HISTORY: The Negro Progress Convention of Guyana (1922 – circa 1938) – By Nigel Westmaas

Edmund F Fredericks
Edmund F Fredericks

By Nigel Westmaas

One of the most significant African Guyanese organisations emerged in 1922, when the Negro Progress Convention (NPC) was launched by two prominent African Guianese middle-class professionals, Dr. Theodore Theophilus Nichols and Edmund F Fredericks. Under the motto, “charity to all, envy to none”, the NPC was organised to “perpetuate Negro solidarity and to create, organise, provide means and build institutions that the executive committee may consider desirable to assist Negroes in the development of self-help, self-reliance and independence” and to “do all lawful things that would tend to push the Negro peoples – not only of British Guiana, but of the world.”

(NB: the term “Negro”, now considered socially unacceptable as a broad descriptive, was in active use in Guyana up to at least the late 1960s, when it was replaced by “African” and “African-Guyanese.” In the United States the term generally faded away largely due to the activity of the Black Power movement but the Census Bureau only announced in 2013 that it would be removed from census forms).       

The NPC was not the first organisation of its type in the colony, but it was perhaps the most successful prior to the Second World War. There were forerunner and concurrent African-oriented organisations. One of the first was the Guiana African Association, also called the African Association of British Guiana, famous for its 1842 reparative petition to Queen Victoria.

In the 20th century, the archival trail picks up on the existence of several other African-oriented organisations. The Emancipation League, a Georgetown-based African Guyanese organisation was active around 1912; the likewise short-lived Afro-Improvement Association, a Georgetown based association active in 1913 and led by Joseph Conway; and the more radical African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), concurrently active around the period of the NPC. The ABB, founded in the United States by the St Kitts-born Cyril Briggs and other residents of the Caribbean, was an independent black organisation with strong links to the world communist movement and with a chapter in Guyana. Then there was the British Guiana (Negroes) Industrial Trading Company, established in Regent Street, Georgetown, in 1919, in “order to run a grocery business which will be conducted by Negroes”.

Donna Smith (1994) suggests that the idea of the organising the NPC “was probably influenced by Fredericks’s attendance at the first International Races Congress held in London in 1911.” But as the NPC statement of purpose reveals, there would have been other imperatives for the need of an organisation like the NPC, inclusive of inter-racial rivalry cemented by issues like the Indian Colonization scheme of 1919 and the economic, social and political condition of African Guyanese. More directly, a report in 1919 placed the founding NPC duo at a UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) event, with the object of launching a “provision store.” This Garveyite event was more likely the influence and inspiration in the creation, three years later, of the NPC rather than Fredericks’s overseas foray in 1911.

While Fredericks and Nichols were the main planks of leadership in the NPC, other prominent Guyanese were active in the organisation in the 1920s. Hubert Critchlow, who had helped found the BGLU in 1919 was almost always on the main platform of NPC activities throughout its existence. Other names included Rev Dingwall, Dulcina Armstrong, Harriette Joseph (NPC secretary), Rev HW Grant, Alyce Fraser, and a youthful ER Burrowes, who sang “Never Say die” at one event.

The format of the typical NPC convention was formulaic and predictable for the time; with its “western” orientation, it resembled the UNIA and similar organisations. The format included formal prayers, formal attire, and the customary prelude singing of “Oh God our Help in Ages Past”, and a musical rendition or poem before official proceedings commenced. On one occasion the poem “Toussaint L’Ouverture” (presumably the poem by William Wordsworth) was recited. The Libyan High School choir sang “O Africa, awaken” and “Ethiopia stretches forth her hands.” The NPC invariably timed its convention for emancipation month in August of each year.

