Garveyism, Black sovereignty, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and African Communities League
Marcus Aurelius “Mosiah” Garvey was born in St. Ann’s parish, Jamaica in 1887. Having apprenticed as a printer, he voyaged to Limón, Costa Rica and Panama in 1910 where he began his career in radical journalism. Garvey traveled to London that same year where he joined the Pan African journal, the African and Orient Review, edited by Egyptian Duse Muhammed. In 1914, Garvey returned to Jamaica and founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and African Communities League with Amy Ashwood (Garvey) under the motto, “one god, one aim, one destiny!” The organization did not flourish in Jamaica, and as an avid supporter of Booker Washington, he set out to do a speaking tour in the United States in 1916 to raise funds for the organization and a vocational institution in Jamaica based on the Tuskegee model.
When Garvey first arrived in the U.S., he came in contact and was in collaboration with many Black radical figures in Harlem, specifically Hurbert Harrison, Cyril Briggs, W.A. Domingo, A. Philip Randolph and W.E.B Du Bois. In 1917/18, the UNIA was established in Harlem, the organization flourished with the majority of participants in the United States and African Americans.
The UNIA’s Negro World, published in Harlem from 1918 to 1933, would become one of the most widely read periodicals of the Caribbean, with a worldwide circulation topping 50,000. Well known radicals of the Harlem scene, such as Hurbert Harrison and W.A. Domingo, were writers for the newspaper, and the U.S. publication was under Garvey’s editorship. To reach a wide audience, especially poor Black people, The Negro World was written in clear simple language, and there were French, English and Spanish editions of the paper.
The incorporative and pan-African nature of Garvey’s organization is demonstrated in the ethnic diversity of UNIA leadership. Of the seventy-five “international officers, writers on the Negro World, officials of the Black Star Line and the Negro Factories Corporation, and heads of leading divisions…36 were from the Caribbean…8 from Africa, 1 ‘from India via the West indies’, 19 Afro-Americans (including 15 from the South).” Garveyism became the largest mass movement of Black people in the 20th century with 996 branches and in 43 countries — including the Spanish speaking Caribbean and circum-Caribbean.
Garveyism and the U.N.I.A represented pragmatic Pan Africanism centered on establishing racial consciousness and economic sovereignty. He spoke candidly about his experiences in Jamaica, where the racial order of society placed “Black men and women as labourers, the colored man as clerk and sometimes owner and the white man …as master.” Similar to Arturo Schomburg, Garvey believed “organize prejudices against the American Negroes have somewhat inspired in him some kind of racial consciousness” that was absent in the Caribbean. He advocated for the connection and solidarity of US and Caribbean Black people who “have grown up separate and apart without any recognition of their kinship.”
Garveyism represented itself and served as a movement for the working class, and transregional and translocal African American populations were the majority of the millions of UNIA members in the United States. As majority of West Indian migrants were working class, with 31.4% employed as industrial workers and 40.4% as servants or laborers, this population joined UNIA in great numbers. UNIA co-founder Amy Ashwood Garvey, organized a ladies’ division which attracted many Caribbean migrant women in New York. Irma Watkins-Owen shows the organization as providing a secular space for women’s leadership development. She states, “UNIA’s emphasis on entrepreneurship attracted many immigrant women whose members of provider networks and already engaged in enterprises such as boardinghouses, real estate, and rotating credit associations.”
Garveyism touched the lives of many Black Americans, especially second generation West Indians. Many speak of the impact Garvey had on their family and connect his work to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. In his autobiography, Harry Belafonte, singer and actor of Jamaican descent, states that Marcus Garvey was his mother’s hero. For Belafonte’s poverty stricken family navigating a racial New York, “[Marcus Garvey] was a beacon of hope.” He goes further to state that “in his own way, Garvey was a founder of the civil rights movement, and my mother’s admiration for him had a lasting influence on me.”
In Unbought and Unbossed, Congresswoman and 1972 presidential candidate, Shirley Chisolm speaks of her Barbadian Garveyite father and connects Garveyism to “many of the ideas that characterize today’s militant Black separatists.” She states that “when any organization had a Marcus Garvey tribute, he would dress up and go. Sometimes he took me, and there I heard my first Black Nationalist oratory …of race pride and the need for unity, despite any differences.”
