Friday, August 17, 2012

What was the source of the growth of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and why did Marcus Garvey gain popularity during the period from 1917 to 1921?

Universal Negro Improvement Association (U

Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) which to propose ideals and a philosophy for Negro self-reliance and African redemption in 1914.  In 1917 Garvey along with a handful of compatriots organized the Harlem chapter of the UNIA.  This would later become the parent body of the revamped UNIA.  UNIA grew rapidly into a mass movement at the end of World War I and with dozens of chapters worldwide it became the largest and the most influential black organization of its time.  UNIA's “First International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World” opened in Liberty Hall in New York on August 1, 1920.  Approximately two thousand delegates from twenty-two countries were present, representing approximately three million paid members.  UNIA grew from 100 paid members in 1917 to over three million paid members in 1921 and constituted the largest U.S. membership organization led by and for the benefit of African Americans.  Did Garvey possess unique talents and skills of oration and organization that fueled the extraordinary growth of UNIA?  A number of historians have attempted to identify the reason for such growth.  It has been proposed that it was a phenomena of the times; that it satisfied the need for the community to organize at a macro level in order to address issues facing all African Americans; or was just one man and his vision and leadership, specifically Marcus Garvey, “the right man at the right time in history?

Black veterans who returned from WWI hoped to find an American society ready to accept them as equals.  Instead what they found was a society more violent and intolerant to them than prior to their departure.  In the worst period of anti-Black violence in America, labeled “Red Summer,” riots and lynchings were abundant from April to November 1919 and claimed hundreds of black lives and left thousands of blacks homeless.  “The Jim Crow laws, lynch mobs, and the race riots of the nineteen twenties exacerbated the racial hostility of White Americans towards Black Americans.”[1]  “The great hopes of the war years dissolved into bitter cynicism in the face of the brutal realities of the postwar situation.  It is not surprising that many blacks sought escape in radicalism or looked for a new leader to provide relief from the injustices of American life.”[2]

Historians have acknowledged the postwar period that immediately followed the end of World War I as a period of transformation from an agrarian society to an urban society.  This period coincided with the Progressive Movement, highlighted by the rise of various mass movements, including the Women's Trade Union League, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the National Consumers' League, the second Ku Klux Klan and a vast system of "Americanizing" centers known as settlement houses.  A number of service organizations were also founded during this period to service the needs and aspirations of African-Americans, most notably the NAACP in 1909 and fraternal secret societies on the campuses of historical black colleges between 1906 and 1920.  In this climate of hatred and fear, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), founded by Marcus Garvey, presented an organization based on fraternal benefit, racial pride, mutual improvement of the black community, and cultural self-awareness as an alternative to political cooperation with the White American establishment.  Garvey was one of many historic actors involved in the story of UNIA which included W.E.B. Du Bois ((founder of the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP)), A. Philip Randolph (labor organizer), Hubert Harrison (socialist writer), Calvin Coolidge (Massachusetts governor, later President of the United States), Eugene Debs (labor leader and politician), Emma Goldman (anarchist), J. Edgar Hoover (law enforcement investigator), and A. Mitchell Palmer (attorney general).

            The militant “New Negro Movement” advocated a call for armed self-defense and the desire to have their political voice heard.  Author Hubert Harrison, journalist Cyril Briggs, and NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois were members of this movement.  The most militant member of the “New Negro Movement” was Marcus Garvey.  Garvey’s speeches and writings which were published daily in three languages in The Negro World advocated self-improvement and Black liberation.  Contributing to Garvey’s amazing success in the rapid organization of the individuals sympathetic to his message was his establishment in January, 1918, of The Negro World.  “Within a space of a few months The Negro World became one of the leading Negro weeklies, and as such it proved to be a most effective instrument for the promulgation of Garvey’s program.”[3]

