1887-08-17 to 1940-06-10
Jamaica, England and U.S.H.E. The Right Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey Jr. (17 August 1887 – 10 June 1940) was a Jamaican political activist, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and orator. He was the founder and first President-General of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL, commonly known as UNIA), through which he declared himself Provisional President of Africa. Ideologically a black nationalist and Pan-Africanist, his ideas came to be known as Garveyism.
In 1905, Marcus moved to Kingston, where he boarded in Smith Village, a working-class neighbourhood. In the city, he secured work with the printing division of the P.A. Benjamin Manufacturing Company. He rose quickly through the company ranks, becoming their first Afro-Jamaican foreman.
Garvey became a trade unionist and took a leading role in the November 1908 print workers' strike. The strike was broken several weeks later and Garvey was sacked. Henceforth branded a troublemaker, Garvey was unable to find work in the private sector. He then found temporary employment with a government printer. As a result of these experiences, Garvey became increasingly angry at the inequalities present in Jamaican society.
In early 1910, Garvey began publishing a magazine, Garvey's Watchman—its name a reference to George William Gordon's The Watchman—although it only lasted three issues. He claimed it had a circulation of 3000, although this was likely an exaggeration. Garvey also enrolled in elocution lessons with the radical journalist Robert J. Love, whom Garvey came to regard as a mentor. With his enhanced skill at speaking in a Standard English manner, he entered several public speaking competitions.
Garvey involved himself with the National Club, Jamaica's first nationalist organization, becoming its first assistant secretary in April 1910. The group campaigned to remove the British Governor of Jamaica, Sydney Olivier, from office, and to end the migration of Indian "coolies", or indentured workers, to Jamaica, as they were seen as a source of economic competition by the established population. With fellow Club member Wilfred Domingo he published a pamphlet expressing the group's ideas, The Struggling Mass.
Economic hardship in Jamaica led to growing emigration from the island. In mid-1910, Garvey traveled to Costa Rica, where an uncle had secured him employment as a timekeeper on a large banana plantation in the Limón Province owned by the United Fruit Company (UFC).
In the spring of 1911 be launched a bilingual newspaper, Nation/La Nación, which criticized the actions of the UFC and upset many of the dominant strata of Costa Rican society in Limón. Marcus's coverage of a local fire, in which he questioned the motives of the fire brigade, resulted in him being brought in for police questioning. After his printing press broke, he was unable to replace the faulty part and terminated the newspaper.
Garvey then traveled through Central America, undertaking casual work as he made his way through Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela. While in the port of Colón in Panama, he set up a new newspaper, La Prensa ("The Press").
Marcus then decided to travel to London, the administrative center of the British Empire, in the hope of advancing his informal education. In the spring of 1912, he sailed to England. Renting a room along Borough High Street in South London, he visited the House of Commons, where he was impressed by the politician David Lloyd George.
After managing to save the funds for a fare, he boarded the SS Trent in June 1914 for a three-week journey across the Atlantic. En route home, Garvey talked with an Afro-Caribbean missionary who had spent time in Basutoland and taken a Basuto wife. Discovering more about colonial Africa from this man, Garvey began to envision a movement that would politically unify black people of African descent across the world.
Back in London, he wrote an article on Jamaica for the Tourist magazine, and spent time reading in the library of the British Museum. There he discovered Up from Slavery, a book by the African-American entrepreneur and activist Booker T. Washington.
Garvey arrived back in Jamaica in July 1914. There, he saw his article for Tourist republished in The Gleaner. He began earning money selling greeting and condolence cards which he had imported from Britain, before later switching to selling tombstones.
Also in July 1914, Garvey launched the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, commonly abbreviated as UNIA. Adopting the motto of "One Aim. One God. One Destiny", it declared its commitment to "establish a brotherhood among the black race, to promote a spirit of race pride, to reclaim the fallen and to assist in civilizing the backward tribes of Africa".
In August 1914, Garvey attended a meeting of the Queen Street Baptist Literary and Debating Society, where he met Amy Ashwood, recently graduated from the Westwood Training College for Women. She joined UNIA and rented a better premises for them to use as their headquarters, secured using her father's credit. She and Garvey embarked on a relationship, which was opposed by her parents. In 1915 they secretly became engaged. When she suspended the engagement, he threatened to commit suicide, at which she resumed it.
In April 1915, Brigadier General L. S. Blackden lectured to the group on the war effort; Garvey endorsed Blackden's calls for more Jamaicans to sign up to fight for the Empire on the Western Front. The group also sponsored musical and literary evenings as well as a February 1915 elocution contest, at which Garvey took first prize.
Arriving in the United States, Garvey initially lodged with a Jamaican expatriate family living in Harlem, a largely black area of New York City. He began lecturing in the city, hoping to make a career as a public speaker, although at his first public speech was heckled and fell off the stage.
