Eloise Moore, Queen Mother Moore, and Grassroots Black Nationalism
Today’s post is part of a week-long series featuring excerpts from a special issue on activist Queen Mother Audley Moore. The issue is now available in Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International
Eloise Moore was one of the most important twentieth-century Black nationalist activists. Born in 1901, she was a tireless community leader and brilliant theoretician actively involved in grassroots organizing for racial justice, jobs, reparations, the dignity of Black women, and African liberation from the 1920s until her passing in 1963.1 Until recently, she has been overshadowed by her more famous older sister: “Queen Mother” Audley Moore—one of the most revered figures in twentieth-century Black nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and Communism, who was critical to launching the modern reparations movement and Black Power. Eloise Moore’s erasure is curious, especially given the deep respect Queen Mother Moore held for her younger sister. Charismatic, politically savvy, and working-class, Eloise Moore forged a Black nationalist praxis that was diasporic, feminist, and radical, and that touched thousands of everyday Black people at the grassroots level. She also played a key role in shaping her older sister’s “oppositional consciousness” from an early age. My thinking about “oppositional consciousness” is taken from Chela Sandoval, who coined the term to describe a liberatory sensibility that imagines “forms of resistance outside of those determined by the social order itself.” Without Eloise Moore there would have been no Queen Mother Moore.
Coming of age in the Jim Crow South and in a racially defiant Black family laid the foundations for Eloise Moore’s militancy. She was born in New Orleans on March 21, 1901 and spent her childhood in New Iberia, a small town outside of the Crescent City. As a child, she heard stories about how a white slave master raped her paternal grandmother, producing her father, and about the lynching of family members. Still, her family resisted racial terror. Her father—St. Cyr Moore—was a proud, successful entrepreneur and a former sheriff’s deputy in St. Charles Parish outside of New Orleans. The untimely death of her parents thrust Eloise and her sisters into the working-class. Audley worked as a domestic laborer in white-owned homes and as a hairdresser, while Eloise toiled as a live-in domestic for white families. Both women endured sexual assault by white men on the job.
As Eloise Moore came of age in the early 1920s, she and her sisters became devout followers of the Jamaican Black nationalist Marcus Garvey. His call for race pride, Black self-determination, and Pan-African unity, and his leadership of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) captured the imaginations of millions of Black people globally, including the Moore sisters. Eloise brought Audley to her first UNIA meeting in New Orleans in which Garvey spoke. As Eloise became drawn to Garveyism, she also pursued what came to be her lifelong passion: an obsession with critical thinking and discovering the reasons why Black people were oppressed.2 Her intellectual curiosity and activism continued to inform one another and to transform the life and politics of Queen Mother Moore after the sisters arrived in Harlem by the late 1920s.
If she was instrumental in influencing her sister’s oppositional consciousness during the World War I-era, then Eloise Moore also played a key role in prompting her sister to join the Communist Party through the Scottsboro case in the early 1930s. The “Scottsboro Boys” were nine African American young men falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a freight train to Memphis in 1931. Authorities apprehended the youth near Scottsboro, Alabama. Eight of the young men were sentenced to death. In response, the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) organized a worldwide amnesty movement on their behalf in the 1930s.
It is unclear when and how Eloise became involved in the Scottsboro movement. But it was upon her insistence that Queen Mother Moore participated in her first Scottsboro demonstration in Harlem. Witnessing thousands of marchers—Black and white—demonstrating in support of the Scottsboro defendants and listening to Black Communist leaders denounce imperialism in Africa mesmerized her. Audley Moore eventually joined the Party. By the late 1930s and 1940s, she emerged as a leading figure in the Harlem Communist Party. Like her sister, Eloise Moore participated in Communist-led protests around Scottsboro. However, she never enlisted in the CPUSA. Her distrust for white people and her Garveyite beliefs that only Black people could determine their freedom explains her decision. This move not to join the Communist Party underscored how the Moore sisters’ politics sometimes diverged.3
Although she agitated in the Scottsboro movement during the 1930s, Eloise Moore carried out most of her work outside of the Communist Left. Underscoring her special concern for the survival of Harlem residents and the well-being of Black women and children, she campaigned for better schools, organized for tenants’ rights, and protested against police brutality.4 In the early 1940s, she moved to Detroit. Once there, she emerged as a community leader through campaigns to protect Black tenants of the Sojourner Truth Homes, a public housing complex in Detroit that in 1942 became a flashpoint of racial tension after thousands of enraged whites sought to forcibly prevent African Americans from moving into the homes.
