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Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind | Article

Universal Negro Improvement Association

Courtesy: The Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers Project

As Marcus Garvey returned to Jamaica in 1914, after four years in Central America and Europe, he came upon the autobiography of Booker T. Washington, the conservative dean of American black leaders. It was while reading Up from Slavery, Garvey said, that he developed his vision for the Universal Negro Improvement Association. "Where is the black man's government?" Garvey asked himself. "Where is his King and his kingdom? Where is his President, his ambassador, his country, his men of big affairs? I could not find them," he said, "and then I declared, 'I will help to make them.'"

On July 20, 1914, Marcus Garvey, at the age of twenty-eight, founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association. His co-founder was Amy Ashwood, who would later become his first wife. The U.N.I.A. was originally conceived as a benevolent or fraternal reform association dedicated to racial uplift and the establishment of educational and industrial opportunities for blacks, taking Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute as a model. The U.N.I.A. floundered in Jamaica. But shortly after Garvey's relocation to Harlem in 1916, New York became the headquarters of the movement. The Harlem branch started with 17 members meeting in a dingy basement. But by the spring of 1918, Garvey's strong advocacy of black economic and political independence had taken hold, and U.N.I.A. branches and divisions were springing up in cities and towns across the country, and then in different parts of the world. By 1920 Garvey claimed nearly a thousand local divisions in the United States, the Caribbean, Central America, Canada and Africa.

Garvey's followers were largely ordinary people, described by the Baltimore Observer as "cooks, porters, hodcarriers, and washwomen," and said Garvey should have on the official seal of the empire "a washtub, a frying pan, a bailhook and a mop." Large branch meetings were like religious revivals, with entire families gathering for a day of debates, fashion shows, classical music, plays and vaudeville acts. Garvey gave his followers, who were dispossessed in the broader society, a sense of belonging. Men could join the African Legion. For young people, the U.N.I.A. Juvenile Division. And in the Black Cross Nurses and the Universal Motor Corps, the Garvey movement offered black women a place of their own. He created the red, black and green flag to symbolize black unity. And there were official U.N.I.A. slogans, prayers, poetry and songs.

Garvey was known to rule the U.N.I.A. with an iron hand. He did not tolerate disagreement on even insignificant matters, and demanded complete loyalty from U.N.I.A. members. His autocratic style would over the years cause considerable dissention within the ranks, and turnover and defections among the U.N.I.A.'s top leadership.

In addition to the internal problems of the Garvey movement, Garvey and the U.N.I.A. became targets of the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the FBI) in a campaign directed by the then up-and-coming J. Edgar Hoover. For five years beginning in 1919, largely under Hoover's direction, Bureau of Investigation officers would report on U.N.I.A. activities in over two dozen cities. Hoover would also coordinate the actions of at least seven federal government agencies investigating Garvey, in what some experts have called a personal vendetta.

Membership in the U.N.I.A. declined after Garvey's incarceration for federal mail fraud between 1925 and 1927, and his deportation in 1927 increased the factionalization within the movement. A new U.N.I.A. and African Communities League of the World, over which Garvey presided, was incorporated at the 1929 U.N.I.A. convention in Kingston. It was distinguished from the rival U.N.I.A., Inc., in New York, headed by Fred A. Toote in 1929, and by Lionel Francis in 1931. Part of the American-based movement remained loyal to Garvey, notably the Garvey Club and the Tiger Division of New York. In 1935, after being deported from America and spending a few years in Jamaica, Garvey moved his headquarters to London. After his death in 1940, Garveyite loyalists elected a new slate of officers in New York, and the headquarters of the parent body was moved to Cleveland under the direction of a new president general, James Stewart, who eventually relocated to Monrovia, Liberia.

Courtesy: The Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers Project

The Black Star Line

"They said that the Negro had no initiative; that he was not a business man, but a laborer; that he had not the brain to engineer a corporation, to own and run ships; that he had no knowledge of navigation, therefore the proposition was impossible.
Oh! ye of little faith. The Eternal has happened."
       -- Marcus Garvey, on the launching of the Black Star Line

The Black Star Line was the steamship company operated by Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association from 1919 to 1922. The Black Star Line was to be the U.N.I.A.'s vehicle for promoting worldwide commerce among black communities. In Garvey's vision, Black Star Line ships would transport manufactured goods, raw materials, and produce among black businesses in North America, the Caribbean, and Africa, and become the linchpin in a global black economy.

The Black Star Line was incorporated in Delaware on June 23, 1919 and was capitalized at a maximum of $500,000. Shares were valued at five dollars each, and individuals could purchase a maximum of two hundred shares. Black Star Line stock was sold at U.N.I.A. meetings and conventions, by traveling agents, by mailed circulars, and through advertisements in The Negro World newspaper.

