The Murder – March 8, 1928

 

It was an overcast evening, dampened by light showers as the crowd moved into Fox Thomson’s Hall in Liberty City. They had come to hear “Mother Kofi,” the lecturer and missionary whom the community, and indeed many of the nation’s urban black population had come to know over the past two years. As a speaker for the Universal Negro Improvement Association in recent years, thousands had flocked to hear her impassioned speeches on the need for the black population to reclaim their native patrimony by returning to Africa. However, when she founded the African Universal Church the year before and began mixing the UNIA’s purely secular goals with deeply religious overtones, the relationship had become bitter. When she split off from UNIA, she took with her most of their local members to her church. UNIA felt betrayed and irate.  Tension and anger were running high.

 

Tonight’s rally was to be her first as a member of the African Universal Church, and Mother Kofi was not surprised there were more than a few UNIA hecklers in the crowd. Shortly before 10 PM, she stepped up to the podium, motioned to her bodyguard to sit down (unusual for her), and opened the Bible to begin a reading from the 13th chapter of Isaiah to open the evening. But there was no chance for her to utter a sound before one of a small group of high-ranking UNIA supporters stepped inside the doors, and from fifty feet, shot two bullets into her head. Mother Kofi was dead before she hit the floor.

 

The crowd turned in rage on the man who had apparently fired the shots. In true Old Testament biblical fashion, he was beaten and stoned to death by bricks before police could even arrive.

 

Two murders in a matter of minutes had not only killed the revered Kofi and her alleged assailant. The events of that night turned Mother Kofi into an instant martyr and marked the end of the UNIA in Miami. But who was this woman who had been assassinated at the pulpit? Who was Mother Kofi?

 

Prelude – Saints & Sinners, 1917-1928

 

 

Around 1917-1918, a woman said to be from the Gold Coast of Africa, whose stated age at the time would have ranged from 25 to 43 (the former is likely closest to the mark) arrived in the United States. She was known as Laura Adorkor Kofi; her last name would be spelt in other variations – frequently Kofey, but also Kofy and Koffey. Based on evidence recently discovered in the tattered burial ledgers of Miami’s Pharr Funeral Home, Kofi was born in Accra, Africa on April 26, 1892. At the time of her death Pharr’s records noted she was the wife of a Joseph Koffey, indicating Adorkor was her maiden name.

The funeral ledger also recorded that the provider of the information supplied to Pharr was an Inez Koffey, of Jacksonville, Florida – a town with which Laura would be closely identified. Despite the ledger being contemporary with her death, no record whatsoever can be found of Joseph or Inez Koffey (under the variations of the surname) in any public records or newspaper articles. As of now, all we must go by is that in the USA she was consistently referred to as Laura Adorkor Kofi.

She was also referred to as being an African Princess, the daughter of Knesiphi, one of the “seven kings” of Africa’s Gold Coast (later Ghana), and was said to have been born near Accra. Skeptical reporters would typically put quotation marks around her title, while detractors would claim she was not African at all, but had been born Laura Champion in Athens, GA. This allegation was successfully dispelled in 2008 by religious history scholar Richard S. Newman, who compiled compelling evidence Kofi was born in Ghana. So, whether she was a princess of not, it is safe to state she was an African by birth.

After coming to the United States, she apparently lived in Detroit for several years. Some sources said she was a Red Cross nurse, while others were certain she had worked in New Orleans as a teacher. A strong activist for Blacks, no one, whether they were followers or detractors, would dispute that she was a powerful, inspiring speaker. In the early 1920s, she joined the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), as a field director. It would prove to be a critical turning point in her life.

The UNIA had been founded in 1914 by Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), the controversial political activist, publisher, orator and President of the Black Star shipping line Marcus Garvey (1887-1940). Strictly secular in nature, the UNIA held no religious affiliation. In broad strokes, the organization’s goal was to unite all of Africa and its diaspora into “one grand racial hierarchy,” by facilitating the return of Africans to their ancestral homeland and to promote black nationalism. Its growth was rapid. Garvey inaugurated the New York Division (or chapter) in 1917 with 13 members. Within three months dues-paying membership had reached 3,500. By 1920 there were more than 1,900 Divisions in over 40 countries.

