Constance Cummings-John

African feminist ancestors

Constance Cummings-John was a politician in both pre- and post-colonial Sierra Leone who campaigned for African women’s rights. She was born in 1918 in the British colony of Freetown, Sierra Leone, into the elite Krio Horton family. The Krios were the descendants of freed slaves (Jamaicans, Barbadians and Black Nova Scotians) who had been settled […]

Constance Cummings-John was a politician in both pre- and post-colonial Sierra Leone who campaigned for African women’s rights. She was born in 1918 in the British colony of Freetown, Sierra Leone, into the elite Krio Horton family. The Krios were the descendants of freed slaves (Jamaicans, Barbadians and Black Nova Scotians) who had been settled in the area by the British in the 18th century. Britain offered some support and encouraged the Krio to become anglophiles and see themselves as much superior to the peoples of the hinterland. Cummings-John’s family were intellectuals, entrepreneurs and professionals. She attended the best of the local missionary schools, belonged to elite clubs and societies and visited with members of the family living in other West African colonies.

In 1935, Cummings-John was sent to London to train as a teacher, a qualification she gained in a year, despite involvement in the major black organizations in London, the West African Students’ Union and the League of Coloured People (LCP). Sponsored by a colonial office loan, she went on to study vocational education in the United States in the 1930s. Like many other activist women of her time, her career trajectory started with the socially respectable career of teaching, but took a political turn as she became involved in nationalist struggles.[1]

Political awakenings
Cummings-John experienced racism in the United States which led her back to London in 1936, where she became involved with the International African Service Bureau (IASB) founded by the Sierra Leonean anti-colonialist, I. T. A. Wallace-Johnson. She married the newly qualified (but much older) lawyer, Ethan Cummings-John, and within a year returned to Freetown. Offered a job as inspector of schools by the colonial government, Cummings-John chose instead to accept the principalship of the black-led African Methodist Episcopal Girls’ Industrial School, which grew rapidly under her guidance and fundraising abilities.

By February 1938, Cummings-John had set up a branch of the LCP in Freetown, but was soon disappointed in the disinterest of the mainly professional and conservative membership in involving non-Krio (protectorate) peoples in politics. Within a few months, she informed the parent-body in London that she wanted the LCP to affiliate with the newly formed West African Youth League (WAYL). The establishment of this league was a response to the ‘divide and rule’ policies promulgated by the colonial government which separated the coastal colony and Krio population from the rest of the country, which was ruled by the British and known as the Protectorate.  On the one hand, the colonial government limited colonial education to the existing elite of the Krio people in the area around Freetown. British colonisers also sub-contracted the bulk of administration to traditional chiefs and native rulers, thus also ensuring that they could maintain their colonies ‘on a shoestring.’  The British also admitted Africans into the central colonial government, but with a strict bar on advancement.[2]

The WAYL was set up by radical activist, Wallace-Johnson, and aimed at the ‘social, political and economic emancipation’ of all West African colonies. Cummings-John immediately joined the new organization and soon became its vice president. Along with four other women, she was a member of the WAYL Central Committee, and worked to ensure that the concerns of women were not ignored. The WAYL proved vastly popular as it set about establishing trade unions own branches in the Protectorate. Muslims, previously excluded from all political and social activities, were welcome, and Protectorate people served on its various committees.

Cummings-John was one of four WAYL candidates to win a seat in the 1938 Freetown municipal elections, in which she gained more votes than any other candidate. Only 20, she became the youngest and only female politician to win an election in the African colonies, and went on to serve a total of 20 years (1938-1942 and 1952-1966) as municipal councillor. Her main concerns as councillor were education, library facilities, market conditions and city sanitation.

The Colonial Office put considerable pressure on Cummings-John to repudiate Wallace-Johnson, who was seen as a dangerous communist rabble rouser. She refused but lost her seat in the 1942 elections, by which time Wallace-Johnson was languishing in ‘preventive detention,’ and the WAYL was in its death throes. Cummings-John herself barely escaped detention. Her outspokenness and refusal to buckle under the pressure put upon her by the colonial government made Sierra Leone a dangerous place for her. As a result, she travelled to the USA in 1946 with her two sons, evading the travel embargo that the British had placed on her.

