Civil and Political Rights

What African-American woman was the only woman president of the UNIA?

The only woman to serve as president general of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was Henrietta Vinton Davis (1860–1941). She became president in 1934. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Vinton became an elocutionist, actress, and political organizer. She taught school in Maryland and Louisiana and then became a copyist in the Office of the Recorder of Deeds in Washington, D.C. During her stay in that office, she came under the supervision of Frederick Douglass, who encouraged her to study drama. She followed his suggestion and studied drama in Washington and at the Boston School of Oratory. She toured principal cities and gave a range of selections, from Negro dialect to Shakespeare’s works. Davis also became an organizer for Marcus Garvey’s UNIA in 1919, and continued in that role until her death in 1941. She was a strong advocate of racial pride. She embraced the Populist Party and later the Socialist Party. She was among the UNIA’s top leadership in the 1920s and 1930s.


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