Organization of UNIA
In 1914, Garvey returned to Jamaica, where he organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). In an article titled “The Negro’s Greatest Enemy”, published in Current History (September 1923), Garvey explained the origin of the organization’s name:
Where did the name of the organization come from? It was while speaking to a West Indian Negro who was a passenger with me from Southampton, who was returning home to the West Indies from Basutoland with his Basuto wife, I further learned of the horrors of native life in Africa. He related to me in conversation such horrible and pitiable tales that my heart bled within me. Retiring from the conversation to my cabin, all day and the following night I pondered over the subject matter of that conversation, and at midnight, lying flat on my back, the vision and thought came to me that I should name the organization the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities (Imperial) League. Such a name I thought would embrace the purpose of all black humanity. Thus to the world a name was born, a movement created, and a man became known.
After corresponding with Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and a national African-American leader in the United States, Garvey traveled by ship to the U.S., arriving on 23 March 1916 aboard the SS Tallac. He intended to make a lecture tour and to raise funds to establish a school in Jamaica modeled after Washington’s Institute. Garvey visited Tuskegee, and afterward, visited with a number of black leaders. Throughout his life, Garvey and the UNIA used the organization’s resources to give people of African descent opportunities in academics that he felt they wouldn’t be provided otherwise.
After moving to New York, he found work as a printer by day. He was influenced by Hubert Harrison. At night he would speak on street corners, much as he did in London’s Hyde Park. Garvey thought there was a leadership vacuum among African Americans. On 9 May 1916, he held his first public lecture in New York City at St Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery and undertook a 38-state speaking tour.
The next year in May 1917, Garvey and thirteen others formed the first UNIA division outside Jamaica. They began advancing ideas to promote social, political, and economic freedom for black people. On 2 July, the East St. Louis riots broke out. On 8 July, Garvey delivered an address, entitled “The Conspiracy of the East St. Louis Riots”, at Lafayette Hall in Harlem. During the speech, he declared the riot was “one of the bloodiest outrages against mankind”, condemning America’s claims to represent democracy when black people were victimized “for no other reason than they are black people seeking an Industrial chance in a country that they have laboured for three hundred years to make great”. It is “a time to lift one’s voice against the savagery of a people who claim to be the dispensers of democracy”. By October, rancor within the UNIA had begun to set in. A split occurred in the Harlem division, with Garvey enlisted to become its leader; although he technically held the same position in Jamaica.
Garvey worked to develop a program to improve the conditions of ethnic Africans “at home and abroad” under UNIA auspices. On 17 August 1918, he began publishing the Negro World newspaper in New York, which was widely distributed. Garvey worked as an editor without pay until November 1920. He used Negro World as a platform for his views to encourage the growth of the UNIA. By June 1919, the membership of the organization had grown to over two million, according to its records.
On 27 June 1919, the UNIA set up its first business, incorporating the Black Star Line of Delaware, with Garvey as President. By September, it acquired its first ship. Much fanfare surrounded the inspection of the S.S. Yarmouth and its rechristening as the S.S. Frederick Douglass on 14 September 1919. Such a rapid accomplishment garnered attention from many. The Black Star Line also formed a fine winery, using grapes harvested only in Ethiopia. During the first year, the Black Star Line’s stock sales brought in $600,000. They had numerous problems during the next two years: mechanical breakdowns on their ships, what was said to be a result of incompetent workers, and poor record keeping. The officers were eventually accused of mail fraud.
Edwin P. Kilroe, Assistant District Attorney in the District Attorney’s office of the County of New York, began an investigation into the activities of the UNIA. He never filed charges against Garvey or other officers. After being called to Kilroe’s office numerous times for questioning, Garvey wrote an editorial on the assistant DA’s activities for the Negro World. Kilroe had Garvey arrested and indicted for criminal libel but dismissed the charges after Garvey published a retraction.
On 14 October 1919, Garvey received a visit in his Harlem office from George Tyler, who claimed Kilroe “had sent him” to get the leader. Tyler pulled a .38-caliber revolver and fired four shots, wounding Garvey in the right leg and scalp. Garvey’s secretary Amy quickly arranged to get Garvey taken to the hospital for treatment, and Tyler was arrested. The next day, Tyler committed suicide by leaping from the third tier of the Harlem jail as he was being taken to his arraignment.
By August 1920, the UNIA claimed four million members. The number has been questioned because of the organization’s poor record keeping. That month, the International Convention of the UNIA was held. With delegates from all over the world attending, 25,000 people filled Madison Square Garden on 1 August 1920 to hear Garvey speak. Over the next couple of years, Garvey’s movement was able to attract an enormous number of followers. Reasons for this included the cultural revolution of the Harlem Renaissance, the large number of West Indians who immigrated to New York, and the appeal of the slogan “One God, One Aim, One Destiny,” to black veterans of the first World War.
Garvey also established the business, the Negro Factories Corporation. He planned to develop the businesses to manufacture every marketable commodity in every big U.S. industrial center, as well as in Central America, the West Indies, and Africa. Related endeavors included a grocery chain, restaurant, publishing house, and other businesses.
Convinced that black people should have a permanent homeland in Africa, Garvey sought to develop Liberia. It had been founded by the American Colonization Society in the 19th century as a colony to free blacks from the United States. Garvey launched the Liberia program in 1920, intended to build colleges, industrial plants, and railroads as part of an industrial base from which to operate. He abandoned the program in the mid-1920s after much opposition from European powers with interests in Liberia. In response to American suggestions that he wanted to take all ethnic Africans of the Diaspora back to Africa, he wrote, “We do not want all the Negroes in Africa. Some are no good here, and naturally will be no good there.”
The UNIA held an international convention in 1921 at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Also represented at the convention were organizations such as the Universal Black Cross Nurses, the Black Eagle Flying Corps, and the Universal African Legion. Garvey attracted more than 50,000 people to the event and in his cause. The UNIA had more than one million due paying members at its peak. The national level of support in Jamaica helped Garvey to become one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century on the island.