On January 18, the United States will take the opportunity to remember the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who strived for a better vision of Blacks in America. His efforts are celebrated as a peaceful response to imbedded racism. In the face of domestic warfare and the marginalization of a segment of the population based on color, Dr. King preached toleration and understanding. His violent death has become a baseline by which to gauge whether Americans have advanced to a race neutral psyche. Certainly, the quest is ongoing.
Almost a century ago another man had a vision for Black Americans that did not require a public display, patience, or reliance upon the understanding of the majority population of any nation. The man was Jamaican born, London educated, Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Garvey is almost unknown to Americans today, other than as a footnote to early Civil Rights activism.
Garvey was a businessman with an action plan. When he spoke at Madison Square Garden in 1921, to 50,000 attendees, his message resonated as a means to self-reliance and self-definition. His business quickly became fully subscribed by African-American men and women. No government assistance was requested. Had there been no government subterfuge, the business may have succeeded.
The early history of Garvey’s life, and his connection to the tiny fishing village of Puerto Limón, Costa Rica, is revealing. Marcus Garvey was born in 1887, in Jamaica, the youngest of eleven children. His father was a mason and his mother a domestic worker. Garvey’s father had a small library in the home and encouraged his education. Since England had abolished slavery throughout its domain in 1834, the elder Garvey had high aspirations for his children.
In 1910, Garvey left home for Puerto Limón for employment as a timekeeper on a banana plantation of the United Fruit Company. Deeply troubled by the condition of workers and the racism he saw and experienced, Garvey left for Colon, Panama, where he edited a local newspaper. By 1912 Garvey was in London, where he studied law from 1912 to 1914.
Garvey read and was influenced by the writings of Americans Booker T. Washington and Martin R. Delany. Delany, a second generation American of an African prince, captured and brought to the country as a slave, was one of the first Blacks admitted to Harvard Medical School. He worked with Frederick Douglas to recruit the US Colored Troops Corps. After the Civil War Delany advocated that the African diaspora rise in education and business. The message stuck with Garvey. Well educated, Garvey was ready to pursue a business.
Garvey came to the United States where in 1917 he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. The association was founded upon social, humanitarian, and charitable purposes, with the goal of uplifting Africans throughout the world to advance in society. The UNIA-ACL started Black Cross Nurses, Negro Factories Corporation, Black Cross Trading and Navigation Corporation and the Black Star Steamship Line, incorporated in Delaware, with Garvey as president, and with a home office in Puerto Limón.
The Black Star Line was the first business of the UNIA. The employees, owners, investors and customers were all to be of the Black African diaspora. For instance, Black Star would transport wine from Ethiopian grapes to Black merchants in the Americas. The goal of Garvey and the UNIA was financial success for Africans. Economically empowered Africans would level the playing field.
In the first year income from the Black Star Line was $600,000. The income was a great achievement since Garvey was sold only substandard equipment at inflated prices. The first ship purchased was the SS Yarmouth, to be christened the Frederick Douglas. It was an aging World War I era coal ship that sailed for three years. Two other ships purchased were unseaworthy and were short-lived assets.
Not all employees of Black Star held the ideals of Garvey. Business objectives were compromised by some taking quick personal gain. Repairs to ships went unattended. Some corporation officers were accused of mail fraud. Garvey’s ability to move the company ahead, while resolving internal issues, was compromised by the absorption of his time responding to never-ending government investigations.
The New York federal prosecutor was keen on ensnaring Garvey in wrongdoing. Garvey was followed although no charges were filed. There was an assassination attempt on Garvey. The shooter said the District Attorney employed him. Garvey responded in print and the DA filed a libel suit.
Garvey’s popularity grew after WWI, particularly with Black veterans. Garvey was an outspoken opponent of Communism, which offered nothing to rising Black businesses. Labor leader W.E.B. Du Bois criticized him for promoting independent Black businesses rather than integration throughout society. Garvey had little patience for waiting for others to unlock access to corporate opportunity.
By October 1919, Garvey attracted the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Bureau of Investigation, which was to become the FBI in 1935. Hoover hired five African-American agents to infiltrate Garvey associations and businesses in order to find a basis to charge him, or to at least have Garvey deported. There was suspicion at the time that the agents were involved in sabotaging Black Star ships. The zeal of Hoover to arrest Garvey for anything lends credibility to the story.
Adding to the angst of Hoover and the history of the Black Star Line was the Yarmouth involvement in Rum Row, also known as the Whiskey Cruise. In the days before Prohibition went into effect in the United States, the Yarmouth left New York Harbor with 1,500 cases of whiskey, as did many other ships. When the Yarmouth returned to port 500 cases were missing. The explanation given was that the whisky was sold legally outside the three-mile US territorial waters.
Regardless of legal cause, federal agents seized $4million in remaining whiskey cargo from the Black Star Line. Later, when the shipment went missing while in custody, Black Star was held accountable. Hoover demanded that Garvey pay an additional fine for the missing whiskey.
Finding no other substance for criminal charges, Garvey was charged with mail fraud, on the basis that stock sales in the Black Star Line were begun before the first ship was purchased. The trial ended in conviction and a five-year prison sentence for Garvey. He served two years in a federal penitentiary in Louisiana before he was deported to Jamaica in 1927. In Jamaica, Garvey was hailed as a great leader.
In 1929 assets of the UNIA and Black Star Line were liquidated. Garvey died of stroke in London in 1940, at the age of 52. Twenty years later his remains were removed to a hero’s tomb in Jamaica. The flag of Ghana has a black star as a tribute to Garvey. The Black Star Line offices in Puerto Limón remain preserved in reverence to the business leader, who led by action and example.
In 2011 President Obama was asked to grant a pardon to Garvey. The President declined to allow posthumous recognition. The power of a government to deconstruct an enterprise of minority advancement remains unrefuted.
Dr. King, Martin Delany, and Marcus Garvey stepped forward in a void of government support. They advocated education and business entrepreneurship, not violence or blame. Such visionary efforts deserve to be emulated.