In The Other Black Bostonians, Violet Johnson writes of Elma Lewis’, founder of the National Center of Afro-American Artists (NCAAA), reminiscences of her family’s involvement in Garveyism in Boston. Lewis states, “I was raised to be a pan African. He [Lewis’ father] was a follower of Marcus Garvey, and we belonged all our lives to the Universal Negro Improvement Association. My mother was a Black Cross nurse… He [her father] belonged to the African Legion. My brother sold Negro world… And I was a Girl Guide. The motto of Garvey was “up you mighty race, up you mighty people; you can what you will….”
Both Chisholm and Belafonte speak of the class differences that separated organizations such as the NAACP and National Urban League who catered to the middle class, and the mass working class appeal of the UNIA. Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan also note their West Indian heritage and Garveyism as connecting to their roles in Nation of Islam, and ease of the conversion to the Muslim faith.
As a pragmatic Pan-Africanist organization, the organization not only entered into capital earning ventures, such as the Black Star Line Shipping Company and Negro Factories Corporation, but also engaged in agricultural commerce with Black farmers in the South and Caribbean. Under the direction of U.S. Poston, UNIA Minister of Labor and Industry, UNIA established a trade in products that sold directly into New York and New Jersey markets. The commercial operation traded transnationally with oranges and grapefruits from Florida and limes from the Caribbean. J. Raymond Jones, New York politician and UNIA member and employee in the 1920s, assisted Poston in this enterprising endeavor, and described the experience as “awe-inspiring…these farmers trusted us because we were the UNIA, and they knew that we would not cheat them.”
Although Garvey and Ashwood established the UNIA as an organization that would connect populations of African descent through racial and economic solidarity, UNIA and Garveyism is portrayed by some scholars in terms of an African American/Black foreign conflict.
While African American cultural critic Harold Cruse is known for his controversial and nativist statements about West Indian Black people and their recent descendants, he provides an important reading of Black movements in the 1920s as filled with clashes “between NAACP civil rightsism, Garvey nationalism, Negro socialism, Negro Communism, [and] Black trade unionism.” These clashes and conflicts dealt with intersectional factors of class, color, generation, national and regional origins, and competition for external (who white people would designate) and internal (who Black people would follow) leadership.
At the height of Garveyism, Black people from the English-speaking Caribbean in particular — and Black foreign nationals in general — became casualties in the rhetorical cross fires of this violent and personal polemic. But just as Garvey’s movement was international, transnational and transregional in support, it was equally criticized by Black Caribbean and Black American figures, such as W.A. Domingo, W.E.B Du Bois, and A. Philip Randolph.
On Tuesday, April 25, 1916, Marcus Garvey and W.E.B Du Bois met at the 75 Fifth Avenue office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Pulitzer prize winning Du Bois biographer, David Levering Lewis describes that “neither man yet thought of the other as a traitorous lunatic or a halfbreed, libels … [they] would hurl at each other seven years later.”
In 1923 at the height of the “Garvey Must Go” campaign (initiated by Garvey’s meeting with the Ku Klux Klan) and during his time in Tombs Prison in New York City, Garvey wrote “An Exposé of the Caste System among Negroes.” This is one of his many his writings that addressed NAACP/UNIA conflict. Garvey asserts that the hostility between the NAACP and UNIA as based in color caste system in which, he portrays Du Bois’s talented tenth as blue vein aristocrats that hate “the Negro blood in its vein” and would like to cast off into an intermediary Colored class as in the West Indies and South Africa. Although libelous, Garvey was addressing an important cleft in Black society, and questioning Du Bois’s talented tenth theory, which is controversially coded with white supremacist notions of race, class, and color.
Since W.E.B Du Bois-Booker T. Washington controversy of the turn of the 20th century, it was well known that Du Bois spoke mainly for the northern, urban, college-educated, professional, and light complexioned; and Washington for the farmers, domestics, and trades people located in the South, and of a darker complexion. Garvey was influenced by Washington, and took on (and evolved) his goals and, specifically in the urban northeast, his ideology catered to the migrated “farmers, domestics, and trades people” from the American South and Caribbean. Du Bois acknowledged the social fissures in the Black American population between “our privilege and our exploited, our educated and ignorant, our rich in our poor, our light and dark.”
