Signed in as:
Signed in as:
“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
Marcus Garvey, an early proponent of Pan-Africanism, disembarked from the ship that transported him from Jamaica to New York City in 1916. The young activist had already earned a reputation of being a prolific traveler to African diasporic communities in Costa Rica, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Great Britain and had also toured Glasgow, Paris, Monte Carlo, Boulogne, and Madrid. In every country, including his own, he observed and experienced the overwhelming poverty, lack of rights, and exploitation of Black people. And in every port of his journey, Mr. Garvey took action, sometimes by founding newspapers, encouraging unionism, or writing magazine articles. He also called for the end of white colonial rule in Africa.
He studied African history, law, and elocution and was strongly influenced by the African nationalist playwright, historian, and actor, Dusé Mohamed Ali and Booker T Washington, as well as others. A devout Christian, Mr. Garvey took particular note of Bible passages celebrating Africa. With a sense of great purpose and commitment, he returned to Jamaica from London in 1914 to found the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which came to represent the largest mass movement in African diasporic history.
Mr. Garvey recognized that Harlem had not only become a migratory hub for Caribbeans, but it was also the center of the African American intelligentsia. The Harlem community was emerging as a world influencer of culture, philosophy, activism, and strength, so Garvey was met with great enthusiasm and support: He brought his message of Black nationalism and pride to a place that was already teeming with revolutionary ideas and resolve to create a fair and equitable American society.
After visiting Black communities throughout the United States, in 1917, Marcus Garvey founded the New York branch of the UNIA, located at 235 West 131st Street. UNIA ballooned from its founding in Jamaica in 1914 to 725 branches in the United States and hundreds more around the world. The ideology of the UNIA propagated social and economic empowerment for Black people through economic self-reliance and racial pride. UNIA encouraged racial separatism and racial purity to preserve the “mighty race,” seeking to create a sense of pride and optimism among people who had yet again been denied their rights as American citizens. Garvey declared "Black Is Beautiful" long before it became popular in the 1960s. "We must canonize our own saints, create our own martyrs, and elevate to positions of fame and honor black men and women who have made their distinct contributions to our racial history." He urged parents to give their children "dolls that look like them to play with and cuddle." He clamored for positive thinking, "I am the equal of any white man; I want you to feel the same way."
World War I seemed to be a chance for African Americans to achieve equality and freedom in the United States. Black soldiers, who had sacrificed greatly for this country returned to a country that had embraced their wartime service, but rejected them as Americans on their own soil. Veterans were expected to continue working for little money and accept the same inhumane treatment as before the war. At the same time, thousands of people were migrating north to cities looking for employment and opportunities that were almost non-existent in the Jim Crow south.
Between 1917 and 1919, race riots erupted in East St. Louis, Chicago, Tulsa, and other cities, proving that whites had no intentions of treating African Americans as equal citizens even if they had served valiantly during the war. As Mr. Garvey observed Black people’s sense of betrayal and desperation, he became convinced that the United States would never allow Black people equal status and felt that the only hope was to return to Africa to found a country for Black people of the diaspora. Indeed, it was a controversial idea especially since most African Americans felt as alienated from the continent of their origin as they did from the United States.
Garvey bought an auditorium in Harlem and named it Liberty Hall in 1919. It was pivotal to spreading his message; his nightly gatherings sometimes had an audience of six thousand. He founded Negro World, a newspaper that boasted a circulation estimated to be around 200,000. At one point, UNIA reported that their membership comprised nearly six million followers.
UNIA had a strong, visible presence in the community, which Mr. Garvey created to further a sense of pride and resilience. He founded an African Legion whose members wore military garb in red, black, and green—colors he selected to represent an independent Africa. Uniformed marching bands and groups such as the Black Cross Nurses were created to serve the Black community.
At the first UNIA International Convention in 1920, thousands lined Harlem streets to cheer on Mr. Garvey and his followers, dressed in their military outfits, as they boldly marched under banners that declared, "We Want a Black Civilization" and "Africa Must Be Free." Mr. Garvey, outfitted in a military uniform replete with a plumed hat, was elected as provisional president of Africa by convention participants. The second UNIA International Convention in 1922, featured luminaries such as Potentate Gabriel Johnson of Liberia and Supreme Deputy G.O. Marke of Sierra Leone. Under Garvey’s tutelage, Harlem almost seemed to be an independent African American nation.
Mr. Garvey believed that capitalism was key to the success of nation building. "Until you produce what the white man has produced," he claimed, "you will not be his equal." He established the Negro Factories Corporation offering stock to African American investors and foresaw Black people producing all that a nation needed to prosper and be self-reliant. The corporation operated grocery stores, restaurants, a printing plant, a steam laundry, and owned several buildings and trucks and even a toy company that made Black dolls.
A 1919 economic venture that promoted his popularity was a shipping company, the Black Star Line. Not only did Garvey envision promoting international and national trade, but he wanted to provide transportation to Africa to support his “Back to Africa” campaign. However, the Black Star Line could not survive the cost of expensive repairs, mismanagement, and corruption. Although the businesses may not have been totally successful and even drew fire from the Bureau of Investigation (BOI)—today’s FBI—Garvey had victories in other areas. In 1922, the country's first Black pilot, Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, became a Garveyite and entertained audiences with his aerial stunts, which improved the status of the UNIA. The UNIA also founded the Booker T. Washington University located in the UNIA-run Phillis Wheatley Hotel on West 136th Street. And one of Mr. Garvey’s most memorable accomplishments was securing a UNIA five-member delegation to the League of Nations, that attended proceedings in Geneva, Switzerland.
BOI director, J. Edgar Hoover, targeted Garvey with a vengeance, labeling him a “notorious negro agitator” and a danger to America. The Bureau hired their first Black agent whose sole job was to spy on Garvey and the UNIA. Hoover accused Garvey of mail fraud for producing an investment brochure that included a photo of a ship before the Black Star Line actually owned it. In 1923, after a controversial trial, Garvey was found guilty of these charges and given a five-year prison sentence. While incarcerated in 1925, he authored his famous paper, “First Message to the Negroes of the World from Atlanta Prison.” Garvey wrote, “After my enemies are satisfied, in life or death I shall come back to you to serve even as I have served before. In life I shall be the same; in death I shall be a terror to the foes of Negro liberty. If death has power, then count on me in death to be the real Marcus Garvey I would like to be. If I may come in an earthquake, or a cyclone, or plague, or pestilence, or as God would have me, then be assured that I shall never desert you and make your enemies triumph over you.”
When his sentence was commuted two years later, Garvey was immediately deported to Jamaica. He travelled to Switzerland, to address the League of Nations on issues of race and the worldwide abuse of people of color. Upon his return to Jamaica, he established the People’s Political Party to focus on the poor and workers’ rights. It was the nation’s first modern political organization. Thereafter, he moved to London permanently, continued to write, and coordinated the establishment of the School of African Philosophy in Toronto to train future leaders of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which had over a thousand chapters worldwide.
Mr. Garvey died in England in 1940, leaving a legacy that helped shape future generations of Black leaders and organizations from the Nation of Islam to the Rastafarians. Marcus Garvey's UNIA was bigger than the Civil Rights Movement and his influence extended well beyond the borders of the United States to the Caribbean, Canada, and Africa.