Natanya Duncan

Assistant Professor, History and Africana Studies
Lehigh University, U.S.A.

“Warrior Mother of Africa’s Warriors of the Most High God”: Laura Kofey and the Secular African Universal Church 
In the early 1920s Ghanaian Laura Kofey immigrated to Detroit, Michigan where she quickly became a member of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in place of joining a church or house of worship. Kofey believed she had found a place for women to lead and a space for alternative constructions of God and Africa in the Detroit Division and the UNIA at large. The UNIA purported to be a non-sectarian non-religious social justice organization with no official political affiliation open to all Africans and their descendants. A space that openly welcomed her African identity and was not mired by a Westernized version of a white Christ nor a blighted Africa in need of white missionaries, was most appealing to her. The visits of UNIA high-ranking women to the Detroit Division throughout 1924 and 1925 also impressed Kofey. The presence of elected and appointed UNIA female officials who spoke openly about the role of both women and men in the building of Africa encouraged Kofey to publicly articulate her own ideas on repatriation, the function of a church and the UNIA itself.

In 1926 Kofey moved to Jacksonville, FL and with the support of the local UNIA membership established the Universal African Orthodox Church. The church focused on helping congregants discover “their right soul.” In order to save the souls of black folk, Kofey believed they would have to see themselves and their relationship to the world differently. To achieve this Kofey’s church taught the history of African countries and the Arabic language to its members, established a separate community in Jacksonville for followers by purchasing adjoining properties and fostered an import export business through which to fund it. While the church went on to some success and its congregants spread over three cities in the South and North, Kofey’s involvement was cut short on March 8, 1928 when she was assassinated at a UNIA meeting in Miami, FL.

This paper will explore Laura Kofey’s contributions to Black Nationalist ideology as well as the costs and consequences of running a secularized church.