Impact

The NPC had quite a hefty membership for the time. By the early 1930s the NPC had grown significantly, with forty branches throughout Guyana, including groups in New Amsterdam, Plaisance, Mahaica, Bonasica, Hopetown, George-town, Ann’s Grove, No 5, Mahaicony, Belladrum, Fryrish, Lichfield, Courtland, Farm, Eversham, No 28, Leeds, Kildonan, Manchester, Friends, Pouderyon, Rose Hall, Tumatumari, Kurupung and a group in the Pomeroon. For example, the Eversham branch of the NPC was birthed in 1924 and by 1929 held a claimed membership of 150.

The NPC also consciously developed a consistent practice of inviting prominent African-American, Caribbean and Guya-nese citizens to address its annual convention. Among these were Amy Ashwood Garvey and Theophilus A Marryshow, of Grenada.

The 1928 visit of Marryshow in particular invoked the wrath of the colonial authorities and the conformist press. The invitation was apparently viewed by the authorities with much alarm and the conservative Argosy devoted about two editorials criticizing the invitation. There was even unsubstantiated speculation that the authorities contrived to stop him from landing in the colony.  In one editorial the Argosy accused the NPC of association with the radical Marryshow and the latter’s alleged plan to convert Guyana into “a great Negro Republic.” Marryshow, famed labour leader, journalist and radical politician of Grenada known for his advocacy of West Indian Federation, nonetheless gave the opening speech to the NPC’s seventh convention in 1928.  Marryshow was unfazed and frontally addressed the criticism with customary aplomb:

“When I read that the Government of British Guiana should think of preventing T Albert Marryshow from landing here I was amazed at the insolence and impertinence of it. Preventing me from landing in my own country! British Guiana is my country, Grenada is my country, Trinidad is my country – and my country by right of the sweat of the brethren of my forefathers by right, O Almighty God, of their tears. And you are going to tell me I cannot enter this land, every inch of which is saturated with the sweat and tears of my forefathers …”

A year later, in 1929, an invitation was extended to Guyana born icon of the Harlem Renaissance, Eric Walrond, to be the main guest speaker at their convention. Walrond, who declined the invitation because of a pressing engagement in Europe, recommended an African-American minister whom he had met on a ship in Barbados. This led to the Rev FG Snelson, the director of Missionary work for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, giving the main address to the Convention along with Amy Ashwood Garvey.

Amy Garvey, the ex-spouse of Marcus Garvey (divorced in 1920) told a gathering of women NPC members that she “wanted to be in British Guiana because she was intensely interested in its development.” She also called for a women’s political movement and for representatives of women in local politics: “There would shortly be in America a Women’s political Movement and she hoped that they in British Guiana would equip themselves, start such a movement, study Parliamentary procedure and equip themselves for the Legislature.”

Two years earlier a women’s meeting of the Convention boasted that the NPC had created more “Negro enthusiasm in the country in six years than anything (sic) had done in a generation”.

Criticism and challenges

There was inevitable public criticism of the failure of one of the NPC projects. In 1928, an NPC business, a Drug store, collapsed and there was internal and external fallout over the finances of the failed project.

Likewise, there were always internal differences in the NPC and issues of management and organisation. One letter to the press from a “Negro without Illusions” in 1933 criticised the organisation for its “character,” stating, inter alia,

“…what has the Negro Progress Convention accomplished during the past 12 years? So far as I am aware there is no evidence of any economic progress. Really it has achieved nothing, but a certain degree of race consciousness. And race consciousness alone can get a race nowhere. There must also be effort and that effort must be properly directed”.

An Argosy editorial, for its part, used the occasion to take a swipe at the NPC’s fundraising efforts as well as what the paper called the leaders’ ability to “rely almost entirely on mere talk.”

Fredericks, incensed, fired back in defence of the economic plan of the NPC, inclusive of the drug store:

“Large numbers of Negroes in this community live in hiding, condemning their own race on occasions like these, while they always seek to include themselves in temporary successes (Hear, Hear). No attempt to belittle the race by members of the race to secure a favour from members of other races will ever change the leopard’s spots… to expect the Negro race in an alien soil, under alien skies, in an alien civilization with less than a century of personal freedom to enter a trade competition with the unnumbered years of Eastern experience and the 2,000 years of Anglo Saxon practices, handicapped by the color of their skin and penalized by the hesitancy to give them a man’s chances, not to make a mistake is to expect a miracle that would be more miraculous than the resulting flow from the rock after Moses had in wrath struck it.”