Levering-Lewis states that Du Bois characterized Garvey as a “New Negro Demagog” that “exploits the ‘kernel of truth’ about class in order to destabilize legitimate leadership.” Du Bois warned that “native” Black leadership would punish anyone who attempted to play off one group of colored people against another. Du Bois’ rhetoric on Garvey elicited an added social cleft of “native” vs. “foreign,” which made Caribbean American critics of Garvey uncomfortable.
As the Garvey conflict took on a xenophobic tone, W.A. Domingo, a self proclaimed “proud West Indian” and outspoken Garvey critic, became a vocal intermediary. Domingo was editor of the Negro World and then writer for Messenger, until he founded the Emancipator in 1920. In a 1926 article, “The Tropics of New York,” Domingo gives his view on the Garvey controversy and the nativist tone of his North American critics, Du Bois and Randolph. In addition to stating the contributions of West Indians to Black American culture, history, economics and politics, he provides his critical view of Garvey:
It has been asserted that the movement headed by the most-advertised of all West Indians, Marcus Garvey, absentee “president” of the continent of Africa, represents the attempt of West Indian peasants to solve the American race problem. … The support given Garvey by a certain type of his country-men is partly explained by their group reaction to attacks made upon him because of his nationality. On the other hand the earliest and most persistent exposures of Garvey’s multitudinous schemes were initiated by West Indians in New York like Cyril Briggs and the writer [W.A. Domingo].
Domingo demonstrates that Garvey’s detractors were as diverse as his constituency, and that support for Garvey increased among West Indian and Black foreign nationals due to the xenophobic-nativism asserted by figures such as Du Bois and Randolph and their Crisis and Messenger publications. Three years before this article was published, Du Bois wrote a letter in response to W.A. Domingo’s assessment of African American nativism against Caribbean nationals in the US. Du Bois states:
I … agree with your thesis [on] Garvey, the object should be the opinions of the man and not the man himself or his birth place. American Negroes to a much larger extent than they realize, are not only blood relative to the West Indians but under deep obligation to them for many things. For instance without the Haitian Revolt, there would have been no emancipation in America as early as 1863. I, myself, am of West Indian descent and am proud of that fact.
Du Bois then asserts that Garvey “is wrong, I want to expose it; and so far as it is criminal, he ought to be punished by the courts. I do not, however, believe in deportation for you or anybody else; and I do not believe that a man’s birthplace, or his worries or color furnishes any crown for task.” The Du Bois/Garvey conflict became personal, as both leaders demonstrated the others disconnectedness from Black issues due to “mulatto blood” and foreign nativity. Outside of the personalized attacks, at the advent of the “New Negro,” who included the foreign born, socialists and communists, this underlying conflict surrounded positioning for leadership and ideological differences.
Although A. Phillip Randolph and his Messenger writers criticized W.E.B Du Bois as an old school leader who no longer spoke for the “New Negro,”  he became an aggressive critic of “New Negro” leader Marcus Garvey. Randolph had been influenced by and collaborated with West Indian radical “soapbox” orators, such as the “Father of Harlem Radicalism” Herbert Henry Harrison of St. Croix, Virgin Islands; Frank Crosswaith , the West Indian head of the Harlem Negro Labor Committee; and Cyril Briggs of Nevis who established The African Blood Brotherhood for African Liberation and Redemption (ABB) in 1919, which had a direct influence on A. Philip Randolph’s Brothers of Sleeping Car Porters establish in 1925.
J. Raymond Jones’ biography details Randolph as having “wide support in New York from Black people, and whites as well, particularly the leaders of a large number of liberal labor organizations that supported him… Randolph, a very courteous, well bred, well spoken, articulate man ….he spoke with a clipped oxfordian accent, more representative of a member of the Barbadian upper-class than the son of Black middle-class parents from Jacksonville, Florida.” Randolph’s Caribbean American influences were not only represented by his mentors, but also in his speech.