“The Jamaica-born Garvey had come to the United States in March 1916 in order to raise funds to set up an industrial school in Jamaica similar to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, which he admired.”[4]  After traveling through the United States to raise funds, Garvey inaugurated the New York Division of the UNIA in 1917 with 13 members.  “It took a mere three months for the organization’s dues-paying membership to reach 5,000.”[5]  During 1919 and 1920, UNIA enjoyed a remarkable explosion of growth.  “Garvey traveled extensively throughout the United States and established branches of the association in most urban centers of Negro population.”[6]  In 1919, Garvey was still a fresh voice to most African-Americans.  His ideas thrilled tens of thousands whenever he spoke.  “Under his leadership UNIA expressed an ideology of black pride and of black capacity for organization and socio-economic action which, in the United States, attracted the mass, enthusiastic support of black workers for nearly a decade.”[7] Garvey said:  Now we have started to speak, and I am only the forerunner of an awakened Africa that shall never go back to sleep. [8]  Garvey’s advocacy of racial separatism appealed to many African-Americans, and the UNIA grew rapidly.  “Lynchings and race riots all work to our advantage by teaching the Negro that we must build a civilization of his own [sic] or forever remain the white man’s victim,”[9] Garvey told his supporters.  Garvey’s first speeches were filled with the

flashy rage of his oratory, and fed the malaise of the Negro Twilight (as real as the Celtic) with his prophecies of paradise. If they would forget their racial shame and turn it into pride, he promised a movement on such a scale that the white man would have to bend to its will.  The prize to be wrung, principally from the white Colonial Powers, was the African continent: there his race would be able to lift up its head and create a future to match the splendors of Sheba.[10]


On October 14, 1919 Garvey was the victim of a failed assassination attempt.  A man named George Tyler visited Garvey at his office in Harlem, claiming to have been sent by Manhattan assistant District Attorney, Edwin Kilroe.  Tyler pulled out a gun and shot Garvey in the right leg and the second shot grazed Garvey’s head.  Tyler was arrested but was reported to have committed “suicide” outside his jail cell the day after his arrest.  Despite Garvey’s injuries, he hastily rearranged his speaking schedule and booked three engagements immediately after his hospital discharge.  “It was a hugely transformative moment.  From then on, according to Professor Robert Hill, the curator of Garvey’s papers, the career of the UNIA leader took on quasi-religious proportions.”[11]  Garvey claimed that the assassin’s bullets were divinely intercepted and that his “mission” was now divinely ordained.[12]  Members of the black intellectual circle now wrote Garvey off as a self-promoter and charlatan who believed his own propaganda.  “The most notable of Garvey's rivals, W.E.B. Du Bois, described him as ‘dictatorial, domineering, inordinately vain and very suspicious.’ ”[13]

Beyond the propaganda and rhetoric of its charismatic leader, UNIA did appeal to some fundamental need or psychological need of the urban Black American which would explain its phenomenal growth in membership.  Said Garvey,

The days of slavery are not gone forever. Slavery is threatened for every race and nation that remains weak and refuses to organize its strength for its own protection.[14]


Amy Jacques Garvey, who posthumously published her husband’s Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey in1968, stated that “the UNIA being the first organization to proclaim self-determination for people of African ancestry it was in the best position advocate for the disenfranchised and unrepresented aspirations of Black Americans.”[15]  The motto of the organization ‘One God! One Aim! One Destiny!’ may have been the theme of the first Black Nationalist movement.

            Historian Jeannette Smith-Irvin collected six conversations that offer a unique view of UNIA from the perspective of some members from its founding years.  Collectively, these “griots” have narrated their experiences regarding the greatest mass movement of Blacks in the world in her published work, Footsoldiers of the Universal Negro Improvement Association: Their Own Words (1989).  Examples of the attraction of UNIA can be found in Footsoldiers.  Thomas Harvey, who was interviewed by Smith-Irvin in 1975 and 1975, stated:  “When I work for the UNIA I work for me because the UNIA is about me.”[16]  Harvey stated that it was also the energy, pageantry, and excitement that attracted him to UNIA.

