Little-Collins, Ella Lee
Little-Collins, Ella Lee
Ella Lee Little-Collins (Muslim name Alziz A. Hamid) was the half sister of Malcolm X, who credited her with playing a major role in his life. She supported the black revolutionary leader both emotionally and financially throughout his short but highly influential life. Malcolm lived with Little-Collins, who served essentially as a surrogate mother for him, off and on from 1940 until 1946, a period that left an indelible imprint on him. Little-Collins also sponsored Malcolm in his pilgrimage to Mecca in the early 1960s—another important, formative period of his life.
Though Malcolm credited Little-Collins for being only a positive influence in his life, at least one of his biographers suggests that she was a negative influence as well, asserting that she taught Malcolm his lifestyle of petty thievery. And Malcolm's widow, Betty Shabazz, has stated that she had no respect for Little-Collins because of her poor influence on Malcolm. Little-Collins did not dispute that she had many run-ins with the law, resulting in ten convictions for offenses including petty Larceny and Assault and Battery. But Little-Collins's family asserts the run-ins occurred when she was defending others who were being harassed or taken advantage of by people in positions of authority. Little-Collins emerges as a major figure in Malcolm's life, one of few people who knew him and remained by his side throughout all of his many philosophical incarnations.
Little-Collins was born December 4, 1912, in Butler, Georgia, the eldest of three children of the Reverend Earl Lee Little and his first wife, Daisy Mason. Her parents had two more children, Mary and Earl, Jr., and divorced in 1917 or 1918. Little-Collins's mother moved to Boston around 1920, taking Earl Jr. with her. Ella and Mary were left in Butler, Georgia, with Earl Sr.'s parents, John and Ella Little, who raised them to adulthood.
Little-Collins left Georgia in 1929 with very little to her name, and went to New York to earn a living. She worked at first as a church secretary at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, the parish at which the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. was minister. This position led to a long-standing professional relationship with the minister's son, adam clayton powell jr., a Civil Rights activist and Harlem's first African American congressional representative. After a short period in New York, Little-Collins moved to Boston to work at a grocery that her mother was running at the time. She was a hard worker, and she soon began sending money to the relatives remaining in Georgia so that they could also come north. Her father was very proud of her for bringing many family members from Georgia to Boston. Collins's devotion to her family extended beyond bringing them out of southern poverty: she was known to support others in achieving their educational or career goals as well. Malcolm later wrote, "[I]f Ella had ever thought that she could help any member of the Little family put up any kind of professional shingle—as a teacher, a foot-doctor, anything … you would have had to tie her down to keep her from taking in washing."
In 1933, Little-Collins married Dr. Thomas Lloyd Oxley, a Jamaican-born follower of marcus garvey. (Garvey urged black Americans to return to their African roots; many members of the Little family were proponents of his philosophy.) Oxley and Little-Collins divorced in 1934. By early 1939, when Little-Collins visited her father's family in Michigan and met Malcolm for the first time, she had been married to her second husband, frank johnson, for nearly four years. During this visit, the seeds were planted that led to Malcolm's living with her in Roxbury, Massachusetts, later that summer. Malcolm described his first meeting with his half sister, which occurred when he was a young adolescent and she was twenty-six: "[S]he was the first really proud black woman I had ever seen in my life. She was plainly proud of her very dark skin. This was unheard of among Negroes. … I had never been so impressed with anybody."
Little-Collins' second husband was in the military when Malcolm arrived in the summer of 1939, after he had finished seventh grade. In his autobiography, Malcolm described Little-Collins as a community leader in Roxbury, an enclave of blacks outside of Boston, which was to Boston as Harlem was to New York. Little-Collins's standing and the Boston atmosphere impressed the young man, and after he returned home, during the next school year, when he became disenchanted with his opportunities in Michigan, he wrote to Little-Collins that he wanted to live with her permanently in Boston. Little-Collins arranged to transfer official custody of Malcolm to Massachusetts, and he moved there upon finishing eighth grade. Little-Collins had separated from Frank shortly before Malcolm came to live in Roxbury in 1940. They divorced in June 1942. Malcolm later wrote, "[A]ny average man would find it almost impossible to live for very long with a woman whose every instinct was to run everything and everybody she had anything to do with—including me."