Randolph supported Garvey’s early career in New York, and at a soapbox meeting on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in 1917, he introduced Garvey and his movement to the crowd as “a young man from Jamaica, West Indies, who is one of the militant Black fighters for social and racial justice.” As socialists and integrationists, Randolph and Chandler Owens, who co-founded the Messenger newspaper in 1917, acknowledged Garvey’s different philosophies for racial and social change.
In a 1972 oral history interview, Randolph explains that Garvey “being not a Socialist, just a fighter for racial justice…was a big thing, and important thing. And Chandler…. didn’t think that Garvey was qualified intellectually to build a movement of such vast dimensions which he described, and then Chandler, too, believed in integration…and Garvey believed in the organization of Negroes by Negroes for Negroes and nobody else.” In a few years the Messenger newspaper became increasingly anti-Garvey and xenophobic, and became a proponent of the “Garvey Must Go” campaign.
The Messenger’s positions culminated into an article entitled “A Supreme Negro Jamaican Jackass,” W.A. Domingo responded with a warning to Chandler Owen that the “policy you are now pursuing will logically culminate in dissension within the race, and if sufficiently disseminated, make the life of West Indians among American Negroes as unsafe or unpleasant as is the life of American Negroes among their white countrymen ?” Domingo had quit as staff writer due to Randolph’s handling of the Garvey question, and in 1923, wrote a letter of protest accusing Messenger of being “anti-West Indian.”
Domingo contends: “who are the bitterest enemies and most persistent opponents of Garvey? Aren’t they West Indians?” Although criticisms towards Garvey and Garveyism took on a nativist tone, Harold Cruse shows that “W.A. Domingo was anti-Garvey; Randolph was anti-Garvey; and the Communists were anti-Garvey, and Garvey was particularly anti-Communist….” This conflict was based in ideology and leadership differences, more so than conflict founded on national origins.
In 1923, Marcus Garvey was indicted by the U.S. government for mail fraud. That same year , a group of eight prominent African Americans, including Robert S. Abbott (editor and publisher of the Chicago Defender), Robert W. Bagnall (Director of branches of the NAACP), and Chandler Owen, petitioned Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty requesting that the U.S. government continue to pursue its prosecution of Garvey on these charges. Convicted in 1923, Garvey was jailed in an Atlanta federal penitentiary in February 1925, where he served three years of a five-year sentence. In 1927, Garvey was deported from the United States returning to Jamaica. He lived in Jamaica where he had two sons with his second wife, Amy Jacques Garvey. He also travel and live in London, England, where he died of complications due to two strokes in 1940.
Marcus Garvey, the Universal Negro Improvement Association and the Garveyism movement had a profound impact on Black discourse on the world stage. Garvey created a mass movement that urged for racial consciousness and the establishment of a political and economic collective among international, transnational, transregional and translocal Black populations. This mass movement took advantage of collaboration occurring organically through the migration of differing Black populations (from the American South, Caribbean, circum-Caribbean and Latin America) to defined racialized metropoles spaces, such as Harlem, Brooklyn and Boston.
As these populations galvanized politically, through Garveyism, Socialism, or Intergrationism, they were becoming tied organically through Black cultural aesthetics, such as Jazz. The work of Harlem Renaissance radicals spoke to this political and cultural collaboration, with W.A. Domingo stating, that “a bond is being forged between [West Indians] and American Negroes. Gradually they are realizing that their problems are in the main similar and that their ultimate successful solution will depend on the intelligent cooperation of the two branches of Anglo-Saxonized Negroes.”
And Caribbean-born radical William Bridges to state emphatically: “There is no West Indian slave, no American slave; you are all slaves, base, ignoble slaves…. West Indian Negroes are oppressed. American Negroes are equally oppressed. West Indians, you are Black, Americans, you are equally Black. It is on your color upon which white men pass judgment, not your merits, nor the geographical lines between you.” The Harlem Renaissance, Jazz Age, and Garvey movement established a discourse on racial consciousness that was linked by the international, transnational, and transregional migration of diverse Black people.
These migratory populations were all relatively new to northern urban spaces of the United States, and while often discussed by scholars in terms of combative discourse on national origin; in reality, these communities found communality through shared space, ideology, economy, race, gender, class, and any other intersectional identity markers.