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American Series Introduction

Volume VI: September 1924--December 1927

The period encompassed in the sixth volume of The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers represents a historic divide in the affairs of the Garvey movement and the fate of its charismatic leader. Garvey's imprisonment in 1925--1927 splits the history of the UNIA in America into two distinct, almost self-contained, eras. The first era precedes Garvey's incarceration and his subsequent campaign for clemency; the second follows President Calvin Coolidge's eventual commutation of Garvey's sentence and the deportation of the UNIA leader from the United States.

Garvey's deportation removed the embodiment of a political phenomenon that government officials and black and white critics had considered an unsettling presence in America's midst for nearly a decade. The relationship of Marcus Garvey to America was a remarkable one. Within a few short years of his arrival he had catapulted from obscurity and street-corner oratory to international fame. For the first half of the 1920s, the power and scope of the movement that he inspired made him seem to many the uncrowned king of Harlem and the black world. Then, suddenly, he vanished from the American scene and the goals he represented diminished in the public mind. Garvey's removal in early 1925 symbolically ended the militant phase of the New Negro era and signaled the dominance of the cultural transitions that established Harlem in popular legend as home to the Jazz Age and haven of the Harlem Renaissance.

The present volume charts the debilitating impact that Garvey's imprisonment and deportation had on the function and direction of the UNIA as a political organization, including the destabilizing effect that Garvey's efforts to continue personally to direct the movement from confinement had upon an already divided leadership. In addition, the volume documents the collapse of the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company after a promising start. At the same time it supplies evidence of a resurgence of grass-roots support for the UNIA in certain areas of the South even while the movement was in decline at the national level.

The volume opens in the aftermath of the August 1924 convention. The convention was by many accounts the largest and most impressive of the annual UNIA conclaves; significantly, it was also the last such official gathering of the movement that Garvey attended in the United States.

The dominant issue during the 1924 convention was Liberia's decision to ban the UNIA from implementing its colonization plan in the West African republic. Shortly after the close of the convention, a delegation of UNIA leaders went to the White House and presented President Calvin Coolidge with a petition protesting the Liberian government's refusal to allow the delegation of UNIA technical experts to land and appealing for official American endorsement of the UNIA's African colonization program. During the same month, the UNIA mourned the death of Liberian Supreme Court Justice J. J. Dossen, who died suddenly during the 1924 convention. Dossen had been the foremost champion of Liberia-UNIA amity within the Liberian establishment and the caretaker of all that remained of UNIA assets in Liberia following the aborted 1923--1924 colonization scheme. His loss effectively ended UNIA influence upon Liberian affairs.

If these disappointments dampened the challenge for activism posed by the 1924 convention proceedings, optimism was revived with the rechristening, in November 1924, of the S.S. General G. W. Goethals as the S.S. Booker T. Washington. The launching of the S.S. Goethals in mid-January 1925 by the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company, the UNIA's successor to the Black Star Line, marked a public triumph of Garvey's leadership and the fruit of the last and greatest fund-raising campaign of the UNIA.

While enthusiasm was building in late 1924 with the acquisition and expected launching of the UNIA's latest ship and while Garvey devoted himself to fund raising appearances at UNIA functions across the country, the pending outcome of the appeal of his June 1923 mail fraud conviction still loomed over the movement. Between October and December 1924, as part of the filing of Garvey's appeal, attorneys for both Garvey and the government submitted extensively argued legal writs with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. These important legal documents, printed in the present volume, illuminate the great controversy that has surrounded Garvey's trial and conviction, particularly in regard to the nature of the evidence by which he was convicted. The appeal documents remain the most detailed examination of the case against Garvey. Not only do they illustrate the complexity of the original case, but they reconstruct events surrounding Garvey and the rise and fall of the Black Star Line, thereby providing a valuable retrospective on the most critical phase of the history of the Garvey movement in the United States and the government's perception of its leader.

The decision of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in early 1925 came within a few weeks of the completed purchase and launching of the S.S. Goethals. On 3 February 1925 the appeal court issued its opinion affirming the original judgment that had found Garvey guilty on a single count of using the mails in a scheme to defraud, in violation of Section 214 of the U.S. Criminal Code. Essentially, the Circuit Court of Appeals, in upholding the lower district court judgment, ruled that the circumstantial evidence in the case was strong enough to infer guilt.