Little-Collins did not approve of the lifestyle that Malcolm began to lead in Roxbury and later continued in Harlem. She was very strict, locking him out of the house if he failed to return home in time, forcing him to spend the night with other relatives who lived downstairs in the same house. She had married Kenneth Collins in June 1942. They had a child, Rodnell, in 1945. Even though Little-Collins had a family of her own, and Malcolm was in and out of trouble, she never really abandoned him. From time to time, when Malcolm returned to her household, she welcomed him with open arms.
After Malcolm was convicted of Burglary and firearms charges and sent to prison in 1946, Little-Collins sent him money. In 1948, through her efforts, Malcolm was transferred from Concord Prison to the Norfolk, Massachusetts, Prison Colony, an experimental rehabilitative institution patterned after a college campus. This transfer proved to be monumental for Malcolm. The Norfolk Colony had an outstanding library, whose books Malcolm read prodigiously, and inmates were allowed to participate in cultural events such as debates, group discussions, and educational lectures. Malcolm read about history and religion, increased his vocabulary, and developed his debating skills, all of which later served him as a leader in the Nation of Islam.
Little-Collins continued to have contact with Malcolm after his release from prison, as his stature as a black leader increased. She also continued working within the black community. By 1957, her third marriage had ended; by Malcolm's description, Little-Collins was "more driving and dynamic" than the sum of her three husbands. Because of her half brother's influence, Little-Collins joined the Nation of Islam, becoming a member of Boston's Mosque Eleven. However, she was thrown out, according to Malcolm, because of her tendency to take charge of any situation. She was taken back, but later left on her own, breaking with Elijah Muhammad's Black Muslims in 1959.
During this time, Little-Collins also started the Sarah A. Little School of Preparatory Arts, in Boston, where children were taught Arabic, as well as Swahili, French, and Spanish. Little-Collins herself hired the teachers, who donated their time; although she did not speak any language but English, she echoed her half brother's belief in the importance of being able to communicate with others in their native tongues. The school's curriculum also included arts and etiquette instruction. It was in existence from 1958 to 1968.
Malcolm continued to rely on Little-Collins for her support of both himself and his ministry. After he was silenced as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam, he decided that he wanted to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, but he did not have enough of his own money to pay for the trip. He flew to Boston to ask Little-Collins for help. In his autobiography, he described their meeting as follows: "I was turning again to my sister Ella. Though at times I'd made Ella angry at me … Ella had never once really wavered from my corner." When Malcolm announced that he wanted to make the pilgrimage, Little-Collins said only, "How much do you need?" Through the income from her real estate holdings, Little-Collins had been saving for her own trip to Mecca, but insisted that Malcolm take the money because it was more important that he go. Malcolm later credited the trip, taken in April and May 1964, with broadening his horizons and changing his entire outlook on the U.S. blacks' struggle for civil rights.
After Malcolm was assassinated in February 1965, Little-Collins accompanied his widow to the medical examiner's office in New York to identify the body. Little-Collins later returned to Boston, where she announced at a press conference that she would choose the leaders of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), the group Malcolm had set up after his break with Elijah Muhammad, to succeed Malcolm. Little-Collins herself served as interim president and president of the OAAU for a time as well as supporting the group financially. For ten years, the OAAU sponsored workshops during the week of May 19, the anniversary of Malcolm's birth. Little-Collins, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and the OAAU were instrumental in setting up what is said to be the nation's first degree-granting college black studies department, at the City College of New York, in 1969. However, perhaps owing to her domineering personality and the rift between her and Shabazz, the group's influence diminished after Malcolm's death.
Little-Collins continued supporting black causes by donating her time and money. She brought young people into her home, raised them, passed along the teachings of Malcolm, and sent several on pilgrimages to Mecca. She characterized herself as a human-rights activist rather than a civil-rights activist, because she felt that universal Human Rights were of primary importance. Little-Collins eventually moved to a Boston-area nursing home, where she died August 3, 1996 at the age of 84. She left one son, Rodnell Collins, who is the OAAU's current president.