Education

The area of great strength and organisation for the NPC was in education. Fredericks himself was famous as the initiator of the Buxton Scholarship.

In its 1929-1930 programme plan, the NPC urged branches to form libraries “of Negro books”, to register the “achievement of its members viz buying home free of debt (and) succeeding in business”, and to combat “Magistrate’s court abuses”.

The NPC gained a reputation for focusing its attention on education by establishing a School of Agriculture and a School of Home Economics in 1935. Besides its local emphasis, it had actually developed relations with Tuskegee University. In 1931, two students, Vesta Lowe from the NPC Manchester branch and James Kidney of Wakenaam, were selected to attend Tuskegee.  The next year, buoyed by the success of the student scholarships, the NPC spoke of expanding the programme. They proposed buying land to build a local version of Tuskegee and asked the American university to supply a Professor on loan for the intended programme.

In 1934, the NPC was registered as a corporate body under the Friendly Societies Ordinance and transport was passed toward a track of land of 500 acres at Land of Canaan to establish a “British Guiana Tuskegee” educational institution. There is no formal accessible record of the outcome of this initiative, but Messrs AJ Parkes and CW Shankland, barristers at law, were in charge of the registration of the society and the land transport. The project received local support, with a donation by FC Archer of the New Negro Development Association.

At a wider level, the NPC was very invested in the “burning need for racial organisation in order that racial poverty, racial indifference, racial wantonness may be arrested so that this race consciousness that is abroad may help to change our condition and fit us to live with the other units of mankind.”

The organisation also vigorously combatted racism in the colony. In one instance, the NPC made “representations to the director of Education” over a “certain history book in use at Queen’s college” that contained offensive references to the race and called for the book to be pulled from the curriculum.

This consciousness of the “racial condition” was not restricted to the colony. In 1927 the NPC, perhaps in a nod to the global pan-African project, gave a small donation to the London based African Progress Union (founded in 1918), of which Guyana was a constituent.

In 1930, Fredericks, the President-Founder of the NPC, was celebrated for his career achievement at the Town Hall and presented with a “handsome gold medal presented by the Executive Committee of the Negro Progress Convention”.

In 1937, the NPC launched its official journal, the Conventionist. This journal ran for a few months before it faded. In one issue the journal boasted that a Guyanese, Dr PM Savory, who then practised in New York City, was the founding editor of the Amsterdam News, a leading African American newspaper at the time.

There was an indication of progress in race relations when the NPC reached out and invited Indo-Guyanese journalist and intellectual Joseph Ruhomon to write a guest column in the pages of the Conventionist, and Ruhoman obliged with his “Negro – Indian Combine” exhortation for racial unity in January 1938. This development was not unexpected as the NPC always maintained it would struggle to “safeguard the progress of the Negro race and to adjust, arrange, decide and settle all acts, disputes, differences or misunderstanding, inter-racial or otherwise, which may thereafter tend to hamper, or impede such progress.”

Fredericks died in 1934 and his passing, given the enormous influence he wielded, must have been a factor in the NPC’s decline in the late 1930s. The NPC eventually changed its name to the “African Welfare Convention”. It is not known when the latter organisation became defunct but it appears the proverbial torch was passed to the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP), birthed as it was as an organisation in 1937.

Nigel Westmaas is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Hamilton College in the United States.

 

 

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Comments

  • brandli62  On 08/31/2021 at 11:01 am

    An interesting read! Does anybody know in which areas Theodore Theophilus Nichols and Edmund F Fredericks gained their doctorate degrees?

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