Amy Ashwood, feminist, playwright, lecturer, and pan-Africanist, was one of the founding members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Jamaica, and the first wife of Marcus Garvey. Ashwood was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, and spent several years of her childhood in Panama. She returned to Jamaica to attend high school and met Marcus Garvey at a debating society program in July 1914, when she was seventeen years old. Ashwood became the first secretary and a member of the board of management of the newly formed U.N.I.A. in 1914 – 1915. She worked with Garvey in organizing the inaugural meeting in Collegiate Hall in Kingston, the weekly Tuesday night elocution meetings, and the office that was soon established in a house on Charles Street rented by the Ashwood family. She also helped to establish the Ladies’ auxiliary wing of the movement and was involved in early plans to build an industrial school.
According to her memoirs, Ashwood was courted by Garvey during those early years with love letters referring to her as “My Josephine” and signed from “Your devoted Napoleon, Marcus.” The two became secretly engaged; her parents, who did not approve of the match, arranged her return to Panama in 1916. Garvey traveled to the United States the same spring. Ashwood and Garvey were reunited in New York in September 1918 and she became, in the words of a Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent, his “chief assistant, a kind of managing boss,” working as she had in Jamaica to organize the movement in the United States. She became the general secretary of the organization in 1919 and was one of the first directors of the Black Star Line. She put her life on the line for Garvey, helping to shield him when he was shot by George Tyler at the U.N.I.A. offices in October 1919.
After their long courtship, Ashwood and Garvey were married in a private Catholic church ceremony, followed by an elaborate public ceremony and reception at Liberty Hall, on Christmas Day, 1919. But their marriage soon failed, and their relationship became acrimonious. Garvey finally obtained a divorce (which Ashwood challenged in court and never recognized) in July 1922, and later the same month, married Amy Jacques — Ashwood’s friend, maid of honor at the Garveys’ 1919 wedding, and Ashwood’s replacement as Garvey’s companion and personal secretary since 1920.
In the years following her separation from Garvey, Ashwood became a world traveler and remained active in politics and the arts.