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Marcus Garvey

Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr. was born on August 17, 1887 as the youngest of eleven children in St Ann’s Bay, Jamaica to Marcus Mosiah Garvey Sr. a mason and Sarah Jane Richards, a domestic worker. Only his sister Indiana, along with Marcus survived to adulthood. His family was financially stable given the circumstances of this time period. Garvey’s father had a large library, and it was from his father that Marcus gained his love for reading. He also attended elementary schools in St. Ann’s Bay during his youth. In 1907, he took part in an unsuccessful printer’s strike and the experience kindled in him a passion for political activism. In 1910 Garvey left Jamaica and began traveling throughout Central America. Over time, Marcus Garvey became influenced by civil rights activities in America at the time and by the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s. He ultimately combined the economic nationalist ideas of Booker T. Washington and Pan-Africanism, the idea of economically connecting people of African descent around the world. After years of working in the Caribbean Garvey left Jamaica to live in London from 1912 to 1914, where he attended Birkbeck College taking classes in law and philosophy. In 1914, Garvey returned to Jamaica, where he organized the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). It took root and spread quickly in urban areas in the United States including in Miami. The UNIA held an international convention in 1921 at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Garvey attracted more than 50,000 people to the event. The UNIA had 65,000 to 75,000 members paying dues. In Jamaica where he was idolized, at least at first, Garvey became the most influential leader of the early 1920’s.

In 1910 Garvey left Jamaica and began traveling throughout Central America. Over time, Marcus Garvey became influenced by civil rights activities in America at the time and by the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s. He ultimately combined the economic nationalist ideas of Booker T. Washington and Pan-Africanism, the idea of economically connecting people of African descent around the world. He is shown here with his wife and son.

After corresponding with Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Garvey traveled to the U.S., arriving on March 23, 1916. His reason for the trip was to make a lecture tour and to raise funds to establish a school in Jamaica modeled after Washington’s Institute. Garvey visited Tuskegee and afterward visited with a number of black leaders. After moving to New York, he found work as a printer by day. On some nights he spoke on street corners much as he had done in London’s Hyde Park. Garvey thought there was a leadership vacuum among African Americans. On May 9, 1916, he held his first public lecture in New York and undertook a 38-state speaking tour.

The next year in May 1917, Garvey and thirteen others formed the first UNIA division outside Jamaica. They began advancing ideas to promote social, political, and economic freedom for black people. On July 2, the East St. Louis race riots broke out resulting in the deaths of several blacks. On July, 8, Garvey delivered an address in Harlem entitled, “The Conspiracy of the East St. Louis Riots.” During the speech he declared the riot was one of the bloodiest outrages against mankind and condemned America’s claims to represent democracy when black people were victimized “for no other reason than they are black people seeking an industrial chance in a country that they have laboured for three hundred years to make great.” He said this was the time to “lift one’s voice against the savagery of a people who claim to be the dispensers of democracy.” This kind of ranting and the crowds Garvey was attracting made some white America nervous. On August 17, 1918, Garvey began publishing the Negro World newspaper in New York, which was widely distributed around the country. Garvey worked as an editor without pay until November 1920. He used the newspaper as a platform for his views. By June 1919 the membership of the organization had grown to over two million, according to its records which some say were questionable. Even so, Marcus Garvey had become a lightning rod in urban America. He was the Malcolm X of the era.

On June 27, 1919, the UNIA set up its first business incorporating the Black Star Line of Delaware, with Garvey as President. The ships were to be used to transport African Americans who wished to return to Africa and for transporting the various goods and commodities Garvey believed could be developed by black-owned businesses around the world. By September, it acquired its first ship. With much fanfare the S.S. Yarmouth was reborn as the S.S. Frederick Douglass on September 14, 1919. During the first year, the Black Star Line’s stock sales brought in 600,000 dollars but the line had numerous problems during the next two years including mechanical breakdowns on its ships.

By August 1920, the UNIA claimed four million members. The number has been questioned because of the organization’s poor record keeping. That month, the International Convention of the UNIA was held. With delegates from all over the world attending, 25,000 people filled Madison Square Garden on 1 August 1920 to hear Garvey speak. Over the next couple of years, Garvey’s movement was able to attract an enormous number of followers including in Miami’s Colored Town now called Overtown. In the 1920’s the largest building in Colored Town was the UNIA building where hundreds of blacks gathered on Sunday afternoons for education in black history. Most of the members in the Miami chapter were of Bahamian descent and were working class people. African Americans, particularly school teachers, were seen as too scared to join. Ann Marie Adker, now deceased, was of Bahamian descent and was the undisputed “mayor of Overtown.” When I interviewed her in the 1970’s. She told me her father was a member of Garvey’s organization and on every Sunday afternoon, “That’s where we would be.” She said Garvey came to town and she saw him. “He was the blackest man I ever saw,” she said. The Miami Garvey building burned down mysteriously. James Nimmo, who was a Bahamian immigrant who arrived in Miami in 1916 was in his 90’s when I interviewed him in 1979. He died the following year. Nimmo was a very active member in the Miami chapter of Garvey’s UNIA. He told me that the KKK was suspected of having lighted the flames that burned down the huge wooden building the UNIA owned in Colored Town. Nimmo said that UNIA members confronted the KKK in Miami and that when the Klan rode through Colored Town, “all of us did not hide.” He was especially critical of middle and upper class “Negroes” who avoided the UNIA. He said they were too afraid of losing their comfortable jobs.

