Jamaica Progressive League

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Jamaica Progressive League

The Jamaica Progressive League (JPL) of New York, formed in 1936 by a group of Jamaican men and women residing in New York City, set in motion the movement for self-government on the island of Jamaica, which gained its independence from Britain in 1962. The organization survives into the present and owes its longevity in part to its distinctive political relationship to the homeland and to the Jamaican diaspora. One of the first organizational strategies of the New Yorkbased JPL was to establish a political party in Jamaica (the People's National Party, or PNP) devoted to universal suffrage and self-government. In its early history, the PNP served as the JPL's political voice on the island. The New York JPL also formed a branch in Kingston in 1937 and later in other U.S. cities, the Panama Canal Zone, and other key locations where Jamaicans had settled. The JPL functioned as a vehicle through which the Jamaican diaspora could participate in Jamaica's long-term self-determination as well in as its struggle for independence from Britain. Significantly, the league, as its name implies, relied upon the Jamaican associations, community networks, and fundraising skills already established in New York to promote its political agenda. Added to this core political dimension was the league's capacity to also address social welfare concerns, emergency relief, and other needs of Jamaicans at home and in its migrating communities.


The group of compatriots who met at the headquarters of the Jamaica Benevolent Association on September 1, 1936, to formally organize the Jamaica Progressive League had held several preliminary meetings. They wanted to create a consensus about the league's objectiveselfgovernment for Jamaicaand they wanted to identify key individuals to participate in and promote the project. Notably, they met with an organized group of Jamaican women who had just completed several successful fundraising campaigns, with a prominent Jamaican physician, and with an outspoken but moderate Jamaican journalist. The actual leaders of the league were long-time activists committed to socialist politics and well known in the Harlem community. They included Adolphe Roberts, a writer, who became president; W. A. Domingo, an intellectual and importer of Caribbean food products, who became vice president; and Rev. E. Ethelred Brown, a Unitarian pastor of the Harlem Community Church, who became secretary. Other founding members included T. E. Hanson, Dr. Lucien Brown, A. Wendell Malliett, Ivy Essien, James O'Meally, Thomas R. Bowen, (Mrs.) T. D'Aguilar, Agatha Fraser, and Ben and Theophilus Burrell.

The founding members thus comprised a broad coalition of Jamaicans, and this united front reflected the migrant community's response to a series of insurgencies that occurred all over the Caribbean between 1935 and 1938. Anticolonial labor riots erupted in Saint Kitts, Trinidad, British Guiana, Saint Vincent, and Saint Lucia in 1935, and in 1937 and 1938 in Trinidad, Barbados, British Guiana, Saint Lucia, and Jamaica. Demonstrators protested widespread unemployment, poor health and sanitary conditions, low wages, and many other social conditions. The colonial authorities' response was military and punitive, and many workers were killed, wounded, or arrested. These events created a diaspora-wide response from Harlem to London, helped mobilize pan-Caribbean organizations, and inspired demands for self-government and immediate reform.

In this political climate, the Jamaica Progressive League launched its movement for universal suffrage and self-government. Designing a banner emblematic of the laboring masses and adopting the motto "From the Ground Up," the organization spread its message through mass meetings, pamphleteering, leafleting, and lectures. Among the widely distributed publications were O'Meally's "Why We Demand Self-Government for Jamaica," and the JPL's "Onward Jamaica," published in 1937. E. Ethelred Brown wrote an expose of civil services abuses and in 1938 represented the league before the West Indies Royal Commission, which convened in Jamaica in the wake of the region-wide disturbances. Domingo and Roberts spent six months in Jamaica in 1937 and 1938. Their arrival preceded the widespread labor rebellions that erupted in May 1938 and facilitated the JPL's fundraising in New York for the legal defense of workers arrested during the uprising. They also met with the Jamaican branch of the JPL and acted as advisers to the group that formed the People's National Party, headed by Norman W. Manley. The PNP, with financial backing from the league (E. Ethelred Brown served as its chief fundraiser in New York), began an aggressive campaign for self-government and reform. Amid labor strikes and mass protests, the colonial government made important concessions. The Legislative Council approved league's resolution to reinstate competitive civil service examinations. In 1944, universal adult suffrage, without property qualifications, went into effect, accompanied by a new constitution allowing Jamaicans to elect representatives to a legislative assembly. Jamaica was among the first colonies in the British Empire to win the right to choose its own representatives to a legislative assembly on the basis of universal suffrage.

In New York, the Jamaica Progressive League, guided by the socialist intellectuals Domingo and Brown, worked with other anticolonialists during the 1940s and 1950s. Their activities were deemed "subversive" and were subject to surveillance; many key activists were arrested while traveling in their home countries, were detained in the United States, or were deported. Colonial officials arrested Domingo on his arrival in Jamaica in June of 1941 after FBI agents intercepted letters identifying his work for the PNP. He was detained for twenty months and remained in Jamaica for an additional four years after U.S. officials refused to grant him a visa. The New York JPL rallied to support Domingo's family financially while he took advantage of this period by stepping up his work for the PNP and writing articles for the local press, particularly Public Opinion, the main organ of the Jamaica self-government movement. Domingo returned to the United States in 1947 and continued to work for the JPL.


In the politically charged period just before and just after Jamaica won its independence, membership in the New York Jamaica Progressive League reached its peak. Even Jamaicans who had been skeptical about the movement for self-government rejoiced in their country's independence and joined in the league's celebratory activities. However, the league soon entered a transitional phase. Brown, who died in 1956, and Domingo, who died in 1968, no longer guided the League's politics. The organization's new leadership, drawn from the ranks of the professional and business classes, turned more and more to the "the needs of Jamaicans where they live now." An important example was the league's increased campaign to remove immigration barriers during the 1960s, which was led by its president, Beryl Henry. Before he died, Domingo also worked on this project. To advance the concerns of an expanding immigrant community, Henry cultivated political ties with powerful local, state, and national elected officials in the United States. The league played an active role in the introduction of the 1965 Hart-Celler Bill, which repealed the national origins quota system. Once race-based immigration restrictions were lifted, new waves of migrants arrived from Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean and developing world. This new generation of Jamaican migrants both insured the League's survival and complicated its identity as a political organization.

By the 1960s and 1970s, Jamaicans were more difficult to unite around a single political agenda. Furthermore, the JPL's diverse membership, which now included a new generation of migrants who arrived after 1965, did not all agree with the league's position on the PNP. Although the JPL maintained its official affiliation, its leaders distanced the organization from any single political party.

Perhaps because of its adaptive strategies, the JPL remained a vital organization in the early 1970s. In 1973 the league purchased a twelve-story building in Manhattan, at a cost of $2 million, to serve as its new headquarters, Jamaica House. According to a history of the league, the Workers Bank of Jamaica extended the loan. The building housed numerous JPL services, including its adult education program, which provided opportunities for migrants to acquire high school equivalency certificates, as well as immigration advising services, student advising services, and a free legal clinic. The league sold Jamaica House in 1979 to pay its debts and to free the organization from cumbersome real estate management responsibilities.

Since the 1980s, the New York JPL has struggled to sustain a political and social relationship with recent migrant generations and the organization has experienced decline. The league reached its zenith when its leadership appealed to multiple constituencies and effectively combined its political goals with the immediate social needs of Jamaicans. Still, the Jamaica Progressive League's history provides an unusual opportunity to examine diaspora politics within one organization that links colonial and postcolonial communities among several generations of Jamaican migrants.

See also Anti-Colonial Movements; Manley, Norman; People's National Party


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