While she was an effective community organizer, it was her rejection of the word “Negro” and call for decolonizing Black minds of internalized white supremacy that constituted Eloise Moore’s most salient contribution to Black liberation. Understanding the links between language, history, and power, she rejected white supremacist thought and imagined a world where African-descended people could be free. For Moore, the word “Negro” as a descriptor for Black people was a pernicious white supremacist invention to mentally enslave them. By the late 1940s, she insisted that all Black people were “African.” In the coming years, the Moore sisters centered decolonizing Black minds of what Queen Mother Moore called “mental slavery,” “Negro-itis,” and “oppression psychoneurosis” to their activism.
Eloise Moore’s call for decolonizing Black minds anticipated the thinking of Martiniquan psychiatrist Frantz Fanon and Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o on the links between language, power, and African liberation. Additionally, Eloise Moore’s revelations about the term Negro played a crucial role in transforming her older sister’s life. By 1950, Audley Moore broke from the Communist Party, believing that white leftists were insincere in their commitment to Black freedom. In the coming years, she reinvented herself into “Queen Mother Moore,” who embraced all things “African” and looked to the continent as the fulcrum for global Black liberation.
Eloise Moore’s leadership in the Universal Association of Ethiopian Women (UAEW) signaled her commitment to decolonizing Black minds, “community feminism,” and African liberation. Ula Y. Taylor describes “community feminism” as a black feminist politics formulated by Garveyite women combining feminism and nationalism. Now based in New Orleans, the Moore sisters formed the group in 1955. Extending Garveyism and taking its cue from Scottsboro, the UAEW built grassroots movements in Black communities in New Orleans, New York, and Los Angeles around rape frame-up cases involving Black men and white women, interracial rape of Black women, involuntary sterilization of African American women, welfare rights, economic justice, and the death penalty. The UAEW also demanded reparations for slavery and Jim Crow. After returning to New York in the late 1950s, Eloise Moore along with Queen Mother Moore played a key role in mentoring Malcolm X about the importance of Africa to African American liberation. She continued this work until she passed away in New York City on October 10, 1963. She was sixty-three years old.5 Following her passing, Queen Mother Moore and Lorita Langley established the Eloise Moore Memorial College of African Culture on a farm they owned in the Catskill Mountains. Opening in 1964, the school served as an ideological institute for Black Power militants from across the country through the 1970s.6
Eloise Moore was a dynamic figure whose story extends the story of her more famous sister. She was critical to shaping the oppositional consciousness of her older sister and Black nationalists like Malcolm X whom Black Power militants idealized. Her story provides insight into the broader history of African American women’s activism, Black radicalism, Black feminism, and the African diaspora. Her work also highlights the importance of Black working-class women to advancing Black nationalism long after Garvey’s death in 1940. Above all, the life and legacy of Eloise Moore provides a road map for Black people everywhere to appreciate their African heritage, to imagine the possibilities of another world, and to create it.
- N. A., “Eloise Moore (1901–1963),” n.b., Muhammad Ahmad Personal Papers, Philadelphia, PA. ↩
- “Eloise Moore.” ↩
- Queen Mother Moore, interview by Ruth Prago, December 23, 1981, Oral History of the American Left, Tamiment Library, New York University, New York, 9, Muhammad Ahmad, telephone conversation with author, September 30, 2016. ↩
- “Eloise Moore.” ↩
- Amsterdam News, February 15, 1964. ↩
- Ahmad, conversation with McDuffie. ↩