Marcus Garvey & The UNIA
August 17, 1887 – June 10, 1940
Notable: Activist & Entrepreneur
Marcus Garvey Early Life
Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr. was born in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica the last of his parent’s 11 children. His father earned a living as a stonemason while his mother worked as a domestic and farmer. Unfortunately, of the couple’s 11 children only Garvey and one other sibling would survive to adulthood. Despite not being wealthy, Garvey’s father had amassed a large collection of books which enabled Garvey to learn to read. Though primarily self-taught, Garvey did attend school but endured racism mostly at the hands of White teachers.
Due at least in part to his family’s financial constraints, Garvey had to leave school at 14-years-old to find work. He left his hometown for Kingston where he began working as a print shop apprentice. As he became familiar with the print trade and newspaper business his position and professional relationships provided an entrée into labor unions and organizing. Within just a few years he would participate in a printer’s strike which was unsuccessful for the workers but intensified Garvey’s interest in activism and organizing.
In his early 20s, Garvey spent time visiting relatives and traveling throughout Central America. Building on his publishing experience, Garvey worked in the newspaper industry as both an editor and writer in the course of which he covered the plight of migrant workers. Garvey then migrated to London, England where he continued his journalism career at the Pan-Africanism newspaper, African Times and Orient Review.
While in London, Garvey studied law and philosophy at Birkbeck College (University of London) and participated in debates at Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner. The two years that Garvey spent in England coincided with the lead-up to World War I as well as other global events. England was a hotbed of political activity with regards to nationalism as Ireland and the African colonies pushed for independence from England.
It was also during this time that Garvey first read “Up From Slavery” and was exposed to Booker T. Washington’s ideology of Black self-improvement. Garvey recalled his father as being steadfast, resolute, and unshakably committed to his convictions. Those examples combined with his experiences in London greatly influenced Garvey’s early philosophy. He came to believe that the people of the Black diaspora could improve their condition through Black pride, hard work, and self-improvement rather than political activism.
In 1914, Garvey returned to Jamaica where he and a group of friends founded the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities League which came to be known as the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Neither Garvey nor the UNIA gained much traction in Jamaica. But over the next few years, Garvey developed a correspondence with Washington which motivated him to journey to America.
Garvey had hoped to meet Washington but by the time he arrived in 1916, Washington had already passed away. Undaunted, Garvey traveled across America to personally assess the circumstances of Black Americans and their efforts to obtain civil rights. He saw that despite hard work and adherence to respectability politics Black people were still being denied their basic rights. Black people having served in World War I in expectation of greater acceptance into society seemed to inflame racial discrimination and violence.
Witnessing this changed Garvey’s philosophy to a form of Black nationalism that was a precursor to the later Black Power Movement. His new ideology still entailed Black pride and unity across the diaspora but now included Black separatism and self-determination. Part of the UNIA’s mission was a new “Back to Africa” movement where people from across the diaspora would return to Africa and establish an independent Black-ruled nation on the continent.
The UNIA & Marcus Garvey Later Life
Settling in New York, Garvey established UNIA headquarters in Harlem and smaller branches in cities across the North. No real effort was made at that point to establish a presence in the South as Garvey believed White supremacy and resistance were too firmly entrenched. Garvey initially supported himself and his movement by working in a print shop. A charismatic orator, he gave a speech at New York’s St. Mark’s Church to launch a 38-city speaking tour.
The next few years would see a flurry of activity from Garvey and the UNIA. Publication of the Negro World newspaper began, an auditorium was purchased in Harlem, and plans were developed for manufacturing factories. Not to mention the establishment of restaurants, grocery stores, laundries, a hotel, and a printing company. Most notably was the Black Star Line, a shipping company for which the UNIA sold stock intending to establish independent trade between Africa and the various countries of the Black diaspora.
In 1920, Marcus Garvey & the UNIA held an international convention at Madison Square Garden that attracted delegations from 25 countries. Before a crowd of 25,000 attendees, Garvey read the Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World. Members of the UNIA (and Garvey dressed in a fancy outfit and hat with a large feather) led a parade of 50,000 people through Harlem. The event marked a moment of immense pride for some members of the Black community.
But the attention also deepened the negative views of Garvey that were held by some Black leaders of the time. His views and activities also brought unwanted attention from J. Edgar Hoover and what was then the Bureau of Investigation (BOI). Unease about Garvey motivated the Bureau to hire its first Black agent to have someone infiltrate the UNIA.
Unfortunately, the Black Star Line quickly went bankrupt due to mounting debts and poor business practices. When Marcus Garvey & the UNIA continued to sell stock in the failed company it provided grounds for him to be arrested and indicted on mail fraud charges.
It seemed that despite having good business ideas Garvey might not have been competent enough to run the business. Some historians believe that the first ship that was purchased may have incurred expensive repairs due in part to sabotage that financially burdened the company.
Convicted in 1923, Garvey’s role in the company’s failure was more likely being a poor businessman rather than a con man. His conviction provided critics with the ammunition to paint him as a swindler and danger to the Black community. Garvey’s support of segregation laws and acceptance of the Ku Klux Klan because of their shared commitment to the separation of the races didn’t help matters.
After serving a few years in prison Garvey’s sentence was commuted and he was deported to Jamaica. Continuing his political activism, Garvey founded Jamaica’s first modern political party, the People’s Political Party. The combination of his conviction and other factors led to the UNIA losing influence and fading away in America. His collaboration with white supremacists on plans to have the government pay to deport Black Americans to Liberia further decreased support from the Black community.
Garvey spent the last years of his life living and working in London where he suffered two strokes that ended his life. Because England was in the midst of World War II his body was not returned to Jamaica until 1964 when he was buried in Kingston at the Marcus Garvey Memorial in National Heroes Park. Twice married and once divorced, Marcus Garvey was survived by his second wife and their two sons.
- Biography.com Editors. 2021. “Marcus Garvey.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. January 8, 2021. https://www.biography.com/activist/marcus-garvey.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2020. “Marcus Garvey.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. September 10, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marcus-Garvey.
- History.com Editors. 2019. “Marcus Garvey.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. December 13, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/marcus-garvey.
- Simba, Malik. 2019. “Marcus Garvey (1887-1940).” Blackpast.org. December 15, 2019. https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/garvey-marcus-1887-1940/.
- Van Leeuwen, David. 2000. “Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association.” National Humanities Center. October 2000. http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/garvey.htm.
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