During a recent trip to Ghana and beyond its stated purposes, I found it difficult not to think of the number of African-Americans who went there after Kwame Nkrumah came to power in 1957. Touring Ghana, we saw a park named after Ghanaian writer Efua Sutherland, whose husband was Bill Sutherland, a pacifist and one of Nkrumah’s consultants. Among Sutherland’s African-American comrades in Ghana were author Julian Mayfield; Dr. Robert Lee and his wife; Maya Angelou; Alice Windom; and the Du Boises, W.E.B and his wife, Shirley Graham.
There were occasional visits from others, including Malcolm X, but one of the most politically active of the African-American contingent was Vicki Garvin. Born Victoria Holmes Dec. 18, 1915, in Richmond, Va., to working-class parents, she migrated north with her family to Harlem during the Depression, where her mother and father hoped to find greater opportunities.
She attended Wadleigh High School and was a student leader in the founding of a Black history club.
At 16, Garvin enrolled in Hunter College and at the same time became an active member of the CIO’s United Office and Professional Workers of America Union. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science. When Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. launched his “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work!” campaign, Garvin was among the protesters demanding equal employment for African-Americans, particularly in the stores on 125th Street.
In 1940, she moved to Northampton, Mass., where she began studying Marxist philosophy and economics at Smith College. Ultimately, she was the first African-American woman to earn a master’s degree in economics from the school. With World War II over, she joined the Communist Party and was a participant in the Fair Employment Practices Committee. These involvements were consistent with her advocacy for the rights of women and her support for Black liberation.
Given her growing reputation in radical circles, Garvin was soon the vice president of the National Negro Labor Council, as well as executive secretary in the council’s New York Chapter. This visibility had unintended consequences but not surprisingly, she was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1955, because of political pressure and harassment, the NNLC was disbanded, and two years later Garvin resigned from the Communist Party.
Her working class background and affiliation with radical organizations provided the important internationalist perspective that would fortify her during the Cold War and the intimidation of McCarthyism. With the domestic scene becoming more and more a political hotbed, Garvin began looking at foreign affairs, mainly from a Pan-African viewpoint. This concern increased as she began traveling abroad to such countries as China, Nigeria and especially Ghana.
But her first residence in Africa was in Lagos, Nigeria. Always embroiled in politics, whether at home or abroad, she got a close-up view of the machinations of neo-colonialism. The notion of total independence faded fast in Nigeria and she had embarked for Ghana by 1963.
She was a key organizer in Ghana among the growing number of African-Americans attracted to the nation because of its goals of liberation, both on the continent and in the Diaspora. When Malcolm X visited Ghana, Garvin renewed their relationship that had begun in Harlem. She was an insightful conduit and advised Malcolm on the various developments across the continent.
The prospects for change with the political currents blowing forcefully across Africa were hopeful, and then the optimism vanished and the dream of total liberation of Africa came to a crashing halt in the coup that deposed Nkrumah. Garvin and the other African-Americans—of course Du Bois was dead by now—had to find another place to settle. Garvin had already begun expanding her horizon in 1964, two years before the coup, accepting an invitation from the Chinese government. Subsequently, she moved to Shanghai and was employed at the Shanghai Foreign Language Institute where she taught English.
Garvin avoided one social upheaval in Ghana only to experience another one in China in 1966, and she relocated to Beijing as editor of an English newspaper. She was later invited back to Shanghai after Mao issued his statement “In Support of Afro-American Struggle Against Violent Repression” in 1968. Her voice was a powerful resonance among the students in China, and she was often a guest speaker at a number of international events in China and elsewhere. That prominence was not ignored in America, and she returned in 1970 with her husband to a certain amount of fanfare among her radical friends and associates.
From her new base in Newark, N.J., she became director of the Tri-City Citizen’s Union and later at the Center for Community Health Systems of Columbia University. In 1974, no longer at Columbia, she became an editor for the New China, a newspaper published in China by the U.S. China Peoples Friendship Association.
Ever the restless soul, Garvin and her husband moved to Chicago in the late ’70s, where she was soon a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party. A veteran of struggle, she provided her young charges with lessons from past struggles. As the next decade arrived, Garvin, now divorced, settled in Jamaica, Queens. Always a joiner, she lent her services to the National Black United Front, and once more her experience was invaluable. She was at the helm of the organization’s Women Committee and traveled to Kenya for the U.N.’s World Conference on Women in 1985.
Her membership in such groups as the Sisters Against South African Apartheid, Black Workers for Justice and the Black Radical Congress was readily welcomed and she continued her mentoring. She was a vital force in the fight to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and other political prisoners when she joined the ancestors in June 2007 after a battle with a dreaded illness.
But right to the end of her eventful days, Garvin was a fighter for freedom and justice and has earned a select place in the pantheon of revolutionary activists.