June is Caribbean American Heritage Month. Visit the National Archives website for more information on related holdings. Today’s post comes from Vincent Bartholomew from the National Archives History Office.
Marcus Garvey envisioned a Pan-African and Black Nationalist movement and used the Black Star Line, a shipping corporation, to unite Africans in the U.S. and the Caribbean. The formation of the Black Star Line and the Universal Negro Improvement Association raised Garvey from humble beginnings in the Caribbean to a civil rights champion.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr., was born on August 17, 1887, in Saint Ann’s Bay, Jamaica. As a son of a stone mason in the British colonial West Indies, he experienced oppression and was considered in the lowest position in the colonialist social hierarchy. In 1914, however, after he learned about colonial Africa from Booker T. Washington’s book Up From Slavery, Garvey envisioned a movement that would unify black people around the world.
After the establishment the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica in 1914, Garvey moved to Harlem and established the New York branch of the UNIA in 1917. Through this forum Garvey’s Pan-African and Black Nationalist message became known as “Garveyism.”
Pan-Africanism is the principle or advocacy of the political union of all the indigenous and dispersed ethnic groups of African descent. Garvey asked, “‘Where is the black man‘s Government?’ ‘Where is his King and his kingdom?’ ‘Where is his President, his country, and his ambassador, his army, his navy, his men of big affairs?’ I could not find them, and then I declared ‘I will help make them.’” In order to answer these questions Garvey and the UNIA began the Black Star Line in 1919.
The mission of the Black Star Line was to “foster black trade, to transport passengers between America, Caribbean, and Africa, and to serve as a symbol of black grandeur and enterprise.” By 1920, the Black Star Line had three ships, and its flagship, the SS Yarmouth, made its maiden voyage in November 1919. The Black Star Line promoted the UNIA as its most prominent and powerful recruiting asset and sold a total of 96,285 shares of the Black Star Line.
The success of the Black Star Line culminated in the 1920 UNIA convention that ratified Garveyism as the official doctrine of the movement. It offered a program for African independence and racial sovereignty through the relocation of the diasporic groups to Africa using the Black Star Line. However, top-level mismanagement and corruption along with expensive repairs sunk the Black Star Line.
As the Black Star Line began to flounder, Garvey’s contemporaries criticized the outspoken leader. Cyril Briggs, a fellow Caribbean American and leader of the African Blood Brothers, condemned Garvey’s leadership and raised embarrassing questions of fraudulent behavior within the Black Star Line. W.E.B. Du Bois conducted an in-depth investigation into Garvey’s and the Black Star Line’s finances, which he published in the magazine Crisis, that blemished Garvey’s reputation as a black leader.
In an attempt to save the Black Star Line, Garvey negotiated with the United States Shipping Board to purchase the SS Orion as an African ship. However, negotiations failed due to pressure from the Department of Justice and critical black leadership. On February 15, 1922, Garvey was indicted on charges of mail fraud, tax evasion, perjury, and income tax fraud along with four other officials of the Black Star Line based on evidence submitted by Cyril Briggs.
In the trial, in which Garvey defended himself, the prosecution stated that Garvey printed a brochure for the Black Star Line which promoted the ship, SS Phyllis Wheatley. However, the ship was still registered as the SS Orion and the contract still needed to be agreed upon for purchase, so the ship never belonged to the Black Star Line. The other counts of fraud were based upon misleading sales of stocks of the Black Star Line. In the end, Garvey was the only defendant proven guilty of fraud. Many of Garvey’s supporters as well as Garvey himself believed that the trial was politically motivated.
After Garvey was convicted, he was arrested on February 5, 1925, and taken to a Federal penitentiary in Atlanta, GA. However, on November 18, 1927, President Calvin Coolidge commuted Garvey’s sentence because of the plea of the UNIA and his supporters as well as Garvey’s lawyer. Garvey was immediately deported back to Jamaica.
Garvey never returned to the United States and lived in London until his death in 1940. Even though his enterprise ultimately failed, Garvey is a champion of Caribbean American and African American history. In 1964 Garvey’s body was moved to Jamaica, where he was buried in a shrine in the National Heroes Park in Kingston and named Jamaica’s first National Hero.