Perhaps it stands to reason that if there is very little documentation of the men in the African Blood Brotherhood, women were not even an afterthought. Among those often unmentioned women was Grace P. Campbell. Even in those compendiums of Black women in America she is left out, and I was surprised that Margaret Busby, as insightful and thoroughgoing as she has been in bringing Black women out of the shadows, has not a word on Campbell, at least there is no notation in the index.
So who was this invisible woman? To begin with, she was born in Georgia in 1883 to Emma Dyson Campbell, an African American woman from Washington, D.C., and William Campbell, an immigrant from Jamaica. The family originally resided in Texas, and moved to New York City circa 1905.
Once settled in Manhattan, Campbell began her long dedication to community work. It was also the beginning of her financial donation to the less privileged. She often set aside a portion of salary to aid the founding and continuance of the Empire Friendly Shelter, a home for unwed mothers, where she worked as a supervisor. In addition, by 1915 she was employed by the city, first as a probation officer and by 1924 as a court attendant for the Courts of Sessions.
Each year found her gravitating closer and closer to the left wing organizations, including a branch of the Socialist Party where she became one of the first African American women in the organization. In 1919 and 1920 she ran on the Socialist ticket for the 19th District of the New York State Assembly, though unsuccessful on both occasions. Even so she set a precedent that would be later emulated with greater success. In fact, she was the first woman of any race to seek public office in the state of New York.
Among her most significant involvements was her affiliation and membership in the African Blood Brotherhood, a small but influential group of leftists who waged a campaign against Marcus Garvey and UNIA. By 1919, under the leadership of Cyril Briggs, the ABB was a vocal adversary of Garvey’s movement and sought ways to infiltrate the organization in order to lure some of his members away. The ABB operated in a clandestine manner, though they were not fearful of public voicing their political objectives. Several of its members played prominent roles in the resistance to the terrorists’ attacks in Tulsa in 1921 during the riots there. She was also a key mover and shaker in the People’s Educational Forum, another organization that took exception to the Garvey movement. During her tenure in the ABB she was often the only woman, and was often tabbed to be part of various committees and at the head of rallies and demonstrations.
Some of her activism has been cited by journalists and historians over the years. Jeffrey Perry in his voluminous work of Hubert Harrison has several citations and comments on Campbell’s presence at meetings and as a member of different initiatives for political change. Perry notes her among speakers at Socialist events where she was among a number of speakers voicing their support for Russia and denouncing Garvey. In the spring of 1920 when the Friends of Negro Freedom was organized, Campbell was the vice chair, Perry observed, and “they held their first national convention in May 25, 1920 in Washington, D.C. By 1922 the ‘Garvey Must Go’ campaign, which also prominently involved William Pickens of the NAACP, worked ‘with a view of driving out of the country the influence of Marcus Garvey and his worthless schemes through which Negroes are losing their hard-earned dollars.’”
Perry also noted that Campbell was a benefactor of the writer Claude McKay during his sojourn to Europe. She, along with Eric Walrond, Harold Jackman and Mrs. A. Philip Randolph sent him money to sustain him during his financial shortfall.
Mark Naison, a leading authority on Blacks on the left and in the Communist Party, cited Campbell as a member of the Harlem Tenants League. And she was often a speaker at the rallies the Tenants League strongly opposed the expiration of the Emergency Rent Law. There is a brief notation about her in Gilbert Osofsky’s “Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto.” “A very small group of socialists, those who met weekly in the offices of The Messenger recognized this,” he wrote, referencing the need for Harlemites to fight back against all conditions that made the community a deplorable ghetto. “A Philip Randolph, Grace P. Campbell and Frank Crosswaith, for example, realized the social conditions in Harlem would never improve unless the economic base of the community was broadened.” To this end, Osofsky wrote, “They created the Trade Union Committee for Organizing Negro Workers and had some success in opening jobs in the clothing trades, but most major economic barriers remained intact.”
What becomes clear in just cursory research of her life was that Campbell was just about everywhere, especially at those meetings where the cultural and political welfare of Harlem was at stake. When the Rev. E. Ethelred Brown arrived from Jamaica to establish a Unitarian Church in Harlem, Campbell was among the charter members. And nowhere is her ubiquity better catalogued than in the collected writings of Richard B. Moore by his daughter Joyce Moore Turner and her husband Burghardt Turner. In one of their several citations they wrote that “Grace P. Campbell was a humanitarian social worker who maintained, largely from her own earnings, a needed home for deserted young mothers.”
We end this brief profile with comments from Earl Ofari Hutchinson from his book “Blacks and Reds—Race and Class in Conflict, 1919-1990.” “She was an educated and erudite lady who held a doctorate in social science. Campbell has seen much of her years in Harlem. She felt the same anger that Harlemites felt toward white merchants, and argued that the [Communist] Party should support the boycott and help the community set up businesses to provide employment for Blacks.” She believed, Hutchinson added, that “English and Scandinavian co-ops provided the ideal model for black businesses.”
Bits and pieces of her formidable activism reveals a woman deeply committed to the welfare of her people and the Harlem community. In 1943 that dedication came to end with her death, and we await a fuller portrait of this extraordinary fighter for justice and equality.