"The history of Grandma Little is so important to black women," she
"The Autobiography of Malcolm X" opens with a terrifying story about his
mother standing up to a group of armed Ku Klux Klansman who galloped up
to their house in Omaha, Neb., one night. They were looking for his
father, the Rev. Earl Little, a Baptist minister and organizer for
Marcus Garvey's controversial Universal Negro Improvement Association,
which advocated black pride and the return to the ancestral African
Louise Little was pregnant with Malcolm at the time. She stood so the
Klansmen could see her condition and told them she was alone with her
three small children. They shouted threats that the Littles should leave
town because her husband was "spreading trouble." After breaking all the
windows in the house, they rode off.
"She didn't apologize, or make excuses for his work," said Erik
McDuffie, a history and African-American studies professor a the UI.
"She knew pregnant black women had been lynched. She stood her ground."
Ms. Little had been educated at an Anglican school in Grenada and spoke
several languages, including English, French and Patois, a type of
Creole. She had her children recite the alphabet in French. She had them
read and sell the "Negro World" newspaper published by Garvey's
organization as well as a newspaper published by T. A. Marryshow,
considered the father of Grenadian independence, McDuffie said.
She was born in Grenada in 1894, the granddaughter of Jupiter and Mary
Jane Langdon, two natives of Nigeria who took their surnames from
plantation owners but were not slaves, Wilson said. Jupiter was a
carpenter and farmer. They had six children, including Edith, who was
raped by a white man at age 12; Louise Little was born of that
pregnancy. In his autobiography, Malcolm X traced his own lighter skin
to that "white devil."
Her story is not uncommon among people of African descent, said
McDuffie, whose own grandmother was the product of a similar rape.
Ms. Little left Grenada in 1917 to be on her own, never to return. She
went to Montreal for two years to live with her uncle, who had heard
Garvey speak, and soon Ms. Little joined the movement.
She met her husband and moved to Philadelphia, where they had two
children, and then moved to Omaha to support the Universal Negro
improvement Association there, McDuffie said. Ms. Little became
secretary of the chapter and helped with the newsletter. "Garvey
actually visited their home when he was on the run." Her story shows
that Malcolm X "emerged from a long, rich history of struggle," he said.
Louise Little's life would grow more difficult. After the family moved
to Michigan, Malcolm X's father was killed by a streetcar when he was
just 6 — ruled an accident but some suspected he was murdered. The
insurance company then refused to pay the larger of his life insurance
policies, saying it appeared to be a suicide, Jones said.
Louise Little had been a domestic worker but was "blackballed" after
that, Jones said. She refused to go on welfare for months but gave in
after she couldn't find work. Then she had a brief affair with a man who
left her pregnant with her eighth child, and suffered a nervous
Jones' mother came home
one day to find Ms. Little "agitated and fidgeting." Welfare workers
told her they were taking her to get food and clothes for the kids and
would bring her back home.
"They took her and she never came back," Jones said.
Ms. Little was certified as "insane" and committed to a Michigan
psychiatric hospital, where she would stay until 1963 when her grown
children arranged for her release, Jones said.
The two oldest children dropped out of school to take care of their
siblings for more than a year, but eventually they were farmed out to
five different foster homes.
Jones was 10 when she learned the story. When she went to see her
grandmother for the first time, she "instantly felt this warmth from
her, even though she didn't speak a lot."
Louise Little lived for almost 30 years after her release. She was
resilient, determined and proud, Jones and Wilson said.
"When she stood up, she rose up. The institution did not take that away
from her. She instilled that in her children," Jones said.