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Constance Cummings-John: Sierra Leone’s Leading Women’s Rights Activist
A politician in both pre-and post-colonial Sierra Leone, Constance Cummings-John devoted her life to African women's rights campaigns.
Cummings-John was born in 1918 into an elite Krio Horton family in the British colony of Freetown, Sierra Leone. The Krios were the descendants of freed slaves (Jamaicans, Barbadians, and Black Nova Scotians) who had settled in the area by the British in the 18th century. The British also offered them support to become anglophiles.
Cummings-John's family were entrepreneurs, professionals and intellectuals. She was the daughter of Freetown's city treasurer. She was educated at the best local missionary schools in the then-British colony.
In 1935, Cummings-John went to London for her teacher training. She was involved in major black organisations in London, including the West African Students' Union and the League of Coloured People (LCP). Despite her political activities, she earned her teaching qualification within a year. In the 1930s, she also studied vocational education in the United States with the help of a colonial office loan.
In the United States, Cummings-John experienced racism, leading her back to London in 1936. Back in London, she became involved with the International African Service Bureau (IASB), founded by the Sierra Leonean anti-colonialist ITA Wallace-Johnson. During this time, she married Ethan Cummings-John, a lawyer, and within a year, she returned to Freetown.
The colonial government offered Cummings-John the job of inspector schools in Freetown. But she refused it and accepted the position of principal of the African Methodist Episcopal Girls' Industrial School. Under her guidance, the school grew rapidly.
In 1938, Cummings-John was elected to Freetown municipal council at the age of 20.
When Wallace Johnson started a campaign that revolutionised West African politics, Cummings-John joined him in inaugurating his West African Youth League (WAYL). WAYL aimed for the social, political and economic emancipation of all West-African colonies. She soon became the vice president of the organisation. She was also a member of the WAYL central committee, and she worked to ensure that the concerns of the women were not ignored.
In 1938, Cummings-John was elected to Freetown municipal council at the age of 20. She was one of four WAYL candidates who won a seat at the election. She got more votes than any other candidate who won the election at that time and became the youngest and only female politician to win an election in the African colonies. She served as a municipal councillor for a total of 20 years. As a councillor, she was very interested in education, library facilities, city sanitation and market conditions.
Cummings-John had to face severe pressure from the colonial government to repudiate Wallace Johnson. She refused, and she lost her seat in the 1942 elections. By that time, Wallace Johnson was in preventive detention, and WAYL was reaching its final days. In 19467, Cummings-John narrowly escaped detention and escaped with her two sons to the United States. She was helped by Asadata Dafora, her half-brother, who was a dancer in the US. In the US, she couldn't fetch a job as a teacher. Instead, she worked in hospitals. During this time, she also continued her involvement with black political movements. She served in the American Council for African Education (ACAE) executive committee and the Council on African Affairs. During her stint, she mobilised resources to provide free education for girls in Sierra Leone.
In 1951, Cummings-John returned to Freetown and established the Eleanor Roosevelt Preparatory School for Girls. It was financially supported by a quarrying business started by her and the funds raised in the US. She wanted the school to be free of cost. But the colonial government opposed the idea and began throwing obstacles in her way. Finally, she agreed to charge a nominal fee to students. By 1953, the school had 611 students, and by the following year, the government decided to pay the salaries of the secondary department staff.
In 1966, Cummings-John was elected as the mayor of Freetown.
In 1952, the governor offered Cummings-John a seat in the Freetown Council. She continued to work on the issues she had in her first term as the councillor. She founded the Sierra Leone Women's Movement (SLWM) in the same year. SLWM had branches across the nation and organised campaigns for various issues ranging from trading rights to education.
In 1961, Sierra Leone became independent from the British. There were two factions inside Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP). Cummings-John was associated with the losing faction, and in the 1962 post-independent election, she was defeated by a rival SLPP candidate. After that defeat, she abandoned national politics.
In 1966, Cummings-John was elected as the mayor of Freetown. She became the first African woman to govern a modern capital city in the African continent. She used her power to unite the people of Freetown and elevate women's position in society. She set up a municipal secondary school. During her tenure, she initiated a sanitation campaign. However, she could only do a little as a political upheaval resulted in losing her position. After that, she went back to London and worked with the local branch of the Labour Party and the Co-Operative Society.
In 1974-76, she tried to resettle in Freetown but was unsuccessful due to the chaotic conditions. In 1996, she visited Nigeria to attend the launch of her autobiography. In her later years, Cummings-John really hoped that she could resettle in Freetown and help Sierra Leone regain its stability. She was devastated by the continuing tragic events in Sierra Leone.
Constance Cummings-John died on February 2, 2000.