Interview Clips: Estelle James
How did you hear the news that Garvey was being let out of jail and coming to New Orleans?
The night that, ah, we received the news that Marcus Garvey was being, ah, shipped through New Orleans on the way to Jamaica from Atlanta penitentiary, it was on a Sunday night at a mass meeting and we were gathered in the assembly hall, in Liberty Hall, as usual and during the intercourse of the evening the African Legion who stands on the door, he comes up to the rostrum and whispered something in the ear of the presiding officer, who was the president, and then he went back to the door and he brought back a man dressed in cover-alls that we knew was -- we called him longshoreman because he works on the docks. And, ah, after he left out, the president then informed us of what message he had received from this man. And that was the fact that Mr. Garvey would be arriving in New Orleans in the morning, which would have been Monday morning, and, ah, the ship that he was on -- I think it was the "Salamika." And when he announced that to the membership, the house just went up into uproar. People, some was crying, some was laughing, some was hugging, some was kissing, some was -- oh, it was - - it was really something. And on that night, many people did not go home. They stayed right there at Liberty Hall, because they wanted to be the first ones to get to the riverfront in the morning to -- to receive Mr. Garvey when he came in, ah, on the Mississippi River. And now those that went home or those that -- that had to send children to school or get husbands off to work or whatever, ah, maybe perhaps go to work themselves -- but those who did not have to go, they stayed right at Liberty Hall and left from there that morning at daylight to be on the riverfront when -- where they could receive Mr. Garvey when he came in.
What happened that morning?
It was a Monday morning in November, a cold, drizzly, damp November New Orleans morning. Ahm ... a lot of people walked from where they were to the riverfront where Mr. Garvey's ship was docked. And some rode the bus, or the streetcar -- there was no buses or anything. There was streetcars then. And they -- as they got on, I imagine the conductors got tired of, ah, asking for fares, there were such crowds. It was more like a Mardi Gras day in New Orleans on that particular day going out to see Marcus Garvey on this ship. And, ahm, I imagine the conductors got tired of asking for fares, so some people rode for nothing. And the fare was only seven cents, but I imagine he just got -- he said, "Well, I'd rather be safe -- I'd rather be safe than sorry." So he just let them ride and they was just packed on top of each other on the streetcar going out to the riverfront to see Marcus Garvey.
And after they -- when they reached there -- now this is what my mother told me 'cause I did not go. She made me go to school that day, and I've never forgiven her for that, because I really would like to have seen Marcus Garvey in person. Ahm, anyway, she said that as the people gathered there on the -- on the wharf, Mr. Garvey was not allowed to land. He had to stay on board ship. He did not put his foot on land. But during that time it was a little man on the ship who was going and coming, going and coming, backwards and forward, backwards and forward, bringing packages, carrying this, carrying messages. My mother said she's sure -- she was sure that that man was glad when that ship sailed so he could get some rest, because he was constantly going because Mr. Garvey had a tremendous amount of people sending and giving him gifts and money and presents and everything, flowers and everything. And he spoke to the people, bid them farewell and wishing them well and asking them to hold on, keep the fort. And as the ship was moving out from the docks, the people were singing, ah, the song that we sing for all president generals, which was written especially for Marcus Garvey, "God Bless Our President." And as they were singing the hymn -- we called it a hymn of the UNIA [Universal Negro Improvement Association} -- Marcus Garvey was waiving a white handkerchief and Mama said until the day she died, she would see Marcus Garvey waving that white handkerchief as that ship went out to sea. And the waves of the Mississippi River seemed like it was working according to the way the song was going, the way that people was singing. It seemed like the waves was in harmony with that song. And that's a day that a lot of people, a lot of people will never forget, those that's alive. And I know I will never forget it as it was told to me.