From New York City, Marcus embarked on a U.S. speaking tour, crossing 38 states. At stopovers on his journey he listened to preachers from the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Black Baptist churches. While in Alabama, he visited the Tuskegee Institute and met with its new leader, Robert Russa Moton.
UNIA also obtained a partially-constructed church building at 114 West 138 Street in Harlem, which Garvey named "Liberty Hall" after its namesake in Dublin, Ireland, which had been established during the Easter Rising of 1916.
After the U.S. entered the First World War in April 1917, Garvey initially signed up to fight but was ruled physically unfit to do so. He later became an opponent of African-American involvement in the conflict, following Harrison in accusing it of being a "white man's war".
In May 1917, Garvey launched a New York branch of UNIA. He declared membership open to anyone "of Negro blood and African ancestry" who could pay the 25 cents a month membership fee. In his speeches, he sought to reach across to both Afro-Caribbean migrants like himself and native African-Americans. Through this, he began to associate with Hubert Harrison, who was promoting ideas of black self-reliance and racial separatism.
In the wake of the East St. Louis Race Riots in May to July 1917, in which white mobs targeted black people, Garvey began calling for armed self-defense. He produced a pamphlet, "The Conspiracy of the East St Louis Riots", which was widely distributed; proceeds from its sale went to victims of the riots. The Bureau of Investigation began monitoring him, noting that in speeches he employed more militant language than that used in print; it for instance reported him expressing the view that "for every Negro lynched by whites in the South, Negroes should lynch a white in the North".
In June, Garvey shared a stage with Harrison at the inaugural meeting of the latter's Liberty League of Negro-Americans. Through his appearance here and at other events organised by Harrison, Garvey attracted growing public attention.
After the First World War ended, President Woodrow Wilson declared his intention to present a 14-point plan for world peace at the forthcoming Paris Peace Conference. Garvey joined various African-Americans in forming the International League for Darker People, a group which sought to lobby Wilson and the conference to give greater respect to the wishes of people of color; their delegates nevertheless were unable to secure the travel documentation.
There were tensions between UNIA and the NAACP and the latter's supporters accused Garvey of stymieing their efforts at bringing about racial integration in the U.S. Garvey was dismissive of the NAACP leader W. E. B. Du Bois, and in one issue of the Negro World called him a "reactionary under the pay of white men". Du Bois generally tried to ignore Garvey, regarding him as a demagogue, but at the same time wanted to learn all he could about Garvey's movement.
UNIA also began selling shares for a new business, the Black Star Line. The Black Star Line based its name on the White Star Line.[ Garvey envisioned a shipping and passenger line travelling between Africa and the Americas, which would be black-owned, black-staffed, and utilized by black patrons.
People continued buying stock regardless and by September 1919, the Black Star Line company had accumulated $50,000 by selling stock. It could thus afford a thirty-year old tramp ship, the SS Yarmouth. The ship was formally launched in a ceremony on the Hudson River on 31 October.
In October 1919, George Tyler, a part-time vendor of the Negro World, entered the UNIA office and tried to assassinate Garvey. The latter received two bullets in his legs but survived. Tyler was soon apprehended but died in an escape attempt from jail; it was never revealed why he tried to kill Garvey. Garvey soon recovered from his wounds; five days later he gave a public speech in Philadelphia. After the assassination attempt, Garvey hired a bodyguard, Marcellus Strong.
Back in Kingston, UNIA obtained Edelweiss Park in Cross Roads, which it established as its new headquarters. They held a conference there, opened by a parade through the city which attracted tens of thousands of onlookers.
Shortly after the incident, Garvey proposed marriage to Amy Ashwood and she accepted. On Christmas Day, they had a private Roman Catholic church wedding, followed by a major ceremonial celebration in Liberty Hall, attended by 3000 UNIA members. Jacques was Ashwood's maid of honor. After the wedding, Garvey moved into Ashwood's apartment.
In August 1920, UNIA organized the First International Conference of the Negro Peoples in Harlem. This parade was attended by Gabriel Johnson, the Mayor of Monrovia in Liberia. As part of it, an estimated 25,000 people assembled in Madison Square Gardens.
Three months into the marriage (Feb-Mar 1919), Garvey sought an annulment, on the basis of Ashwood's alleged adultery and the claim that she had used "fraud and concealment" to induce the marriage. She launched a counter-claim for desertion, requesting $75 a week alimony. The court rejected this sum, instead ordering Garvey to pay her $12 a week. It refused to grant him the divorce. The court proceedings continued for two years. Now separated (Year 1921), Garvey moved into a 129th Street apartment with Jacques and Henrietta Vinton Davis, an arrangement that at the time could have caused some social controversy. He was later joined there by his sister Indiana and her husband, Alfred Peart. Ashwood, meanwhile, went on to become a lyricist and musical director for musicals amid the Harlem Renaissance.