To the surprise of his critics, just three months after the incorporation of the Black Star Line, Garvey announced the purchase of its first ship. The "S. S. Yarmouth," which Garvey intended to rename the "Frederick Douglass," would set sail with an all-black crew under the command of a black captain, Joshua Cockburn.

From the beginning of the Black Star Line, Garvey faced chaos and betrayal. The "Yarmouth" had been used as a coal boat in World War I, and was in very poor condition at the time of its sale. The ship was reportedly worth no more than $25,000, yet the U.N.I.A. paid $165,000 for it. Joshua Cockburn, Garvey's hand-picked captain, would later be accused of taking a kickback from the purchase price.

In 1920 Garvey spent another two hundred thousand dollars, raised from among his followers, on additional ships not worth the price. The "S. S. Shadyside," a Hudson river excursion boat, carried black passengers on a "cruise to nowhere" on the Hudson one summer, and in the fall, sprang a leak and sank. The steam yacht "Kanawha" (renamed the "S. S. Antonio Maceo") was grandly displayed on a Harlem pier for all Garvey's admirers to see. But on its maiden voyage, the "Kanawha" blew a boiler, killing a man.

The Black Star Line fell victim to overcharging by engineers, thievery by representatives and officers, and sabotage by the Bureau of Investigation, the predecessor to the FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover. But it was also plagued by mismanagement. The "Yarmouth's" first commission was to transport a cargo of whiskey out of the U.S. and into Cuba before the start of Prohibition. The ship made the trip in record time, but arrived in Cuba without docking arrangements, and quickly became entangled in a longshoremen's strike. The "Yarmouth" sat stranded on the docks of Havana, waiting -- and losing money -- for weeks on end. On another Black Star Line voyage, a cargo load of coconuts rotted at sea because Garvey insisted the ship make ceremonial visits to politically important ports. As a business venture, the Black Star Line quickly became a disaster. Garvey's supporters invested what was in many cases their life's savings. Estimates of the company's losses are as high as $1.25 million.

Yet the Black Star Line was a powerful symbol to a dispossessed people. Thousands of Garveyites crowded the dock at 135th Street in Harlem to witness the launching of the "Yarmouth." One spectator described the launch: "We stood on a pile of logs and watched hundreds of people jump up and down, throw up their hats and handkerchiefs and cheer while the "Yarmouth" backed from the wharf and slowly glided down the North River." In Cuba and Central America, thousands of black supporters on horses, donkeys, and makeshift carts descended on the docks to witness the arrival of the first ship they'd ever seen owned and operated by black men.

Though it was ultimately a business fiasco, the Black Star Line was an important symbol of black potential, and a powerful propaganda and recruitment tool for Garvey and the U.N.I.A. It stands as a major achievement. Facing financial ruin, Garvey announced the suspension of the company shortly after his February 1922 indictment on mail fraud charges stemming from the sale of Black Star Line stock.

The Negro Factories Corporation

"Negro producers, Negro distributors, Negro consumers! The world of Negroes can be self-contained. We desire earnestly to deal with the rest of the world, but if the rest of the world desire not, we seek not."
        -- Marcus Garvey, 1929

The Negro Factories Corporation was the finance arm of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. A cornerstone of Garvey's vision for black economic independence, the Negro Factories Corporation was created with the goal of supporting businesses that would employ African Americans and produce goods to be sold to black consumers. Garvey envisioned a string of black-owned factories, retailers, services and other businesses, and hoped that the corporation would eventually be strong enough to power and sustain an all-black economy with worldwide significance.

The Negro Factories Corporation was incorporated in the state of Delaware on January 30, 1920 by Garvey, William Ferris and John G. Bayne. Amy Jacques Garvey was secretary of the corporation, and Cyril Henry was its treasurer. In May 1920, just months after its founding, Garvey reported that the corporation had taken over the management of a Harlem steam laundry and would soon open a millinery and hat factory. By June 1920, the Negro Factories Corporation had opened the Universal Steam Laundry, with a Universal Tailoring and Dress Making department, at 62 West 142nd Street in Harlem. At this location, U.N.I.A. uniforms and insignia were manufactured, and fashionable clothing was designed for U.N.I.A. fashion shows at Liberty Hall, the U.N.I.A.'s international headquarters. The Negro Factories Corporation also supported three grocery stores in Harlem, one on 135th Street and two on Lenox Avenue; two restaurants, one on 135th Street and the other at Liberty Hall; and a printing press.

Local U.N.I.A. branches were urged by Garvey to own their own buildings, and they sometimes launched businesses as well. For example, the Colon, Panama branch of the U.N.I.A. ran a cooperative bakery, while the Kingston, Jamaica branch ran a laundry and a cooperative bank, the shares of which were available to U.N.I.A. members only. Garvey's vision for economic self-reliance extended beyond the Negro Factories Corporation. U.N.I.A. branches often acted as mutual aid societies, providing death benefits, small loans, and employment assistance to members.