He [Garvey] came to Philadelphia to speak at the old Olympia Theater on Broad Street one Sunday, and I decided to go down and see what Marcus Garvey looked like. The place was packed to the rafters, people all in uniforms, parading up and down liked they were somebody.  After a while, someone got up and shouted, ‘Attention!’ and everybody stood up and this little short man was striding in with all these men following with Garvey was Chief Justice James Dorsey from Liberia and a fellow who was then Commissioner for Pennsylvania. Garvey delivered his message entitled ‘The World Can Not Disarm.’ I was pretty much sold on Garvey and the UNIA after that. Several weeks later Garvey was on the front page of The Negro World for a farewell speech he made before planning to tour the West Indies.[17]


The leaders of UNIA also used the technology of the times to their advantage to spread their message and encourage new members.  Harvey observed:


We had membership drives. Members were recruited thought advertisements and through other members. Members would go out and get someone to come to our meetings or talk them into joining the UNIA. We used to have something like a narrator at the meetings, some person who always dealt with the news media, just like a commentator on the radio. Every Sunday at three o’clock, when the meeting was opened, we had a person give all the news and tell what was happening around the World and how it affected Negroes and other people. And a lot of people used to come just for that.[18] [1920]


The UNIA carried itself for a long time mainly on contributions, fundraising drives, and dues. We established the Black Cross Navigational Trading Company after the Black Star Line was started. Mr. Garvey would send out executive officers to different sections of the country and tell them to raise so much money. When LeVon Sherrill was sent to Detroit, he was told to raise $5,000. When Sherrill left Detroit he had raised $10,000.[19] [1920]


            The interview of John Charles Zampty in 1974 by Smith-Irvin provide insight and offers a different perspective of African Americans who felt that American society would never give its minorities equal treatment or equal standing before the law.  UNIA proclaimed self-improvement and self-reliance rather than accommodation or negotiation with the political establishment.  This attitude far exceeded the position taken by Booker T. Washington or Garvey’s contempories in regards to accomidation and cooperation within the larger American society.  Possibly as a result of the racial violence during the “Red Summer” of 1919, Garvey preached night after night that African Americans would never be treated as equals without controlling their own destiny.  A UNIA member recalls that:

Our ideas and feelings at that time were that the Black man, at some point in his life, had to begin to lay the foundation for economic salvation and that in so doing he would be able to let the world know that he has accepted the idea, knowledge, and wisdom that God helps those who help themselves. The UNIA, at that time, and even now, has been the most profound, most constructive organization on the face of the earth, not only among the Black race of the world, but among other races as well.[20]


There are other political organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Their program has been in existence since 1909, and I have watched its activities among its officers and members in every area and I do not think they have accomplished what we have accomplished. I am not in sympathy with the program of the NAACP. Their program is advocating integration, and no one – no power on earth or in heaven – can force integration upon a people unless they themselves are willing to open their hearts and their minds to accept others. As a result of that, from 1909 to the present, I do not see any good that the NAACP has done or is doing as far as their program is concerned.[21]


Garvey’s philosophy was and is still attractive to the social movements that espouse an independent, separate and self-reliant objective.  In this sense Garvey was a unique social phenomenon at the turn of the twenty-century.  It was different from other black fraternal, self-improvement societies or religious orders.  Garvey aroused the strong passion in African Americans living in Georgia as much as those of New York or even in Kenya.  This emotion was articulated by a UNIA member who said, “He [Garvey] made the black man an important person in his immediate environment.  Garvey invented honors and social distinctions for the black man.  He might be a porter during the day, taking orders from whites, but at night he was an officer in the Black army when it assembled in Liberty Hall.”[22]

There are however two monumental examples of Garvey’s failure to use his rhetoric to overcome the obstacles of racism and barriers to opportunity for African Americans.  The Negro Factory Corporation (NFC) and the Black Star Line (BSL) were two business activities created by the UNIA.  “The NFC was patterned after Booker T. Washington’s National Business League, prescribed to meet all the social and industrial needs of the black community.”[23]  “In principle, the NFC was designed to assist black cooperatives with technical guidance, organizational skills and initial monetary capital.”[24]  Garvey’s philosophy and opinions quickly demonstrated that when he spoke of capitalism, he never understood what dictated the implementation of capital.  Garvey was ultimately unable to accumulate the necessary capital to invest and reinvest in successful business models.  Garvey’s mistaken position was that race as a whole should dictate all business decisions:

Individualism is largely responsible for our present condition of affairs.  If we buy from our own and support our own, we can build a place that we own.  All we have to do is work together and co-operate.[25]


