August 15th in (Feminist) History

ladydavis1aOn this day in 1860, Henrietta Vinton Davis was born in Baltimore, MD. She was an talented elocutionist and in her later life became a missionary for Marcus Garvey’s African Redemption movement. Henrietta’s father, a musician named Mansfield Vinton, died shortly after her birth. Six months later, her mother Mary Ann married George A. Hackett, an influential man who helped to defeat the 1859 Jacobs bill. (The bill intended to enslave the children of free African-Americans and deport their parents from the state.) But Hackett also died just a few years later, and Mary Ann moved with Henrietta to Washington DC after his death in 1870.

In DC, Henrietta received a public education and passed the exams to become a teacher at the early age of fifteen. She taught first in Maryland and then in Louisiana before returning to care for her sick mother. In 1878, still in her late teens, Henrietta became the first African-American woman employed by the Office of the Recorder of Deeds in Washington, D.C. under George Sheridan. Frederick Douglass was appointed Recorder of Deeds just three years later, and it was under his tutelage that Henrietta’s new career emerged.

Henrietta began her training in drama and elocution in 1882, and in April of 1883 she was introduced to an integrated audience for the first time by the Honorable Frederick Douglass. She went on to perform across New England and the Middle States, while still perfecting her craft and continuing to study. She performed a wide range of works from classics like Romeo and Juliet and “Cleopatra’s Dying Speech” to Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “Negro dialects”. She was the first African American to have tried portraying Shakespearean works since Ira Aldridge. 

Henrietta decided to give up her career after discovering the work of Marcus Garvey and giving a presentation at the meeting of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). She instead began to work on behalf of both Garvey and the UNIA-ACL as their first International Organizer and the second Vice-President. In August 1920 she was one of the signers of The Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World during the UNIA-ACL convention. At the convention she was also given the title “Lady Commander of the Sublime Order of the Nile”. In 1921 she became the fourth assistant President-General of the UNIA-ACL and established divisions for it in Cuba, the Virgin Islands, Haiti, Guadeloupe, and Trinidad and Tobago. She broke with Garvey in 1932 however to create a rival UNIA, Inc, to which she was elected President.

Henrietta died in November of 1941 at the age of 81.

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