Kofi’s rise within the organization was rapid and she soon became their National Field Director and a sought-after spokesperson. Vilbert White, wrote in an essay on her that “She said she had a revelation to liberate African-American people, to take them on the right course, back to the promised land, Africa, and to create an independent community, a cultural, independent community…within months she becomes the most popular figure in that group [the UNIA], except for Marcus Garvey.” Garvey sent her throughout the Deep South to attract more members to the UNIA. With Jacksonville, FL as her home base, Kofi traveled extensively promoting the UNIA and was spectacularly successful. In Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee and every town and city where she spoke Kofi attracted crowds of up to 15,000 people.

Garvey, who was in an Atlanta Penitentiary, having been indicted for mail fraud related to his Black Star shipping line, initially remained supportive of Kofi. It was only when she began introducing religion into the picture that a serious rift between the two began. The UNIA had steadfastly avoided any involvement with religious matters and maintained a passive understanding with local churches not to impinge on their place in the heart of African American communities.

As early as 1925 Kofi was being considered a leader in the “Back to Africa” movement, particularly in the South. In May that year, while still ostensibly representing the UNIA, she spoke for an entire week (and twice on Sunday) and she credited with securing 900 new members to the UNIA. By now, however, her religious fervor was subsuming the UNIA’s message. The press hailed her as a “real conscientious race lover…and a radical one too.” Kofi claimed to have a “burning message from the kings of the Gold Coast, West Africa…that the door is now opened in the Gold Coast to the four hundred million Negroes of the world, and no power can shut it out until all have entered.”

Kofi claimed to have been sent by her father and her people in America to find “the lost children of Africa” and take them home. She relayed plans to build sawmills in Alabama to pay for leased Japanese boats to carry out this mass exodus to Africa, where they would find a city especially made for them “entirely of pearls.” Kofi claimed to have met with the imprisoned Garvey and to have received his blessings for her efforts. It was around this time that Garvey followers and skeptics, perhaps jealous, claimed Kofi was not from Africa at all; that far from being a princess she was just plain Laura Champion, that she hailed from Athens, GA, or perhaps Detroit, maybe New Orleans, that instead of being a Princess, she was a Red Cross nurse, or possibly a school teacher. Interestingly, none of these claims had surfaced when she was a rising star for Garvey and the UNIA.

In 1927 Kofi, proclaiming herself a prophet, founded the African Universal Church, based in Jacksonville. Her self-bestowed title was the “Warrior Mother of Africa’s Warriors of the Most High God’. Despite the UNIA’s strict nondenominational stance, Kofi apparently saw no conflict between the UNIA and her church. Garvey, from prison, saw it differently. In August, Kofi and several other UNIA members visited Garvey in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. They had a private conversation. What was discussed remains unknown, but apparently their meeting did not end in a particularly amicable fashion. Deciding that she was building too much of a following independent of the UNIA, Garvey denounced her publicly on October 10, 1927, stating “The woman is a fake and has no authority from me to speak,” and strongly encouraged his followers to have her arrested for fraud.

In November 1927, Garvey was pardoned by President Coolidge and was eventually deported, via New Orleans to his native Jamaica. His deportation diminished UNIA’s popularity greatly in the United States, and perhaps for that reason, Kofi began breaking away from the organization, although she continued to speak to UNIA chapters throughout Florida. Despite some misgivings over her personal safety, there was little stopping Kofi from mixing black nationalism with prophetic religious messages. She began to speak regularly on Sundays, which emptied the church pews and upset the delicate balance between the UNIA and local ministries. She frequently preached “I am a representative from the Gold Coast of Africa, seeking the welfare of Africa’s children everywhere. God called me out of Africa to come over here and tell you, His people, what he would have you do.” The upper tier of the UNIA became even more suspicious of their most renowned speaker and saw to it she was expelled from Miami. After Garvey’s pardon, Kofi had felt her life may itself could be in danger and returned to Jacksonville, which she felt safer and certainly more welcome.

