Even the strongest of people need a backbone. Someone they can defer to for counsel, warmth, protection and love. For Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), he found that in his older half-sister Ella Little-Collins, whom he crossed paths with when he was in the seventh grade.
Of that experience, Malcolm would recall in his autobiography that Ella Little-Collins “…..was the first really proud black woman I had ever seen in my life. She was plainly proud of her very dark skin. This was unheard of among Negroes. … I had never been so impressed with anybody.”
That fascination and admiration will lead to Malcolm moving to Roxbury to live with her where she served as his guardian from 14 until he turned 21. Malcolm had been shuttled from one foster home to another as his father had died early and his mother, Louise no longer capable of taking care of her children.
Little-Collins was born in 1914 in Butler, Georgia to Earl and Daisy Mason-Little. She served as a secretary for Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., as well as run a store with her sisters. Aside that she was an investor in real estate.
Providing emotional and financial support to Malcolm, Little-Collins served essentially as a surrogate mother for him until 1946.
Little-Collins left Georgia in 1929 with very little to her name, and went to New York to earn a living. From there, she moved to Boston to work at a grocery that her mother was running at the time. A hard worker, she soon began sending money to the relatives remaining in Georgia so that they could also come north. Her father was very proud of her for bringing many family members from Georgia to Boston.
In 1933, Little-Collins married Dr. Thomas Lloyd Oxley, a Jamaican-born follower of Marcus Garvey. Oxley and Little-Collins divorced in 1934. By early 1939, she married her second husband, Frank Johnson lasting nearly four years.
Little-Collins had separated from Frank shortly before Malcolm came to live in Roxbury in 1940. They divorced in June 1942. Malcolm later wrote, “Any average man would find it almost impossible to live for very long with a woman whose every instinct was to run everything and everybody she had anything to do with—including me.”
Little-Collins married Kenneth Collins in June 1942 bearing a child Rodnell in 1945. At this stage although Little-Collins had a family of her own, and Malcolm was in and out of trouble, she never abandoned him. From time to time, when Malcolm returned to her household, she welcomed him. She, however, registered her displeasure with some of the illegal stuff he was involved in.
After Malcolm was convicted of burglary and firearms charges and sent to prison in 1946, Little-Collins sent him money. In 1948, through her efforts, Malcolm was transferred from Concord Prison to the Norfolk, Massachusetts, Prison Colony, where he had access to books and other learning materials which Malcolm ferociously absorbed. It was here also that Malcolm read about history and developed his debating skills.
By 1957, Little-Collins’ third marriage had ended prompting Malcolm to note, Little-Collins was “more driving and dynamic” than the sum of her three husbands.
Because of Malcolm, who had returned from jail having spent six and half years, Little-Collins joined the Nation of Islam, becoming a member of Boston’s Mosque Eleven. Although, thrown out, and later taken back, she left the nation on her own in 1959. She eventually practiced as a Sunni Muslim.
During this time, Little-Collins also started the Sarah A. Little School of Preparatory Arts, in Boston, where children were taught Arabic, as well as Swahili, French, and Spanish. It ran from 1958 to 1968.
When Malcolm was silenced as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam, he decided to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, but lacked funds so he visited Little-Collins, who gave him the funds he used for the Mecca trip in April and May 1964. Although saving for her own pilgrimage, she sacrificed for her little brother.
After Malcolm was assassinated in February 1965, Little-Collins accompanied his widow to the medical examiner’s office in New York to identify the body. She also paid his funeral and business expenses after his assassination, and took over his Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), including his project of giving 35 scholarships from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt and from the University of Ghana to students wishing to study overseas.
She served as interim president and president of the OAAU for a time, as well as, supporting the group financially. Little-Collins continued supporting black causes by donating her time and money.
She eventually moved to a Boston-area nursing home, where she died on August 3, 1996 at the age of 84. In 1988, both of legs were amputated due to gangrene.
The Ella Collins Institute at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center is named after her.