Charge of mail fraud
In a memorandum dated 11 October 1919, J. Edgar Hoover, special assistant to the Attorney General and head of the General Intelligence Division (or “anti-radical division”) of The Bureau of Investigation or BOI (after 1935, the Federal Bureau of Investigation), wrote to Special Agent Ridgely regarding Garvey: “Unfortunately, however, he [Garvey] has not as yet violated any federal law whereby he could be proceeded against on the grounds of being an undesirable alien, from the point of view of deportation.”
Sometime around November 1919, the BOI began an investigation into the activities of Garvey and the UNIA. Toward this end, the BOI hired James Edward Amos, Arthur Lowell Brent, Thomas Leon Jefferson, James Wormley Jones, and Earl E. Titus as its first five African-American agents. Although initial efforts by the BOI were to find grounds upon which to deport Garvey as “an undesirable alien”, a charge of mail fraud was brought against Garvey in connection with stock sales of the Black Star Line after the U.S. Post Office and the Attorney General joined the investigation.
The accusation centered on the fact that the corporation had not yet purchased a ship, which had appeared in a BSL brochure emblazoned with the name “Phyllis Wheatley” (after the African-American poet) on its bow. The prosecution stated that a ship pictured with that name had not actually been purchased by the BSL and still had the name “Orion” at the time; thus the misrepresentation of the ship as a BSL-owned vessel constituted fraud. The brochure had been produced in anticipation of the purchase of the ship, which appeared to be on the verge of completion at the time. However, “registration of the Phyllis Wheatley to the Black Star Line was thrown into abeyance as there were still some clauses in the contract that needed to be agreed.” In the end, the ship was never registered to the BSL.
Assistant District Attorney, Leo Healy, who had been, before becoming District Attorney, an attorney with Harris McGill and Co., the sellers of the first ship, the S.S. Yarmouth, to the Black Star Line Inc., was a key witness for the government during the trial. Garvey chose to defend himself. In the opinion of his biographer Colin Grant, Garvey’s “belligerent” manner alienated the jury. “In Garvey’s interminable three-hour-long closing address, he portrayed himself as an unfortunate and selfless leader, surrounded by incompetents and thieves….Garvey was belligerent where perhaps grace, humility and even humour were called for”. The lawyer defending one of the other charged men took a different approach, emphasizing that the so-called fraud was nothing more than a naive mistake and that no criminal conspiracy existed. “The truth is there is no such thing as any conspiracy. [But] if the indictment had been framed against the defendants for discourtesy, mismanagement or display of bad judgment they would have pleaded guilty.” Of the four Black Star Line officers charged in connection with the enterprise, only Garvey was found guilty of using the mail service to defraud. His supporters called the trial fraudulent.
At the National Conference of the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1921, a Los Angeles delegate named Noah Thompson spoke on the floor complaining about the lack of transparency in the group’s financial accounts. When accounts were prepared Thompson highlighted several sections with what he felt were irregularities. But while there were serious accounting irregularities within the Black Star Line and the claims he used to sell Black Star Line stock could be considered misleading, Garvey’s supporters contend that the prosecution was a politically motivated miscarriage of justice.
When the trial ended on 23 June 1923, Garvey had been sentenced to five years in prison. Garvey blamed Jewish jurors and a Jewish federal judge, Julian Mack, for his conviction. He felt that they had been biased because of their political objections to his meeting with the acting imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan the year before. In 1928, Garvey told a journalist: “When they wanted to get me they had a Jewish judge try me, and a Jewish prosecutor. I would have been freed but two Jews on the jury held out against me ten hours and succeeded in convicting me, whereupon the Jewish judge gave me the maximum penalty.”
He initially spent three months in the Tombs Jail awaiting approval of bail. While on bail, he continued to maintain his innocence, travel, speak and organize the UNIA. After numerous attempts at appeal were unsuccessful, he was taken into custody and began serving his sentence at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary on 8 February 1925. Two days later, he penned his well-known “First Message to the Negroes of the World From Atlanta Prison”, wherein he made his famous proclamation: “Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm, look for me all around you, for, with God’s grace, I shall come and bring with me countless millions of black slaves who have died in America and the West Indies and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for Liberty, Freedom, and Life.”
Professor Judith Stein has stated, “his politics were on trial.” Garvey’s sentence was eventually commuted by President Calvin Coolidge. Upon his release in November 1927, Garvey was deported via New Orleans to Jamaica, where a large crowd met him at Orrett’s Wharf in Kingston. Though the popularity of the UNIA diminished greatly following Garvey’s expulsion, he nevertheless remained committed to his political ideals.