In June 1922, Garvey met with Edward Young Clarke, the Imperial Wizard pro tempore of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) at the Klan's offices in Atlanta. Garvey made a number of incendiary speeches in the months leading up to that meeting; in some, he thanked the whites for Jim Crow. Garvey once stated: I regard the Klan, the Anglo-Saxon clubs and White American societies, as far as the Negro is concerned, as better friends of the race than all other groups of hypocritical whites put together. I like honesty and fair play. You may call me a Klansman if you will, but, potentially, every white man is a Klansman as far as the Negro in competition with whites socially, economically and politically is concerned, and there is no use lying. News of Garvey's meeting with the KKK soon spread and it was covered on the front page of many African-American newspapers, causing widespread upset.
At UNIA's August 1922 convention, Garvey called for the impeachment of several senior UNIA figures, including Adrian Johnson and J. D. Gibson, and declared that the UNIA cabinet should not be elected by the organization's members, but appointed directly by him.
Having been postponed at least three times, in May 1923, the trial finally came to court, with Garvey and three other defendants accused of mail fraud. The judge overseeing the proceedings was Julian Mack, although Garvey disliked his selection on the grounds that he thought Mack an NAACP sympathizer.
On 18 June, the jurors retired to deliberate on the verdict, returning after ten hours. They found Garvey himself guilty, but his three co-defendants not guilty. Garvey was furious with the verdict, shouting abuse in the courtroom and calling both the judge and district attorney "damned dirty Jews". Imprisoned in The Tombs jail while awaiting sentencing, he continued to blame a Jewish cabal for the verdict; in contrast, prior to this he had never expressed anti-semitic sentiment and was supportive of Zionism.
In September, Judge Martin Manton awarded Garvey bail for $15,000—which was duly raised by UNIA—while he appealed his conviction. Again a free man, he toured the U.S., giving a lecture at the Tuskegee Institute. In speeches given during this tour he further emphasized the need for racial segregation through migration to Africa, calling the United States "a white man's country".
In February 1924, UNIA put forward its plans to bring 3000 African-American migrants to Liberia. The latter's President, Charles D. B. King, assured them that he would grant them area for three colonies. In June, a team of UNIA technicians was sent to start work in preparing for these colonies.
In early 1925, the U.S. Court of Appeal upheld the original court decision. Garvey was in Detroit at the time and was arrested while aboard a train back to New York City. In February he was taken to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary and incarcerated there. Imprisoned, he was made to carry out cleaning tasks. On one occasion he was reprimanded for insolence towards the white prison officers. There, he became increasingly ill with chronic bronchitis and lung infections; two years into his imprisonment he would be hospitalized with influenza.
With Garvey absent, William Sherrill became acting head of UNIA. Garvey was angry and in February 1926 wrote to the Negro World expressing his dissatisfaction with Sherrill's leadership. From prison, he organized an emergency UNIA convention in Detroit, where delegates voted to depose Sherrill.
The Attorney General, John Sargent, received a petition with 70,000 signatures urging for Garvey's release. Sargeant warned President Calvin Coolidge that African-Americans were regarding Garvey's imprisonment not as a form of justice against a man who had swindled them but as "an act of oppression of the race in their efforts in the direction of race progress". Eventually, Coolidge agreed to commute the sentence so that it would expire immediately, on 18 November 1927. He stipulated, however, that Garvey should be deported straight after release.
On being released, Garvey was taken by train to New Orleans, where around a thousand supporters saw him onto the SS Saramaca on 3 December. The ship then stopped at Cristóbal in Panama, where supporters again greeted him, but where the authorities refused his request to disembark. He then transferred to the SS Santa Maria, which took him to Kingston.
In Kingston, Garvey was greeted by supporters. UNIA members had raised $10,000 to help him settle in Jamaica, with which he bought a large house in an elite neighbourhood, which he called the "Somali Court". His wife shipped over his belongings—which included 18,000 books and hundreds of antiques—before joining him.
Garvey attempted to travel across Central America but found his hopes blocked by the region's various administrations, who regarded him as disruptive. Instead, he traveled to England in April, where he rented a house in London's West Kensington area for four months.
In Kingston, Garvey was elected a city councillor and established the country's first political party, the People's Political Party (PPP), through which he intended to contest the forthcoming legislative council election. In September 1929 he addressed a crowd of 1,500 supporters, launching the PPP's manifesto, which included land reform to benefit tenant farmers, the addition of a minimum wage to the constitution, pledges to build Jamaica's first university and opera house, and a proposed law to impeach and imprison corrupt judges.
Dissatisfied with life in Jamaica, Garvey decided to move to London, sailing aboard the SS Tilapa in March 1935. Once in London, he told his friend Amy Bailey that he had "left Jamaica a broken man, broken in spirit, broken in health and broken in pocket... and I will never, never, never go back."