Undeterred, Kofi continued to speak throughout Florida, ostensibly, and inexplicably, on behalf of the UNIA (although by this time she had apparently resigned from the organization), but at the same time she perversely criticized their activities. She is said to have collected $19,000 during this speaking tour (over $275,000 in present value), which was apparently disrupted when UNIA chapters in St. Petersburg and Jacksonville had her arrested, for reasons that remain unclear. While jailed in Jacksonville, Kofi was strip-searched to discover, so her enemies claimed, if she had “voodoo roots” on her body to explain her undeniable charismatic power. To their dismay, no such growths could be found. A policeman supposedly said to her, “Princess, we did not put you in here. Your own people got you in here.”

Feathers still unruffled, Kofi returned to Miami in early March 1928, living in her home at 4045 Grand Avenue in Coconut Grove, and resuming her speaking engagements at UNIA halls and local churches, much to the consternation, confusion and anger of the local UNIA leaders.  Particularly uneasy were Claude Green, president of the local division, Maxwell Cook and James Nimmo, captain and colonel respectively, of the uniformed branch of the local division. Nimmo wired Garvey on March 7th, inquiring if, perhaps during Kofi and Garvey’s private conversation the previous August, Garvey had decided to countenance Kofi’s “Return to Africa” preaching. Garvey promptly responded, stating Kofi had no authority from him to collect money for an “exodus” to Africa, and again denounced her as a fraud.

Immediately on receipt of Garvey’s response, the three men, cablegram in hand, went to Liberty Hall (the name given to all UNIA Halls in the country), to confront Kofi while she was speaking. As the crowd was overwhelmingly composed of Kofi followers, they resorted to jeering, causing a division between the minority in the crowd still loyal to Garvey and those who had entered Kofi’s fold. Before the situation got out of hand, police padlocked the building, prohibiting either side from using the hall. Undeterred, Kofi, not to be outdone by Garvey, announced she would continue speaking at Fox Thomson’s Hall, at NW 15th Street and 5th Avenue, commencing the following evening, March 8, 1928.

 

Aftermath of an Assassination – 1928

It took only seconds before the stunned crowd of over 200 followers realized what had transpired as Princess Laura Adorkor Kofi fell to the floor of Fox Thomson’s Hall. Death was instantaneous. While two of the three UNIA leaders present, Claude Green and James Nimmo, had managed to escape into the dark, cloudy night, Maxwell Cook was not so fortunate, nor was his death quite as quick. The enraged mob brutally attacked Cook. The 33-year old Cook was stabbed, beaten with fists and pummeled with chairs, rocks and bricks until he was not only dead, but mutilated almost beyond recognition. As one report put it, Cook was “left dead on the field of combat.”

When the police arrived, armed with sawed-off shotguns, they were confronted with a frenzied mob of rioters (by then reported to have ballooned to over 1,000). The region was swarming with a multitude who were distraught, furious and looking for vengeance. For two hours police managed to keep the volatile situation under some semblance of control until shortly after midnight, when the coroner’s jury ordered the removal of the bodies of Kofi and Cook. While it was believed that several people in the crowd had been injured in the riot, some severely, officers were unable to locate them. After a relative calm had been restored, safety precautions were taken throughout the “negro quarters of Miami,” with a special patrol maintained throughout the night and early morning to prevent any reoccurrence of violence. Throughout the dark hours until daybreak, dim lights burned behind locked doors and shuttered windows as the black population from Coconut Grove to Liberty City tried to come to grips with what had happened.

The body of the slain Kofi was taken to Pharr Funeral Home at 1025 N.WE. 2nd Avenue, where she was embalmed, her burial outfit purchased and her body dressed (the total cost of which, including assistants was $99.00 – a present day value of $1,453) in preparation of what would be the first of several funeral services. His services were requested by “UNIA officials” and Pharr’s bill was paid by the organization.