The Negro Factories Corporation never achieved the scope or influence Garvey envisioned, but U.N.I.A. businesses provided an important beacon of hope for African Americans, who were shut out of large segments of the job market and the economy. At their height, U.N.I.A. businesses employed hundreds of people in Harlem.

Ultimately, the Negro Factories Corporation fell victim to organizational mismanagement as well as unrealistic hopes. It became insolvent in 1921.

The Negro World

The Negro World, a weekly newspaper with worldwide circulation, was created by Marcus Garvey as the official organ of the U.N.I.A. and African Communities' League. The paper was produced in New York beginning in August 1918.

The Negro World preached Garvey's philosophy of black consciousness, self-help, and economic independence. Each issue featured a front-page editorial penned by Garvey himself; news items covering current events, politics and the status of black people in the United States and abroad; and reports on U.N.I.A. enterprises such as the Black Star Line. The activities of U.N.I.A. branches and divisions from Omaha, Nebraska, to Cuba, to South Africa were reported. And the paper refused all advertisements for skin lighteners and hair straighteners, which were a mainstay of the advertising pages of most African American newspapers.

The Negro World enjoyed a broad and influential distribution, reaching not only the entire United States but the Caribbean, Central America, Canada, Europe, and Africa. At its peak, the publication had a circulation of two hundred thousand and was the most popular black newspaper in the United States. Fearing the influence of Garvey's call for independence, European colonial powers banned The Negro World in many parts of Africa and the Caribbean; however, it continued to be distributed clandestinely by black seamen, students, and others.

Over the years, Garvey made the paper more accessible to his constituency: a Spanish language section of The Negro World was begun in 1923, a French language section in 1924. Amy Jacques Garvey added a page called "Our Women and What They Think" during her tenure as associate editor, from 1924 to 1927.

Marcus Garvey was involved in virtually every aspect of the paper. He was managing editor from the inception of The Negro World on his birthday, August 17, 1918, until his split from the New York division leadership in the early 1930s. He disavowed responsibility for the editorials that appeared under his name in 1932, and from July 31, 1932 to April 15, 1933, no issues of The Negro World were published. The paper was briefly revived under the management of M. L. T. De Mena from April through October 1933 (no issues of the paper published after October 17, 1933 have been found).

Eminent black writers and editors who contributed to The Negro World during its heyday included Zora Neale Hurston, W. A. Domingo, Hubert Harrison, T. Thomas Fortune, Arthur Schomburg, John E. Bruce, William H. Ferris, Norton G. G. Thomas, and Eric Walrond.

Courtesy: The Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers Project

Women in the Garvey Movement

Although the U.N.I.A. did not have an explicit program against sexism, it did, through groups such as the Black Cross Nurses and Universal Motor Corps, offer women a place of their own within the organization. Women were subordinate to men within the U.N.I.A. as in many other membership organizations. But these women's auxiliaries and the U.N.I.A.'s Juvenile Division helped to complement male-identified U.N.I.A. divisions like the African Legion, and offered women a chance to develop leadership and organizational skills and a place to express their commitment to the ideals of the U.N.I.A.

The Black Cross Nurses auxiliary was modeled on the Red Cross. Like other auxiliary divisions of the U.N.I.A., the Black Cross Nurses were organized on the local level. The first unit was established by members of the Philadelphia U.N.I.A. Henrietta Vinton Davis, one of the key national leaders of the U.N.I.A., recruited women to local Black Cross Nurse groups in the early 1920s, and local units were formed in cities in the United States, Central America, and the Caribbean. The Black Cross Nurses formed their own contigent in U.N.I.A. parades, making a striking appearance in long cowled white robes or green nursing uniforms. Although some members had formal medical training, most worked with practical training in first aid and nutrition. The auxiiliary performed benevolent community work and provided public health services to black neighborhoods, specializing in infant health and home care. In some localities, they worked in conjunction with established social services agencies.

The Universal African Motor Corps was a female auxiliary whose units were affiliated with local divisions and associated with the paramilitary African Legion, the membership of which was exclusively male. While the head of the Motor Corps, who was given the title Brigadier General, was a woman, the officers and commanders of the units were men. Members of the Corps were trained in military discipline and automobile driving and repair.

The Juvenile Divisions, the youth corps of the Garvey movement, were affiliated with local U.N.I.A. divisions and divided into classes according to age. The infant class (ages one through seven) studied the Bible, the doctrine of the U.N.I.A., and the history of Africa. After the age of seven, the children were segregated by sex. Girls were taught sewing, boys woodcraft, and both received further instruction in black history and etiquette. After the age of thirteen, boys received military training to prepare them for membership in the African Legion, while girls learned hygiene and domestic science in order to prepare them to be Black Cross Nurses. The superintendent of each local division was the Lady Vice President of the division at large, and teachers were chosen from the adult auxiliaries. The juvenile divisions took part in U.N.I.A. parades; the boys marching in blue uniforms and the girls in green dresses.

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