On June 27, 1919, the UNIA set up its first business incorporating the Black Star Line of Delaware, with Garvey as President. The ships were to be used to transport African Americans who wished to return to Africa and for transporting the various goods and commodities Garvey believed could be developed by black-owned businesses around the world. By September, it acquired its first ship. With much fanfare the S.S. Yarmouth was reborn as the S.S. Frederick Douglass on September 14, 1919. During the first year, the Black Star Line’s stock sales brought in 600,000 dollars but the line had numerous problems during the next two years including mechanical breakdowns on its ships.

In a memorandum dated October 11, 1919, J. Edgar Hoover, special assistant to the U.S. Attorney General at the time and head of the Bureau of Investigation (BOI) which became known as the FBI after 1935, wrote regarding Garvey: “Unfortunately, however, he [Garvey] has not as yet violated any federal law whereby he could be proceeded against on the grounds of being an undesirable alien, from the point of view of deportation.” Sometime around November 1919, the Bureau of Investigation began an investigation into the activities of Garvey and the UNIA. Toward this end, the Bureau, which would later become the FBI hired James Edward Amos, Arthur Lowell Brent, Thomas Leon Jefferson, James Wormley Jones, and Earl E. Titus as its first five African-American agents hired specifically to get Garvey. Although initial efforts to get Garvey on deportable grounds failed a charge of mail fraud was brought against Garvey in connection with stock sales of the Black Star Line after the U.S. Post Office and the U.S. Attorney General joined the investigation. The accusation centered on the fact that the corporation had not yet purchased a ship which had appeared in a Black Star Line brochure emblazoned with the name “Phyllis Wheatley” on its bow. The prosecution stated that the ship pictured with that name had not actually been purchased by the Black Star Line and still had the name “Orion” at the time; thus the misrepresentation of the ship as a Black Star Line-owned vessel constituted fraud. The brochure had been produced in anticipation of the purchase of the ship, which appeared to be on the verge of completion at the time. However, “registration of the Phyllis Wheatley to the Black Star Line was thrown into abeyance as there were still some clauses in the contract that needed to be agreed.” In the end, the ship was never registered to the Black Star Line but the controversy was enough to get Garvey charged with mail fraud. Garvey chose to defend himself which was a mistake. In the opinion of his biographer Colin Grant, Garvey’s “belligerent” manner alienated the jury. In Garvey’s interminable three-hour-long closing address he portrayed himself as an unfortunate and selfless leader, surrounded by incompetents and thieves….Garvey was belligerent where perhaps grace, humility and even humour were called for.” Of the four Black Star Line officers charged in connection with the enterprise only Garvey was found guilty of using the mail service to defraud. His supporters called the trial fraudulent.

Not everyone hid when the KKK rode through Colored Town. This is James B. Nimmo in his Marcus Garvey uniform (the United Negro Improvement Association). Colored Town had a very large and active chapter. These men were mostly Bahamian immigrants and they were far less tolerant of racial insult and violence compared to African Americans. Nimmo told me before his death in 1992 when he was well into his ninties that the members of the Garvey organization actually fired on the KKK when they rode through Colored Town.

Garvey Marcus Garvey had black critics too. One of them was W.E.B. DuBois, an undisputed intellectual giant of the era. While DuBois felt that the Black Star Line was “original and promising,” he added that “Marcus Garvey is, without doubt, the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world. He is either a lunatic or a traitor.” Du Bois feared that Garvey’s activities would undermine his own efforts toward black rights. Garvey suspected that Du Bois was prejudiced against him because he was a Caribbean native with darker skin. Du Bois once described Garvey as “a little, fat black man; ugly, but with intelligent eyes and a big head,” Garvey called Du Bois “purely and simply a white man’s nigger” and “a little Dutch, a little French, a little Negro … a mulatto, a monstrosity.” This led to an acrimonious relationship between Garvey and the NAACP where DuBois was its national leader. Garvey accused Du Bois of paying conspirators to sabotage the Black Star Line in order to destroy his reputation. It was a bitter and very public fight.

When the trial ended on June 23, 1923, Garvey was sentenced to five years in prison. Garvey blamed Jewish jurors and a Jewish federal judge, Julian Mack, for his conviction. He felt that they had been biased because of their political objections to his meeting with the acting imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan the year before. In 1928, Garvey told a journalist: “When they wanted to get me they had a Jewish judge try me, and a Jewish prosecutor. I would have been freed but two Jews on the jury held out against me ten hours and succeeded in convicting me, whereupon the Jewish judge gave me the maximum penalty.” He initially spent three months in jail awaiting approval of bail. While out on bail he continued to maintain his innocence and to organize the UNIA. After numerous attempts at appeal were unsuccessful, he was taken into custody and began serving his sentence at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary on February 8, 1925. Two days later, he penned his well-known “First Message to the Negroes of the World From Atlanta Prison,” in which he made his famous proclamation: “Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm; look for me all around you for, with God’s grace, I shall come and bring with me countless millions of black slaves who have died in America and the West Indies and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for Liberty, Freedom and Life.”

Garvey died in London on June 10, 1940 at the age of 52 having suffered a stroke supposedly after reading a mistaken and negative obituary of himself in the black newspaper the Chicago Defender. The article had appeared earlier that year in January and stated in part that Garvey died “broke, alone and unpopular.” Due to travel restrictions during World War Two his body was interred but preserved in a lead-lined coffin within the lower crypt in St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in London.