While Kofi’s body was being readied for viewing, that of her alleged assailant, Maxwell Cook, was transported to another funeral home, but, in one of those strange twists of fate, he would be buried at Lincoln Memorial Park, which was owned by Kelsey Pharr.

The newspaper headlines the next day were either lurid or condescending. “Negro Faction Fight Results In Two Killed – ‘Princess’ Shot While in Pulpit And Slayer Is Mangled in Riot” was certain to sell newspapers, while “Fuss In Negro Church, 2 Die” was a good example of the dismissive manner all to often used when referring to Miami’s black population.

The Miami News reported that an investigation was being conducted into the “troubled affairs” of a negro religious sect aligned with Marcus Garvey (obviously the UNIA, but unnamed by the reporter). The article made note of his troubled Black Star Line shipping and passenger line, and his reparation plans to use Black Star as the way to transport  blacks to emigrate to Africa, noting that the sect which had defected (also not named in the press but clearly the African Universal Church) had divided the UNIA and “Garveyism”  and Kofi’s new church into two groups for some time.

Another syndicated article, which appeared on March 10th, read “’Princess’ Dies Following Attack,” referring to Kofi as a “self-styled African princess.” Without mentioning the UNIA or Garvey, the article reported the late princess had been sent from the Gold Coast to induce negroes to “return to Africa in a colonization movement.” The article continued that Kofi recently stated she had been arrested many times but was never convicted. It does appear Kofi had been indicted six times in Jacksonville, twice in Tampa, and detained in St. Petersburg over recent years, for allegedly extorting money under false pretenses. As far as can be determined, despite the many arrests, Kofi appears to have been telling the truth – she was never found guilty of any crime. It is not inconceivable that some of the accusations that resulted in her being detained, at least in the last year or so had been orchestrated in some fashion by the UNIA.

The first of several funeral services were held March 11th  at Pharr’s Funeral Home.  The throng of mourners were so overwhelming it was said the funeral home charged 25 cents for a moment’s glimpse of Kofi in repose (as there were multiple funerals, involving multiple funeral homes, it is not clear which profited from Kofi’s death). From Pharr’s parlors, the cortege, with an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 mourners following in its wake, traveled 66 miles to West Palm Beach for a second memorial service. More funerals and memorial services followed, in Daytona Beach, St. Augustine and virtually every city or town in which the cortege stopped. In many cases, so many hundreds of people from the black communities crowded the sidewalks to pa their respects that street traffic had to be diverted.

When the procession finally arrived in Jacksonville, there was a final funeral service. But there was no burial. The St. Petersburg and Tampa congregations of her church were strongly advocating for Kofi’s remains to be returned to Africa, while the Jacksonville congregation, the largest of her churches, was vehemently arguing that she should be buried there. And then a surprise threw everyone off balance when cablegrams arrived on March 19th that the oft mentioned but never seen King Knesiphi of The Gold Coast would be coming to “sift” through the death of Kofi, who he confirmed was his daughter. Not only did this throw a wrench into a possible burial, some were concerned that his probing threatened to open a whole new round of allegations regarding Kofi, Garvey and the circumstances which led to her murder.

The cables were received by the majority faction of the African Universal Church, who had initiated a civil suit to obtain possession of church property, according to Collins & Collins, the law firm representing them. It didn’t state who they were suing, but the most logical answer is the UNIA.  The rest of the article revealed some other most interesting pieces of information.

For example, Knesiphi was reported to have sent Kofi to the United States to train blacks for military service in Liberia. The article stated that both Claude Green and James Nimmo had been sent to Miami by “exiled liberator” Marcus Garvey to “frustrate investigation of monies he was alleged to have collected in Miami and elsewhere to outfit ships with which to transport the negroes back to their homeland.” Instead, these monies were alleged to have gone into Garvey’s own pockets. Green and Nimmo, it continued, were also to prepare the negroes in Miami for the arrival of a Garvey emissary who would revive his sinking movement, and who would most likely attempt to collect more money.

