by Tim Gilmore, 12/27/2015
Pan-Africanists had visited Jacksonville before. In the 1880s, the Liberian diplomat and writer Edward Wilmot Blyden stayed at the home of Squire English, the city’s wealthiest black merchant, and preached the return of former American slaves to Africa. But no leader like Laura Adorkor Kofi had ever headquartered in Jacksonville.
Her story’s extraordinary. She claimed to be an African princess who, while deathly ill in Ghana, heard disembodied voices tell her to go to America. When she decided to do as the voices bid, her people were already preparing her funeral pyre.
So she came to New York, met Marcus Garvey, then wandered and preached through Detroit and Chicago. She was destined for Florida, though, where she quickly established her base in Jacksonville.
A Jacksonville reporter for Garvey’s newspaper Negro World said, “The princess speaks every night in the week and twice on Sunday.” Negro World articles throughout the summer of 1927 reported Kofi’s speaking in Jacksonville, Tampa, Miami, and St. Petersburg, holding each “audience spellbound” and bringing hundreds of new recruits to the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Three weeks of nightly preaching in Jacksonville added more than 900 new members.
But from Laura Adorkor Kofi’s first appearance, people had suspicions. She was also known as Laura Adorka Kofey, Laura Adorker Coffey, and Laura Champion. Rumors spread that she was born in or not far from Atlanta, Georgia. Then came the stories of her embezzling UNIA funds.
In September of 1927, Garvey wrote a UNIA agent stationed at the Richmond Hotel in LaVilla, “I have given Mrs. Kofey no authority to collect funds from members for any kind of African exodus. I know nothing of her proposition for saw mills and ships. I shall not be held responsible for her activities in that direction. If the people have been defrauded they have legal recourse. I authorized no one to give her authority to collect funds for such a purpose.”
After her dismissal, Kofi started her own organization based on her considerable Florida following and called it the African Universal Church and Commercial League. Six months later, gunmen entered the Miami church where Kofi was speaking, and one of them put a bullet in her head. The murder was never solved, though authorities suspected UNIA involvement.
After the assassination, a South African named Eli B’usabe Nyombolo and a Sierra Leonean named F. Adineye Ajaye took over the African Universal Church. Sixteen years later, Nyombolo, also known as L’il Brother, headquartered it in a compound he called Adorkaville off New Kings Road on Jacksonville’s far rural and mostly black Northside.
When Nyombolo died in 1970, the remains of Kofi’s original organization split and a small splinter group still operates as the Tabernacle African Universalist Church in a thousand-square-foot Old Kings Road sanctuary built in 1922. They have an official creed, which includes the lines, “I believe in St. Adorka, / the saintly messenger of God.” The creed calls Kofi a martyr.
So does the plaque on Laura Kofi’s whitewashed concrete-block mausoleum in the Old City Cemetery. It reads, “1893 1928 Princess Laura Adorkor Kofi ‘Affectionately known as Mother Kofi’ The Martyred African Princess of Asofa, Ghana (Gold Coast West Africa). Assassinated in the pulpit on March 8, 1928, Miami, Florida. Founder of the African Universal Churches.”
When I walk the dirt road through the 11 acres of Adorkaville, all I see is where several ramshackle wooden buildings have recently collapsed into the earth. The other houses, built by the original members, have already been demolished.
Cicadas scream in the thick trees. The place is more woods than “ville,” and I’m trying to imagine the Africans who supposedly came here to teach Adorkaville residents their native languages.
Maybe it’s the postmodernist in me that’s likewise intrigued by false leads and dead ends that hyperlink in surprising directions. Sometimes I like to sit outside at night and imagine a map of all these connections and disconnections. It would look like a map of the synapses in our brains. Though what’s most present here is
the absence of what was, all around me I feel that long-ago hum, as of cicadas in the encompassing green, of so many lost and invisible cultural, religious, and political circuit boards operating sub rosa in Jim Crow Florida.