An important figure in American history, the accomplishments of Amy Ashwood specifically relate to musical history through her status as one of the first female black producers to mount an important production involving jazz in New York City. Indeed, her 1924 presentation of Brown Sugar at the Lafayette Theatre, featuring the great Fats Waller and his band, was something of a masterpiece in what is more accurately called black classical music.
Ashwood was the first wife of Marcus Garvey and the treasurer of the International Friends of Abyssinia, an early 20th century Pan-African movement. She has been described in Garvey biographies as a "feminist, playwright, lecturer, and Pan-Africanist." She also was one of the founding members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association in her homeland of Jamaica. As a child, Ashwood spent several years living under a bit stronger American influence in Panama, then returned to Jamaica to attend high school. This is where she met the rebellious Garvey, predictably enough at a debating society program where he was engaged in argument nearly as hot and stuffy as that particular summer evening in 1914.
Garvey was in her late teens when she became first secretary as well as a board of management member of the newly formed U.N.I.A. The ongoing collaboration with Garvey and others involved organizing meetings as well as establishing an office. Personally, Ashwood took on helping create a ladies' branch within this movement and early planning for a new industrial school. Meanwhile, the romance was hot and heavy with Garvey and Ashwood. Her memoirs, and not the tabloids, provided juicy details such as the way in which he addressed and signed his love letters to her, "to my Josephine" and "your devoted Napolean, Marcus," respectively. By 1916, the couple had a secret engagement going, and when Ashwood's parents found out they shipped her back to Panama. Meanwhile, Garvey went to the United States, where Ashwood met him in 1918 and became his "chief assistant, a kind of managing boss," and this time it's the FBI providing the juicy quotes. Ashwood became the general secretary of the new American version of the Garvey organization in 1919. With the FBI still watching, she helped protect him from a would-be killer's bullets at the U.N.I.A. offices the same year. Suprisingly enough, the couple's marraige had fallen apart by 1922. Garvey remarried almost immediately, choosing Amy Jacques, who just happened to be one of Ashwood's friends and the maid of honor at their 1919 wedding.
So much for the soap opera segment of the '20s Pan-African movement. Ashwood's work with the Brown Sugar show, which also featured calypso performer Sam Manning, was part of an incredible burst of performance activity involving the expanding complexity of jazz and blues during the early '20s, some of which involved interesting liasons between radical political forces and mainstream entertainment money. Ashwood must have found the latter relationship difficult at times, and eventually relocated her work as an impressario to London, England, regarded as a bit less racist an environment. Her partner there was Manning, with whom she opened the Florence Mills nightclub. The spot was quick to become the must-hang for the city's black intellectuals. Ashwood remained a world traveler and was active in both politics and the arts. After Garvey's death, both Ashwood and Jacques traveled separately to Africa to great acclaim. The last years of Ashwood's life were spent in Jamaica, living in poverty.