The article stated that is was Claude Green who had fired the fatal shots that killed Kofi, while Nimmo had stood at the church door and given Green the signal when to shoot. According to “negro circles,” Garvey had promised both Green and Nimmo they would be “well rewarded” for their services if successful. This posed the question – did the congregation kill the wrong man?

Collins & Collins stated that the “seven kings of the Gold Coast” had repudiated Garvey and his plans sometime ago, primarily because Garvey wanted to keep the negroes in his own African colony, while the “seven kings” had seen this reparation as an opportunity to open up  profitable trade with the States. It was only after they had repudiated Garvey that Kofi was sent to America to ascertain the extent of Garvey’s duplicity, and to warn possibly gullible negros “to beware of him.”

As a result of what was referred to as Garvey’s “machinations,” many Miami negroes had donated up to $600 (a small fortune with a present value of almost $9,000). The story ignored one basic question – how many negroes in Miami at this time had that type of money? In the aftermath of Kofi’s murder, the only thing left to show for the millions of dollars Garvey had reportedly collected from a segment of society who could least afford it, was $60,000 worth of machinery, supposedly to be used in Garvey’s new African “kingdom.” Three ships which had been purchased by Garvey to transport his followers to Africa had never been turned over to this proposed colony.

Garvey, who had been deported due to his questionable money-making schemes, was said to be continuing his efforts from Jamaica to stage a return to power. When he learned of Kofi’s arrival in the United States to check into his allegedly dubious schemes, it was rumored he decided to put an end to her “career” with the bold stroke of assassination. The article boldly continued that Garvey’s written instructions to his “agents in Miami” were to “kill the Princess.” These written instructions, the article said, had been discovered and had been turned over to Federal authorities.

It made for sensational reading, but apparently nothing came of it. The damming instructions were never produced, proof that Green had fired the fatal bullets was never provided, the question of how most negroes could afford to donate such large amounts of money was never answered, and the elusive King Knesiphi never stepped foot in the United States. Now it was time for Green and Nimmo to stand before judge and jury.

On March 22nd, while these rumors whirled around the community, the Dade County Grand Jury returned first-degree murder indictments against Green and Nemo. A month late the case was docketed for trial, to commence on June 28th. On Jun 18th, Judge H.F. Atkinson, at the request of State Attorney N. Vernon Hawthorne, agreed to delay the trial until July 4th as Hawthorne stated he hadn’t had time to “get his witnesses together.” The jury was to be sworn in on July 4th, with testimony to begin the following day.

Meanwhile, in the months following the indictments, Green and Nimmo had made nation-wide appeals for money to fund their defense. A copy of the newspaper “Negro World” (edited by Garvey) described the two as “active agents of Garvey” and innocent of murder. Garvey’s followers and other opponents of the anti-Garvey organization referred to as the Afro-American Religious and Commercial League (no information could be found the this obscure organization), for which it was stated Kofi was a “special field organizer, dredged up the now tired claims of Kofi being an American born in Georgia,  with no right to any royal title. Kofi’s supporters, however, staunchly persisted to referring to Kofi as “Princess,” and hinted that a cablegram from Garvey was at the bottom of this royal dispute.

On July 5th, the day after the jury was sworn in, the actual trial began with the jury being taken on a field trip to the scene of the shooting, Fox Thomson’s Hall, which was being used as a church at the time of her murder. The following day three witnesses pointed to Green as the gunman and Nemo as the accomplice who gave the signal to shoot. The State rested on July 6th, after just two days of testimony. The defense was expected to call 20 witnesses, but it was still anticipated the case would reach the jury before the end of the day on July 9th. Green took the stand and swore he was at home the night of the shooting, and wasn’t even present, while Nimmo claimed he was outside of the Hall talking with friends when the shooting occurred.

With both sides resting as scheduled the case was handed over to the jury. For a case that had dominated the headlines and been mired in religious and political controversy for months, the verdict was quick in coming. Green and Nimmo were both found innocent and walked out of the courthouse free. It was left to Maxwell Cook, lying in a simple grave at Lincoln Memorial Park to forever be associated as the killer of Kofi. Dead men tell no tales.