To UNIA members, the NFC was to ensure that the black community, through cooperative activity, “would act as a repository for black resources, ration profits based on participants’ investments and generate businesses essential to the development of the race.”[26]  The initial success of the four NFC industries[27] was distempered by poor management, theft and lack of acceptable accounting principles and practices.  Within one year after opening all enterprises they were operating at a huge financial loss due to mismanagement, theft, and failure to operate in a competitive nature within the community.  Regardless of the economic failure of these endeavors, Black Harlem was grateful.  “Its inhabitants took time off to praise Garvey’s attempts at self-autonomy and redemption.”[28]

Industrial enterprises like the UNIA’s were advocated by the late Booker T. Washington, but the great captain of industry could never make his enterprises obtain in the North, from which he obtained millions of dollars of support. This failure was due to Washington’s advocacy of the return of the Negro to the Southland and live in subjection to the white man and support him by efficacy in productiveness while the white man lives in idleness.  Marcus Garvey’s program of race patronage and race industries has obtained in the North because the movement as, as its goal, the redemption of Africa and the restoration of the Ethiopian Empire.[29]


The second failure of UNIA and Garvey was the Black Star Line (BSL).  In January 1922 the U.S. government arrested and charged Garvey with using the U.S. Mail to misrepresent and defraud the public.[30]  The BSL was not equipped with sufficient capital, management or technology to run a shipping line.  Garvey did not know anything about ships or maritime commerce; the BSL vice-president, Jeremiah Certain, was a cigar maker; the BSL second vice-president, George Tobias, was an elocutionist and reader; and Green and Johnson, the traffic managers BSL, “were not at all familiar with the business.”[31]  Garvey’s trial ended on June 23, 1923, and Garvey was sentenced to five years in prison.  After exhausting numerous appeals Garvey began serving his sentence at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary on February 8, 1925.  Garvey’s sentence was eventually commuted by President Calvin Coolidge and upon his release in November 1927, Garvey was deported to Jamaica, B.W.I.  “Though the popularity of the UNIA diminished greatly following Garvey’s expulsion, he nevertheless remained committed to his political ideals.”[32]

Hubert Harrison, a contemporary of Marcus Garvey in the “New Negro Movement,” was highly critical of Garvey’s egocentric politics and practices and this eventually led to a break between the two Black nationalists.  Harrison articulated concern regarding the extravagance of Garvey’s claims of success, Garvey’s ego, and Garvey’s lack of organizational leadership.  Harrison predicted Garvey’s downfall by the conduct of his stock selling and financial schemes.[33]  It seems sad and regrettable that Garvey and Harrison could not repair their relationship as their goals and aspirations for the race were identical.  “While Harrison continued to write columns and book reviews for The Negro World into 1922, their political difference grew, and Harrison eventually worked against and sought to develop political alternatives to Garvey.”[34]

It is clear that Garvey did strike a fundamentally unique cord in the collective consciousness of African-Americans.  In December 1920 a leading New York periodical published the following statement:

The most striking new figure among American Negroes is Marcus Garvey. His significance lies in the fact that he embodies and directs a new spirit among Negroes. Whatever may happen to his grandiose schemes of finance and politics, he is the best point at which to study what is going on inside the heads of ten million colored people in the United States.[35]


“The phenomenal growth of UNIA must be seen against the backdrop of' the urban Negro's disillusionment following World War I, and their groping for a way out.”[36]  It seems apparent that if not Garvey then some other dynamic figure would have caught the attention of the African-American community who wanted a leader to articulate their frustrations and anger toward the lack of legal protection and civil rights.  The instant and phenomenal growth of UNIA was due in part to Garvey’s use of media and advertising to promote his philosophy of self-determination and in part to the desire of the African-American community to believe in a leader who could lead them into the promised land of civil liberties and economic prosperity, hence Garvey’s nickname, “the Black Moses”.  I believe Garvey was “the right man at the right time in history” by his admonition to his followers, “Up, you mighty race. You can accomplish what you will.[37]




Chapman, Thandeka K. 2004. "Foundations of Multicultural Education: Marcus Garvey and the United Negro Improvement Association". Journal of Negro Education. 73, no. 4: 424-434.


Clarke, John Henrik. 1974. "Marcus Garvey: The Harlem Years". Transition. 9, no. 46.


Cronon, Edmund David. Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.


