Obituary: Ella Collins

Ella Collins was the half-sister and guardian and in later life a trusted adviser of the black Muslim and radical leader Malcolm X. After his assassination in 1965 she took over the group he founded, the Organisation of Afro-American Unity, but later converted to orthodox Islam.

Malcolm said of her in his Autobiography that she was "the first really proud black woman I had ever seen". She was "plainly proud of her very black skin", he added, which was "unheard of among Negroes in those days". She was active as a businesswoman, a teacher, a civil rights worker and a religious leader.

Malcolm, whose original surname was Little, was the son of the Rev Earl Little, a Baptist preacher and an organiser for Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association in Michigan. Earl Little was a jet-black- skinned man, four of whose six brothers had been killed by white men, one by lynching.

Ella Collins was one of Earl Little's three children by a previous marriage. She was brought up in Georgia, then moved to Boston. Earl Little married again, a light-skinned woman from Grenada in the West Indies, Louise, whose father was white.

In 1931 Earl Little was killed in a streetcar accident. His son Malcolm believed he was murdered by a white vigilante group called Black Legion. For a while Louise Little struggled to bring up her children but, after a relationship with a man broke up, she had a breakdown and she spent the last 28 years of her life in a mental hospital in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In 1940 Malcolm's half-sister Ella Little Collins appeared like a guardian angel and invited the boy, then aged 15, to stay with her in Boston.

Ella Little grew up in Georgia, then moved to New York, where she became secretary to the brilliant but frequently outrageous black congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, who represented Harlem. She later moved to Boston, where she managed her mother's grocery store and invested in house property, which she let out as rooming houses. She lived in Waumbeck Street in what was known as Sugar Hill, the most prosperous part of Roxbury, the black neighbourhood in Boston. To her half-brother it seemed she was "busily involved in dozens of things", including clubs and civil rights groups.

Malcolm was thrilled by the bright lights of Boston and reassured by his half-sister's strength and confidence. When he went back to Lansing, he wrote to her, saying he wanted to move to Boston and live with her. She arranged for official custody of the boy (now a ward of the state) to be transferred from Michigan to Massachusetts.

"No physical move in my life," Malcolm wrote later, "has been more pivotal or profound in its repercussions. All praise is due to Allah that I went to Boston when I did. If I hadn't, I'd probably be a brainwashed black Christian."

At about that time Ella Collins broke up with her second husband, a soldier called Frank. (Her first husband was a doctor, and she later married for a third time.) She had paid, with the money she made from her rented property, for several members of the family to move from Georgia to Boston.

Since her days working for Adam Clayton Powell, Collins had been committed to the struggle for civil rights, but in the 1950s Malcolm persuaded her to join the Nation of Islam, the so-called "black Muslims", founded by Elijah Muhammad, another disciple of Marcus Garvey. She helped to establish the Nation's mosque in Boston and a day-care centre attached to it.

When Malcolm became interested in Islam world-wide, as opposed to the Elijah Muhammad version of it, it was Ella Collins who paid for his first visit to Mecca. When he said he wanted to make the pilgrimage, she replied simply, "How much do you need?", although she herself as a Muslim convert would have liked to make the journey, and she and Malcolm had disagreed on many questions.

They talked all night about his visit, which was to take him not only to Mecca but to Cairo, Beirut and West Africa, and marked a critical change in his political orientation in the direction of a less confrontational, more positive attitude.

In 1959 she left the Nation of Islam and became an orthodox Sunni Muslim. She set up the Sarah A. Little School of Preparatory Arts in Boston, where children were taught Arabic, Swahili, French and Spanish as well as other subjects.

When Malcolm was killed, she drove from Boston to New York to identify the body and helped organise the funeral, a major event in the development of a separatist consciousness among African Americans and also in alerting white opinion to the changing mood among urban blacks.

She told an interviewer a few years ago that Malcolm's murderers "took something from me that I put a lot into". Malcolm, she believed, was "at the point where he could become stronger than ever. I could see Malcolm becoming the greatest black man in the history of the world."

In recent years she suffered a number of strokes and both her legs had to be amputated as a result of diabetes. She left a son, two grandchildren, three brothers and a sister.

Ella Little (Ella Collins), civil rights activist: born 1914; married three times (one son); died 3 August 1996.

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