Identification: Jamaican immigrant, social activist, and journalist
Born: August 17, 1887; St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica
Died: June 10, 1940; London, England
Significance: The first person of African descent to galvanize black people throughout the world with the idea of returning to Africa, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which sought to deliver African Americans from injustice, encourage racial self-improvement, and promote a back-to-Africa movement. He also started the Black Star Line shipping company to help promote black economic independence and to provide transportation back to Africa.
Born in the British Caribbean colony of Jamaica in 1887, Marcus Garvey was the son of sharecroppers. At the age of fourteen, he moved to Jamaica’s capital city, Kingston, where he became a printer. There he learned the journalism trade, which would later enable him to set up newspapers that he would use to organize and address workers who were victims of racial injustice. He traveled throughout Central America, South America, and Europe and witnessed the living conditions of people of African descent around the world. Eventually, he returned home to Jamaica and started the UNIA, a racial uplift organization for all peoples of African descent.
Disappointed by the lack of support from the black community in Jamaica but determined to continue this path of liberating his people from oppression and inequality, he went to the United States, hoping to gain some financial support from the African American educator Booker T.Washington. Garvey arrived in the United States in 1916, after Washington had already died but nevertheless found an eager audience for his message that he had not found in Jamaica. In New York City’s Harlem district, his black nationalist ideas were accepted, as he promoted the backto- Africa movement and established the shipping company the Black Star Line.
Marcus Garvey. (Library of Congress)
As Garvey traveled throughout the United States, he witnessed the living conditions of African Americans and spoke and met with African American leaders. The economic disaster of World War I, racial discrimination, lynching, and the injustices faced by African Americans opened the door to a leader willing to speak up and support racial pride and economic independence. Over the next half dozen years, Garvey built the largest mass movement of black people in the world, finding his strongest support in the Caribbean, Central America, and the United States. However, his Black Star Line fell short of success as a result of negligence and the need for financial resources. In 1922, J. Edgar Hoover of the federal government’s Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the Federal Bureau of Investigation) started investigating Garvey for financial fraud. In 1925, Garvey was sentenced to federal prison on mailfraud charges. Two years later, he was deported to Jamaica, never to return to the United States. Eventually, he returned to England, where he died in 1940. By then, his UNIA was only a fraction of its former size.
Garvey was very influential at a time when there was a need for leadership for descendants of Africans. He was effective because he sought to improve the self-esteem and condition of black people all over the world. His published speeches and letters address issues of injustice and offer suggestions for the elevation of self-esteem based on racial pride and economic independence.
See also: African Americans and immigrants; Economic opportunities; Emigration; Liberia; Universal Negro Improvement Association; West Indian immigrants.