Although the trial was over, it took another month to finally decide where Kofi should be buried. Until the last moment it was unclear whether she would rest in Jacksonville or be taken back to Africa. After her murder over five months before, her body had been stored in Jacksonville for several months while the Jacksonville, St. Petersburg and Tampa branches of her church vigorously debated.

Jacksonville won. On August 16, 1928, Kofi, referred to in the press as a “Nubian Princess,” swathed in a way reminiscent of Egyptian mummies in robes of black, green and red, was placed in an impressive bronze casket. After final prayers before a sea of 10,000 mourners, the casket was entombed in a specially built mausoleum in Jacksonville’s City Cemetery, the door sealed for eternity. The number of people paying visits or worshiping at her tomb has dwindled over the more than 90 years since her burial, but one can occasionally still see the faithful who make the pilgrimage.

The day Kofi was assassinated remains a sacred day to those who remain devoted to Kofi’s church and meet at her tomb every March 8th to remember and pay tribute. While there can’t be more than a handful of people alive who were even born before Kofi was slain, there are many who still recall the tales as they were passed down through three generations of followers …and then there is the story of nearby Adorkaville.

 

The Lost Town of Adorkaville

Some sources state that Kofi had already identified her successor as head of the African Universal Church before her death. Others say her assassination prompted a search for her successor. The latter is more likely, as the 1930 census shows her successor as still living in New York. He was Eli B’usabe Nyombolo (often called “L’il Brother”), a South African with strong ties to the Zulu Community. Under his guidance, the church continued to expand, sending missionaries to Africa and opening branches in Florida, Alabama, New York and the Gold Coast of Africa. It established prayer bands, industrial clubs and classes in Black history. Services were conducted in English and in Bantu.

 

 

In 1944, Nyombolo moved to the church to an 11-acre parcel of land off the forested dirt New Kings Road in Jacksonville’s rural and mostly Black, northside. He named the church community compound Adorkaville, in honor of Kofi. Helping black people feel connected to Africa was part of the church’s role, one of Nyombolo’s daughters remembered. “This was to carry out what the princess taught, what she wanted, a better relationship between Africa and America. Her thing was ‘What about your identity? You came from Africa. Be proud of who you are.”

Despite material shortages during the war years, a church and 14 houses were eventually finished along a forested dirt road, Dabula Drive, where members built their own homes on land leased from the church. Reorganized as the Missionary African Universal Church, Nymbolo led his flock until his death in 1970. Under his guidance, the Church did well as an African Community, and imported crafts and other goods from Africa, exporting tools and equipment in exchange.

Nyombolo’s death was followed by dissension, infighting and eventually a schism within the church. This led to the remains of Kofi’ original organization splitting off, and a small splinter group, the Tabernacle African Universalist Church, began operating in a 1,000 square-foot sanctuary built in 1922 on Old Kings Road. Their creed, which includes “I Believe in St. Adorka – the Saintly Messenger of God,” acknowledges Kofi as a martyr.

By 2013, Jacksonville had condemned and demolished most of the remaining buildings in Adorkaville, and all the remained was three houses and a church which had been condemned. By 2015, a visitor could see where several wooden buildings had collapsed to the ground. A handful of wooden crosses stood alone, mute witnesses to what had once been a humble, yet promising community.

The Tabernacle African Universalist Church the offshoot of Kofi’s original church, most recently under the leadership of Deacon Kevin Keyes, has survived, although only a few dozen members come to services. Like their parent, the Missionary African Universal Church and its members, their flock, which also acknowledges Kofi as their founder and martyr, do come together at least one day a year. Every March 8th both congregations join at the Old City Cemetery to leave flower at the Mausoleum of their founder.

We can leave the final word to a Central Florida historian. “She could easily become lost in American History.” There have been proposals in recent years to have Adorkaville designated a historic landmark.

That would certainly help fill a void in the history of Black Florida. Princess Laura Adorkor Kofi does not deserve to be forgotten…and if her small but devoted followers persist, she will still be remembered a hundred years from now.