Fitzgerald, John M., and Otey M. Scruggs. 1978. "A Note on Marcus Garvey at Harvard, 1922: A Recollection of John M. Fitzgerald". Journal of Negro History. 63, no. 2: 157-160.


Garvey, Marcus, and Amy Jacques Garvey. Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey. New York: Arno Press, 1968.


Garvey, Marcus, and Robert Blaisdell. Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2004.


Grant, Colin. Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.


Graves, John L. 1962. "The Social Ideas of Marcus Garvey". Journal of Negro Education. 31, no. 1: 65-74.


Hill, Robert A., and Marcus Garvey. The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. Volume 1 (1826 – August 1919). Volume 2 (August 1919 – August 1920).


James, C. Boyd. Garvey, Garveyism, and the Antinomies in Black Redemption. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2009.


Martin, Tony. Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1976.


McWhirter, Cameron. Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America. New York, N.Y.: Henry Holt & Co, 2011.


Perry, Jeffrey Babcock. Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.


Pruter, Karl. The Strange Partnership of George Alexander McGuire and Marcus Garvey. San Bernardino, Calif: Borgo Press, 1986.


Rolinson, Mary G. Grassroots Garveyism: The Universal Negro Improvement Association in the Rural South, 1920-1927. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.


Smith-Irvin, Jeannette. Footsoldiers of the Universal Negro Improvement Association: Their Own Words. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1989.



[1] Jeannette Smith-Irvin. Footsoldiers of the Universal Negro Improvement Association: Their Own Words. Trenton: New Jersey, 1989. p.3.

[2] Marcus Garvey and Robert Blaisdell. Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2004, p.34.

[3] E. David Cronon, Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey. University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, 1968. p.45.

[4] Jeffrey B. Perry, Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism. Columbia University Press: New York, 2009. p.294.

[5] Cronon, p.44.

[6] Ibid., p.44.

[7] Ibid., p.xi.

[8] Garvey, Selected Writings, p.22.

[9] Marcus Garvey, “The Handwriting Is on the Wall” speech 31 August 1921, New York City.  Selected Writings and Speeches, p.49.

[10] Alan Gray, African Affairs, Vol. 54, No. 216 (July 1955), pp. 233-234.

[11] Colin Grant, Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. p. 214.

[12] Ibid., p. 197.

[13] Grant, Negro with a Hat, p.55.

[14] Marcus Garvey, “The World Gone Mad – Force Only Argument to Correct Human Ills” speech 16 May 1923, New York City.  Selected Writings and Speeches, p.123.

[15] Marcus Garvey, Marcus, and Amy Jacques Garvey. Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey. New York: Arno Press, 1968, p. 14.

[16] Smith-Irvin, Footsoldiers. p.23.

[17] Ibid., p.24.

[18] Ibid., p.26.

[19] Ibid., p.28.

[20] Ibid., p.42.

[21] Ibid., p.48.

[22] Ibid., p.76.

[23] Negro World, 4 March 1921.

[24] Ibid., 4 March 1921.

[25] Ibid., 4 March 1921.

[26] Ibid., 21 February 1921.

[27] The Universal Steam Laundry, established in the fall of 1920, located at the corner of 142nd Street and West Avenue; two restaurants: one was located at 120 West 138th Street and served a maximum of 50 people at one sitting, the other, a smaller version, was located at 73 West 135th Street; and the Universal Tailoring and Dressmaking Shop located at 62 West 142nd Street. The Negro World, 22 April and 8 July 1921.

[28] Jones, p.47.

[29] Negro World, 8 July 1921.

[30] The New York Times, 13 January 1922.

[31] Cleveland Gazette, 27 October 1923. See Garvey’s own statement: “I am not a navigator, nor am I a marine engineer. I am not even a good sailor; therefore any individual who would criticize Marcus Garvey for a ship of the Black Star Line not making a success at sea is a fool.”

[32] Sophia Skyers. Marcus Garvey and the Philosophy of Black Pride. Wilfrid Laurier University Review. 1982.

[33] Ibid., p.292.

[34] Ibid., p.12.

[35] Robert Brisbane, Phylon, Vol. 16, No. 2 (2nd Qtr., 1955), pp. 209-210.

[36] Benjamin Quarles, The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Autumn, 1955), pp. 443-445.

[37] Ibid., p.125.

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