Victoria Holmes moved from Virginia to Harlem, where she grew up at the height of the Great Depression. In Harlem, her life became permanently threaded into the fabric of struggle for justice in the United States and across the world. Victoria Holmes, who later became known as Vicki Garvin, was a lifelong revolutionary activist whose life work spanned some of history’s greatest upheavals, and she used every one of those moments to strengthen her understanding of history, politics, and justice. She understood the nuances of systemic inequality and developed creative strategies that fought injustice on all fronts. Her travels across the world strengthened bonds of transnational solidarity between Black American radicals and international revolutionaries.
Vicki Garvin was born in Virginia on December 18, 1915. Along with many other Black families and individuals at the time, the family moved from Virginia to Harlem, where her mother was a domestic worker for wealthy white families, and her father was a plasterer. Both parents confronted deep racism in their employment, particularly her father who was barred from receiving fair employment opportunities because of the racism within the construction unions. Garvin herself worked in the garment industry during the summers to supplement her family’s income. Garvin’s family attended the Abyssinian Baptist Church, where Garvin became involved in its youth program, which was run by the left-leaning future congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. She graduated from high school at 16 years old, and attended Hunter College, where she received a degree in political science.
Throughout her life, Vicki Garvin saw the critical ways that Black civil rights and labor rights were intertwined. Her first picket was the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” protest on Harlem’s 125th St., which Adam Clayton Powell Jr. organized during the 1939 World Fair to protest Black unemployment. Garvin began her lifetime commitment to organized labor in 1936, when she was working as a switchboard operator at the the American League for Peace and Democracy. She was an active member of the CIO’s United Office and Professionals Workers of America (UOPWA) union and saw firsthand the power of workplace organizing.
Garvin first discovered the study of Marxist economics and Marxist-Leninism when she was pursuing her Master’s degree in Economics at Smith College. This discovery had a profound influence on how she viewed world politics and economics, with exploitation of the working class at its center. She brought this new worldview and lessons from the UOPWA to her next position at the National War Labor Board, where she organized an independent in-house union and served as its president. After World War II, Garvin continued her work in labor as the national research director of the UOPWA, and co-chaired its Fair Employment Practices Committee.
In 1947, Garvin joined the Communist Party, which she described as a key development in her life. Vicki Garvin became a central figure of the New York Black left, both as a labor organizer and as an unapologetic critic of Cold War policies, defiant even in the face of Mccarthyism. Garvin’s time as a trade unionist would come to a close during the CIO’s anti-communist purges in the late 1940s, although she did not go quietly. At her last CIO convention, Garvin delivered a speech excoriating CIO leadership for failing to militantly support the struggle for the rights of Black workers and for failing to organize in the South.
Garvin’s expulsion from labor did not stop her activism; if anything, her commitment only intensified. She was a founding board member of the newspaper Freedom, where she developed a lifelong friendship with Paul Robeson. In the paper’s inaugural edition, Garvin wrote an article on African American women workers. She challenged America’s position as a democracy, stating that the failures of American democracy were reflected in the plight of Black women workers, who worked the “dirtiest, least desirable jobs” and were still paid the lowest wages and excluded from unions and union leadership. She called on progressive trade unions and women’s organizations to address these inequities and promote Black women in leadership at all levels of trade unions.
In the 1950s, Garvin’s activism increasingly melded together the struggle for Black civil rights and labor issues. She spent most of 1951 organizing the first National Negro Labor Council (NNLC) convention in Cincinnati. The convention was remarkably successful, attracting 1000 delegates, a third of them women. Garvin was tireless in her advocacy for Black workers and remained outspoken about her militant political beliefs. As national vice president of the NNLC, she spearheaded the organization’s first national campaign at obtaining clerical and sales-clerk positions for Black women in Sears-Roebuck department stores. During this time, she also formed deep friendships with Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, Thelma Dale, and Malcolm X. In 1954, she took the stage at a May Day rally in Union Square with Robeson and the labor organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn to demand freedom for jailed Communist Party members. She distributed leaflets with NNLC members at the 1956 AFL-CIO merger convention to urge the nascent organization to continue the CIO’s support of Black workers. The rampant political repression had a large political and personal toll on Garvin. She was also called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1953, which limited her prospective employment opportunities.
The political persecution that Garvin experienced in the U.S forced her to find a new home and new ways of fighting for the liberation of working and oppressed people. Like many of her peers in the Black liberation struggle, Garvin saw solidarity and hope for an internationalist working class consciousness in Africa.She relocated to Nigeria, where she witnessed firsthand the effects of neocolonialism. After two years in Nigeria, she intended to return to the States, but made a fateful stop in Accra, Ghana to see her good friends W.E.B. DuBois and Shirley Graham DuBois. Garvin saw that Black intellectuals were drawn to Ghana and the vision of Kwame Nkrumah, and decided to stay in Accra. She initially roomed with Maya Angelou, and later moved into a house next door to Du Bois. Though she had left America, Vicki Garvin had by no means left the struggle. She formed crucial international relationships, lived in the middle of revolutionary history, and became an historical communist leader on the world stage.
When Malcolm X came to Ghana in 1964, Vicki Garvin became his “mother hen.” She served as his political mentor and helped him build ties with revolutionaries across the globe. Garvin arranged meetings for him between officials at the Cuban and Algerian embassies, and she also introduced him to Chinese ambassador Huang Hua. Malcolm X’s tour of Africa was critical to the evolution of his political views and his outlook on the importance of internationalism and unity in the Black liberation struggle. Vicki Garvin was undoubtedly a central part of that evolution.
After organizing Malcolm X’s meeting with Huang Hua, the ambassador extended an invitation to Garvin for a visit to China. Garvin would take him up on that offer in 1964, and began her time in China as an English-language teacher in Shanghai. In China, she found friendship and comradeship with Robert F. Williams and Mabel Williams. She assisted with translating the Peking Review into English and taught her own course on African American history at the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Languages. When Mao Ze Dong released his statement “In Support of the Afro-American Struggle against Violent Repression” after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Garvin was invited by students to speak in front of millions at a celebration of the statement, a moment she described as a ‘privilege’ that moved her to tears. Due to the solidarity she felt and saw in the country, Vicki Garvin would refer to China as a “a valuable resource for exploited and oppressed peoples everywhere who have so much in common.”
After 6 years in China, Vicki Garvin returned to the United States. She continued her political activism by joining the editorial committee of New China, a journal run by the US Peoples Friendship Association. She traveled back to China several times, and also made many trips to Africa and the Caribbean. She remained active in many circles and supported organizations such as: Sisters Against South African Apartheid (SASAA); the Committee to Eliminate Media Offensive to African People (CEMOTAP); Black Workers for Justice; and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Upon her return to the States, Garvin provided invaluable mentorship to young activists across a variety of struggles. A labor leader and internationalist, committed to equal rights for women and Black liberation, Garvin is remembered as a key strategist, mentor, and leader in social movements across three continents. In a communication announcing her death in 2007, it is said that she wrote: “Of course there will be twists and turns, but victory in the race belongs to the long distance runners, not sprinters. Everywhere the just slogan is reverberating: no justice, no peace!”
Comrade Vicki Garvin, ¡presente!