The decision set in motion a rapid chain of events. The day following the announcement of the outcome of the appeal, a bench warrant was issued for Garvey's arrest. The next day, on 5 February 1925, Garvey was taken into custody at New York City's 125th Street train station, even though he was voluntarily returning to surrender himself after news of the appeal decision had reached him in Detroit. A few days later, he was removed from the Manhattan House of Detention (the Tombs prison), handcuffed to federal marshals, and escorted by train to begin a five-year prison sentence in the Atlanta federal penitentiary.

While these events were transpiring in New York, in the Caribbean the voyage of the S.S. Goethals was beset at every turn by crisis. Angry crew members protested their failure to receive promised pay, and the ship was encumbered at many ports by fines and detained for violations previously committed by Black Star Line ships. By the time the ship reached Kingston, Jamaica, the U.S. State Department had received news that the crew was mutinous, the captain wished to leave the ship, and several individuals were seeking to attach the ship for payment of wages or repair bills. Capt. Jacob De Rytter Hiorth was soon replaced by a new captain, Charles V. Vaughan, and the ship resumed its tour of the Caribbean and returned to the United States. On its return voyage, the ship was boarded by Ku Klux Klan members while docked in Jacksonville, Florida. Crew members who had gone ashore fled into the swamps, while the rest of the crew took the ship out of port, returning in the morning to rescue their stranded companions. The ship returned to New York and faced mounting dockage and repair fees there. It was sold at auction, in March 1926, for a fraction of its purchase price---a repetition of what had occurred five years earlier when the S.S. Yarmouth was auctioned for $1,625.00 after having been libeled by creditors.

The exigency created by Garvey's imprisonment, shifted attention away from the failure of the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company and spurred a new wave of activism among the membership of the UNIA. A movement to secure Garvey's release was mobilized on many levels. Hundreds of private citizens from many different backgrounds and geographical locations wrote directly to President Calvin Coolidge about the injustice of Garvey's sentence. Several examples of these letters, literate and semiliterate, are reprinted in the present volume. At the same time, UNIA members circulated petitions for his release, securing thousands of signatures from members and others sympathetic to the cause. Delegations composed of UNIA officials and their lawyers regularly lobbied the attorney general and pardon attorney in Washington, D.C. They also appealed to politicians who had been aided by Universal Negro Political Union support in the November 1924 election, or who were known to be supporters of racial equity legislation, to use their influence with the Department of Justice to help secure a commutation of sentence for Garvey. Quasi-governmental officials, such as leaders of the Inter-parliamentary Union, were also contacted to serve as mediators between Garvey supporters and federal officials. When persistent rumors that Garvey was suffering from serious ill health mounted, concern for his physical well-being began to be expressed in appeals to the president, along with arguments criticizing the prejudicial proceedings of the trial.

A major political role in maintaining the pressure on public officials during the crisis of Garvey's imprisonment was played by Amy Jacques Garvey. On the day that he left New York for the last time, Garvey appointed her to the position of secretary-treasurer of the Marcus Garvey Freedom and Protection Fund, giving her wide authority to raise funds and organize the campaign in behalf of his release. Whether it was in the form of conducting interviews with the attorney general or the pardon attorney, meeting with Garvey's attorneys and paying frequent visits to her exacting husband in the Atlanta penitentiary, editing and publishing Garvey's speeches and writings, traveling and speaking at UNIA fund-raising events around the country, petitioning the president to grant clemency, or writing political tracts in Garvey's defense (such as the pamphlet Was Justice Defeated?, published and distributed by her in March 1925), Amy Jacques Garvey was unsparing in pursuing the goal of gaining Garvey's freedom.

Garvey lobbied for his own release not only through official channels and the actions of UNIA members but also through strategic use of the Universal Negro Political Union and by forging a political alliance with the leaders of southern antimiscegenationist organizations. Hastily put together by Garvey as a political instrument, the Universal Negro Political Union aimed to win support from white politicians in hope of tilting the political balance and developing a protective shield for the UNIA. UNIA members were instructed to work for and give their votes to selected candidates in the November 1924 elections. At the same time that he urged participation in electoral politics, Garvey argued that it was necessary for the movement to abandon the radical program it had supported in an earlier period. Many congressional candidates endorsed by the Universal Negro Political Union responded to UNIA lobbying and sent letters to the Department of Justice enquiring into Garvey's case.