Though helped by Asadata Dafora, her New York–based, well-known dancer brother (né Austin Horton), Cummings-John was unable to obtain work as a teacher in the USA and had to work in hospitals. She continued her involvement with black political movements, including serving on the executive committee of the American Council for African Education (ACAE) and the Council on African Affairs, where she mobilized considerable resources for the cause of free education for girls in Sierra Leone.

Political career
In 1951, Cummings-John returned to Freetown to establish the Eleanor Roosevelt Preparatory School for Girls, financed by a quarrying business she had established and by US fundraising. The fact that the school was intended to be free was anathema to the colonial government, who threw many obstacles in her way. Eventually it was agreed that she would charge students a nominal annual fee. By 1953, the school, with its vocational and commercial focus, had 611 pupils, and the government agreed in 1954 to pay the salaries of the secondary department staff.

When decolonization began in Sierra Leone, the 1951 constitution gave power to the peoples of the Protectorate, while Krio politicians founded their own party. However, some younger Krio intellectuals, including Cummings-John, in the interest of national reconciliation joined the Protectorate politicians’ Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). The SLPP’s motto was ‘One Country, One People.’ Reforms in 1951 merged the colony and protectorate politically, and the legislative council, while allowed to retain appointed white members, now had a majority of elected Africans, despite a still grossly limited franchise. At elections held later that year, the SLPP gained an overwhelming majority in the reformed legislative council. This was much resented by most Krios.

In 1952, the governor of Sierra Leone appointed Cummings-John to a seat on the Freetown Council, where she continued to work for the issues she had in 1938, along with those raised by the Sierra Leone Women’s Movement (SLWM). Cummings-John also served on the SLPP’s executive and maintained her campaign for the inclusion of Protectorate peoples and women in its policies. General elections were held for a new, elected House of Representatives in 1957, but the franchise was still restricted to men. Cummings-John decided to stand for election as an SLPP candidate; she again gained the most votes and became one of two women in the new Sierra Leone government led by the SLPP.

For this Cumming-John’s fellow Krios condemned her as a traitor. They accused her of malpractice in the 1957 election and brought a court case against her in which she was given a prison sentence—squashed on appeal. She resigned her seat rather than face further humiliation.[3] Though deeply shaken by the accusations levelled at her, Cummings-John again stood for elections to the municipal council in 1958 and topped the polls. Back on the council, she continued her struggles for municipal (as opposed to denominational) education; her struggles for the market women against new, high tolls for market stalls; her struggles against the decree forcing women to buy staples of rice and palm oil from the large British firms rather than directly from producers, and her struggles for a farmers’ bank. She continued to run the Roosevelt School and to head the SLWM, which demanded more and more international travel.

In 1961, Sierra Leone gained its independence from the British. Within the SLPP Cummings-John unwisely associated herself with what became a losing faction, and was defeated in the 1962 post-independence election by a rival SLPP candidate. She abandoned national politics, and in 1966 was elected mayor of Freetown, becoming the first African woman to govern a modern capital city on the continent.

Cummings-John used her position to attempt to unite the people of Freetown and to elevate the position of women. She initiated a sanitation campaign; street traders were regulated; attempts were made to channel the energies of the growing number of street children; a municipal secondary school was set up. However Cummings-John did not have much time to do this work: political upheavals resulted in a commission of enquiry into Freetown’s finances and, while she was abroad attending a meeting of the Women’s International Democratic Federation, she was charged with misuse of public funds. Thereafter, the SLPP lost the 1966 general election, but the new All Peoples’ Congress government was soon overthrown by a military takeover.

