia, Ohio. The activism did not curb her desire to succeed in higher education, and after earning her Bachelor of Science degree in social work, she later won her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Chicago in 1959. For about four years, she was a social worker in the State of Illinois Department of Mental Health Division of Family and Children’s Services. In 1962, she was off to West Africa, where she secured a position as secretary to the Ethiopian ambassador and, at the same time, held down a post in a secondary school.

During Malcolm’s visit to Ghana, Windom witnessed his entire stay and recorded her impressions of his appearance at the Forum at the Great Hall of the University of Ghana.

“It was into such a [contentious] atmosphere that Malcolm moved,” she wrote. “I believe it is safe to say, from subsequent reports, that he worked a qualitative change in the attitudes of many shaky and downright reactionary students. For he [Malcolm] brought home in vivid language the problems of African countries struggling to free themselves from the psychological and cultural, as well as the economic and political, legacies of colonialism.”

She was absolutely indispensable to Malcolm, assisting his movement from place to place and providing the contacts he needed in his pursuit of interviews and consultations with various leaders. Five years later, she was in Lusaka, Zambia, employed mostly as a social worker for the government. In the early 1970s, she was back home in St. Louis and working at the city’s Medium Security Institution. Windom sued the city for racial and sexual discrimination and the denial of free speech in 1977.

Over the years, Windom has served in a number of civic capacities. She was a coordinator of the James T. Bush Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where she helped to launch workshops on education, housing, law and employment. The number of organizations in which she is a member is quite numerous, and much of this is revealed in a lengthy interview with Historymakers, a website now part of the Library of Congress.