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Marcus Garvey: The Empire of Africa -- in America?


They called it "Red Summer."

Thousands of African American soldiers had risked their lives "making the world safe for democracy" in World War I, only to discover the ideals they'd fought for in distant lands didn't apply to themselves in their own country. A year after the war ended, 70 blacks were lynched in the United States; many of them were still wearing their uniforms. Fourteen more were burned by white citizens -- 11 while still alive. Then there were the race riots, the Ku Klux Klan rallies, and discrimination in housing and in the workplace.

African Americans cried out for justice. Relatively affluent blacks created and mobilized the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); African American writers and artists thrived in the Harlem Renaissance.

Less privileged blacks, however, were left in the cold. For these most oppressed of Americans, a non-American would answer the call for help. His name was Marcus Mosiah Garvey, and his legacy endures to this day.

Shops selling African textiles are popular in Harlem
Shops selling African textiles are popular in Harlem
Garvey was born the fifth of 11 children in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica. Because of his family's financial struggles, he was forced to leave school at age 14 to help put plantains on the table. Eventually, he took a job with a fruit company and traveled across Central and South America. Garvey was appalled by the living and working conditions of blacks there. He started studying the situation of blacks in other lands, discovering that it was no better anywhere else.

"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?" Garvey asked. "I could not find them, and I declared, I will help to make them."

harcloth.jpg: Stephanie gazes at beautiful mudcloths and textiles from Mali
harcloth.jpg: Stephanie gazes at beautiful mudcloths and textiles from Mali
Vowing to lead the black race to their promised land, Garvey hurried home to Jamaica and founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Yet Jamaicans were indifferent to Garvey's notion of black self-help. Not one to be discouraged, Garvey took his ideas where they were needed most: Harlem, the "Negro Capital of America."

Garvey arrived in upper Manhattan in 1916 at age 28. After opening a new chapter of the UNIA, he started shouting his master plan of an all-black nation on street corners. Before long, people began to listen -- especially lower-class blacks and immigrants. The UNIA became the first mass black political movement in American history, and Garvey was its Moses.

Marcus Garvey is featured on a New York Subway mosaic
Marcus Garvey is featured on a New York Subway mosaic
In 1921, Garvey announced the formation of the "Empire of Africa" and appointed himself as its provisional president. He fit the role well, wearing a uniform that was a cross between that of a decorated military general and a shriner, with plumes on his hat.

Despite Garvey's large following, his plan to transplant blacks from all countries to Africa ultimately failed. His next idea was to start a black-owned and -operated steamship line that would connect the U.S. with Africa and the West Indies. He invested a great deal of time and money in this scheme, but in the end, only one of his four ships could actually sail.

Garvey had more luck with other projects. He founded a Negro Factories Corporation that promoted black-owned businesses, a newspaper called Negro World, and an organization modeled after the Red Cross called the Universal Black Cross Nurses. He also helped establish co-operative grocery stores, restaurants, steam laundries, tailors and publishing houses. As a motivational speaker, he could fill Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall. He boasted a following of six million, although historians put it closer to one million.

Chris Moore stands beside the
Chris Moore stands beside the
Garvey was as despised as he was beloved -- especially among the black upper class. He particularly offended W. E. B. Dubois, who called him a "dangerous demagogue." (Garvey, in turn, said Dubois was dependent on the "patronage of good white people.") Garvey also raised the eyebrows of government officials -- including those of FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, who once tried to deny him a re-entry visa into the U.S.

Oddly enough, Garvey found support among the Ku Klux Klan, whose members applauded his ideas of racial separation. Klan support didn't sit well with folks in Harlem, some of whom had been persecuted by the racist group. A "Garvey Must Go" campaign was launched.


Woes of a homeless historian...

At about the same time, the U.S. government launched an investigation into Garvey's many projects, indicting him on mail-fraud charges in connection with his steamship line. Garvey was sentenced to five years in prison, but President Calvin Coolidge decided to deport him to Jamaica instead. Once there, Garvey tried to revive his UNIA movement and dabble in politics, but he had minimal success. He died after a stroke in London in 1940.

After learning about the amazing life and times of Marcus Garvey, Stephen and I started wondering about his legacy. What have people in Harlem retained from his teachings? Do they still support his policy of racial separation? Or do folks only remember Garvey's notion that 'black is beautiful'?

To find out, we headed to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where research coordinator Chris Moore put Garvey into context for us. "Garvey is an important figure, comparable with Dr. Martin Luther King," he said. "In fact, he had an even wider influence than King in the African American community. History books usually diminish Marcus Garvey by calling him a buffoonish character, but that's because most were written by people who were white -- not black. Garvey created a real mass movement for African Americans that was cultural, political, spiritual and economical. He even tried to create an all-black nation."

Garvey's biggest problem was that he took it too far.

All of the African Americans we interviewed said it was better for blacks in this country to integrate rather than separate. Andrew Jackson, executive director of the Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center in Queens, has incorporated a philosophy of integration into all aspects of his life -- including his name. He answers to his birth name of Andrew Jackson as well as his African name, Sekou Molefi Baako (which means Warrior, Keeps Tradition, First Born).

Stephanie talks with Chris Moore at the Schomberg Center in Harlem
Stephanie talks with Chris Moore at the Schomberg Center in Harlem
"The first thing they asked me during my naming ceremony was, 'Are you going to give up your birth name?'" remarked Jackson. "But I said no. Having both names is my way of connecting my African past with my American present. I'm proud of my grandfather, uncle and father," he said. "We can't forget who we were, because that makes us what we'll be tomorrow."

We encountered this spirit time and again as we strolled through the streets of Harlem and caught glimpses of African Americans wearing mudcloths from Mali and dashikis from Gambia with their Nikes and Fubus. Perhaps that's Garvey's most lasting impact -- he made it okay to incorporate the African side of things.


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Springfield's massacre: The 1908 Race Riots
Irene - Strung up, cut up, and set on fire
Stephen - "I'm African! No, I'm American! No, I'm African!" No, I'm American!
Stephanie - Poetry to stir the soul and inspire a nation
Nick - How the government ground down a community
Making A Difference - If you are dark of skin, you are guilty as sin
Stephen - Celebrating your heritage: the Black Renaissance
Irene - The largest racial killings in American history