Women’s movement building
In addition to trailblazing African women’s participation in politics, one of Cummings-John’s most notable achievements was the establishment of the Sierra Leone Women’s Movement (SLWM). In Sierra Leone, the gap between Krio women, raised in high Victorian fashion since the 19th century, and working-class market women—hairdressers, washerwomen and seamstresses—was immense. It was while on the city council that Cummings-John actively campaigned for Freetown’s market women, which led to the founding of the SLWM in 1952. The SLWM developed branches nationwide and campaigned on a variety of issues, ranging from trading rights to education, and for a farmers’ bank. It published a newspaper, established a women traders’ co-operative and conducted evening classes.[4]

Cummings-John’s constant concern was to include Protectorate women in the work of the SLWM and to ensure that Krio concerns did not dominate it. One factor that worked in her favour was that politicized women were so rare that they had no choice but to organize across regional, ethnic and class barriers. Indeed their movement became a real crucible for the awakening of a Sierra Leonean national consciousness.[5]

As the SLWM grew, it made international contacts, and in 1960 became a founding member of the Federation of Sierra Leone Women’s Organisations. Cummings-John worked largely with the market women and actively participated in their fight for self-determination. As a result of her efforts, much later, after the civil war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002), which had greatly increased the number of women workers, two working women’s unions were born: the Sierra Leone Market Women’s Union and the Washerwomen’s Union.

Latter years
In 1966, Cummings-John returned to London after 30 years’ absence. Though the city had changed radically and her old political associations no longer existed, she was soon politically involved again. She worked with the local branch of the Labour Party and the Co-Operative Society; she served in many schools as governor and became involved with a number of community organizations. Very active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), Cummings-John spoke on CND platforms around the country and formed the Women for Disarmament group.

Cummings-John tried to resettle in Freetown in 1974 to 1976, but the conditions were too chaotic. She returned to her London commitments, but maintained her links with her old party (the SLPP), the women’s movement and her school. In 1996, she went to Nigeria to attend the launch of her autobiography and then again tried to settle in Freetown. The SLPP had won the elections, and she hoped to help Sierra Leone regain its stability. Her hopes were soon dashed, and she returned to London in 1998. Undoubtedly devastated by the continuing tragic events in Sierra Leone, Cummings-John died on 21 February 2000.

Her legacy
As a woman, Cumming-John’s struggle was two-fold: untying the knot of colonialism and gaining acceptance in the colony of Sierra Leone, where women were not expected to engage in political activities. Cummings-John is noted to have said that her major fault in her political career was ‘naivety in ascribing her own loyalty, generosity and civil courage to her male associates – to the politicians whose rapacity [had], during the past 40 years, brought her beloved country to ruin.’[6] Nonetheless, she will always be remembered in the history books as someone who strove for independence for her people and for equality, as well as for the work she did with women and in education. Her school for girls still stands.

In contemporary post-conflict Sierra Leone, women have managed to secure 13.5 per cent of seats in parliament—without affirmative action or a quota system—thanks to the mobilization and activism of women’s groups and coalitions. The women’s movement has succeeded in making the political parties and government recognize that it is no longer politically viable to sidestep women’s rights should they wish to gain their votes. As women’s organizations, in particular the 50/50 group, continue the struggle to introduce a quota, the challenge for Sierra Leonean women is how to ensure that this is not hijacked by the male-dominated political establishment.

Even more social and cultural barriers exist for women in Sierra Leone in terms of their general wellbeing and equal opportunities with men. The work now required to build on the legacy of stalwarts such as Constance Cummings-John includes legislative reforms to promote women’s rights, dignity and well-being. Culturally the ongoing challenge is to redefine norms, values and behaviours to encourage women’s engagement in every level of private and public life.


Footnotes:

[1] Mama, A. (2003). Restore, reform, but do not transform: The gender politics of higher education in Africa. JHEA/RESA, 1(1), 101-125.

[2] Whyte, C (2008).  School’s out: Strategies of resistance in colonial Sierra Leone. Retrieved from: http://academia.edu/1241001/Schools_Out_strategies_of_ resistance_in_colonial_ Sierra_Leone

[3] http://www.sierra-leone.org/Heroes/heroes7.html

[4] http://royaume.co.uk/blog/article/our-story-constance-cummings-john

[5] Adi, H and Sherwood, M (2003 ).  Pan-African history: Political figures from Africa and the diaspora since 1787. London: Routledge.

[6] http://www.sierra-leone.org/Heroes/heroes7.html

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