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American Series Introduction

Volume II: 27 August 1919--31 August 1920

The second volume of The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers covers a period of rapid growth in the Garvey movement: August 1919 through August 1920. The volume begins with the aftermath of Garvey's successful meeting in Carnegie Hall on 25 August 1919 and ends with the UNIA's First International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World. With ample justification the Negro World, official newspaper of the UNIA, pronounced the convention "a unique and glorious achievement" and called Garvey "this now world-famed man."

The convention met exactly two and one-half years after Garvey's February 1918 reorganization of the depleted and splintered New York division of the UNIA. Between the spring of 1918 and the summer of 1919, Garvey and the fledgling UNIA refined their message of African redemption in light of the changing world scene and the troubled state of the black community. During the year before the convention, Garvey introduced his plan for establishing an African republic by calling attention to Liberia's desperate financial state and the unsatisfactory progress of negotiations to secure a loan from the United States. He also linked his plan to a growing sentiment within the UNIA rank and file in favor of a scheme for Liberian colonization that would inaugurate a back-to-Africa program.

Garvey's many projects gained greater credibility when he announced in September 1919 that the Black Star Line, the all-black merchant marine he had planned since early in the year, was about to purchase its first vessel. Before the August 1920 convention the Black Star Line would gain control of three vessels---a cargo ship, an excursion boat, and a converted yacht---and the largest of the three, the Yarmouth, would make two voyages to the West Indies.

In spite of this, the Black Star Line acquired a growing cast of critics, who doubted the company's claim to ownership of the Yarmouth. Garvey moved swiftly to refute their charges of fraud by mounting a vigorous counterattack in the Negro World and subsequently launching a flurry of libel suits. Despite these efforts, an angry investor in the UNIA's Harlem restaurant made an attempt on Garvey's life, an incident that, ironically, increased Garvey's popularity. Within a week of the attack, Garvey made a series of spectacular public appearances before thousands of cheering admirers who seemed to accept the assertion that his critics had plotted his assassination. Moreover, the incident inspired a marked increase in public notice of Garvey, and whereas a recent stock-selling tour of several midwestern cities had been less than successful, the sale of Black Star Line stock now made a significant jump. During October 1919 alone, over eleven thousand shares of Black Star Line stock were purchased.

This volume also documents the broadening federal investigation of the Garvey phenomenon. The United States Department of Justice, alerted that Garvey planned a trip to the Panama Canal Zone, began an intensive search for evidence in Garvey's background that would identify him as an undesirable alien. J. Edgar Hoover, then an assistant to the attorney general, continued his inquiry into grounds for bringing deportation proceedings against Garvey, while Bureau of Investigation special employees, posing as UNIA sympathizers, reported on Garvey's meetings, conducted interviews, and gathered evidence. To the extent that agents and informers rendered accurate accounts of what they heard and observed, their reports offer a valuable portrait of day-to-day operations within UNIA headquarters, as well as the official perception of the still largely anonymous UNIA rank and file. These investigative reports include the results of interviews that constitute an extensive, if biased, collection of oral sources. They also reveal the various strategies that officials contemplated for containing the movement.

Garvey's critics and opponents, however, did little to diminish his personal popularity and the movement's momentum as the August convention approached. With more success than any previous black leader in promoting a convocation, Garvey presented the UNIA convention as a turning point in the history of black-white relations. His propaganda received, moreover, the welcome aid of national and international events. As racial conflicts spread during the "Red Summer" of 1919, Garvey continued an unrelenting assault on white violence in his newspaper editorials and speeches, repeatedly linking race riots in the United States with similar phenomena in England and with strikes and popular disturbances in the West Indies, Central America, and Africa. The result was mounting official opposition in America and Europe to the spread of the Garvey movement, which was seen as a major ideological force in the promotion of radical consciousness among blacks in the United States and in colonized nations.

The UNIA's 1920 convention, therefore, offered far more than the ceremonial pomp and oratory that dominated the formal proceedings. By the time the delegates started assembling, Garvey's vision of racial greatness had already fired the popular imagination of blacks. With the successful launching in November 1919 of the first ship of the Black Star Line, the boldness of Garvey's promise not only seemed to have been vindicated, but his vision came to appear more and more attractive as the answer to the postwar problems blacks faced everywhere. During the period of July 1919 to August 1920, UNIA members and sympathizers bought stock in the Black Star Line with such enthusiasm that sales reached a total of 96,285 shares.

Under these circumstances, the primary task of the 1920 convention was the formal ratification of Garveyism as the guiding doctrine of the movement. How it evolved as an ideology and how it was able to influence the struggle for black rights in 1919 and 1920, while offering a program for African independence and racial autonomy, form an essential part of the subject of this volume. At the same time, Garvey intended that the legislation and elective offices created during the convention would form a veritable government in exile for Africa, marking a fulfillment of his ambition to engage in the practice of statecraft and create the symbols of black nationhood and sovereignty. In this context, the spectacular quality of the August 1920 convention announced a new watershed in black history.

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