Just as Garvey had negotiated with the acting imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan following his first indictment on mail fraud, so he appeared to believe---whether on pragmatic or ideological grounds is not clear---that an alliance with southern antimiscegenationists could advance his cause. Whatever his motivation, commonalities between the political terms and ideology of the antimiscegenationists and the language of Garvey's own writings while in prison are a salient feature of the documents in the present volume.

The most sustained correspondence to emerge from Garvey's prison period is the series of confidential letters that were exchanged between him and the head of the White America Society of Richmond, Virginia, Earnest Sevier Cox. Cox was responsible, in turn, for introducing Garvey to John Powell, president of the Virginia-based Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America. In June 1925 Powell visited Garvey in the Atlanta penitentiary. He emerged from the encounter with the announcement that he had received the black leader's cordial support for his lobbying effort to promote passage of legislation outlawing miscegenation. Garvey arranged for both Cox and Powell to be invited to speak at UNIA gatherings, while they in turn boosted Garvey as the ablest leader that the Negro race had produced. When the Negro World, in August 1925, published an editorial mildly critical of the two white leaders, Garvey issued a stiff reprimand to the staff of the paper, stating that he viewed the editorial as an attack upon friends. Shortly afterward, he had Powell formally address the UNIA in Liberty Hall in Harlem. The members of Cox and Powell's organizations reciprocated by mounting a letter-writing campaign to the U.S. president asking that Garvey be pardoned.

The support of these white southerners for Garvey made for a sharp contrast with what many UNIA members experienced on the local level in the South. White officials in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, feared that the growth of the local UNIA division in 1926--1927 represented the beginnings of a radical black rebellion and took steps to repress the organization. Division members were denied a permit to speak publicly in the street. When they continued to hold indoor meetings, the police mounted an armed raid on the local Liberty Hall, precipitating a bloody gun battle with uniformed members of the African Legion. The president of the division, Milton Minyard, disappeared the night of the raid and wounded UNIA members were arrested and indicted on felony charges.

While Garvey received support from the radical right, he was also championed by the radical left. The Workers (Communist) Party of America protested his imprisonment and passed resolutions calling for his release. The black Communist party auxiliary, the American Negro Labor Congress, also demanded his release. Meanwhile, Cyril V. Briggs, head of the communist-affiliated African Blood Brotherhood, became involved in UNIA internal affairs. At the height of the political opposition to Garvey, Briggs had been the principal voice among black critics calling for criminal prosecution of the UNIA leader. During the financial crisis that eventually destroyed the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company, however, Briggs adopted a different stance; he publicly chided the black leader's colleagues and accused them of scapegoating Garvey in order to escape responsibility for their part in the failure of the UNIA's business enterprises.

Garvey met the challenge of imprisonment by applying a significant part of his time to writing. "African Fundamentalism," perhaps his most famous essay, was published as a Negro World editorial in June 1925 and quickly made its way onto the walls of UNIA members as a manifesto of the philosophy of the Garvey movement. Garvey also turned his hand to writing verse, producing and publishing "The White Man's Game---His Vanity Fair," a lengthy polemic that he later republished under the title the Tragedy of White Injustice. Several shorter poems were collected and published in the Poetic Meditations of Marcus Garvey, a title that emulated the Meditations of the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, a work of canonical status in the world of New Thought metaphysics, of which Garvey was himself a practitioner.

Garvey's first months in the Atlanta penitentiary were spent producing many of the essays that were to make up a large part of the second volume of Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey. Amy Jacques Garvey compiled and edited the volume, which was published in December 1925. The release of the book was meant to disarm hostile opinion and to woo potential friends to support Garvey's campaign for executive clemency. A related purpose was to rebut his black critics, charging them with endangering harmonious resolution of the black-white conflict in America through their quest for social equality and intermarriage with whites. Concomitantly, Garvey presented the volume as a testament of goodwill toward Earnest Sevier Cox and the antimiscegenationist cause. Garvey also attempted to use Philosophy and Opinions to discredit and dissociate himself from the provisional leadership of the UNIA headquarters in New York. This last objective is demonstrated by the backdrop of political distrust that fractured Garvey's relations with each successive group of leaders whom he placed in control of the UNIA parent body during his imprisonment. Garvey's prison writings were thus a principal instrument for retaining primacy over the movement despite his enforced absence, cementing his alliance with the white antimiscegenationist lobby, and giving direction to the campaign for his release.

Garvey's problems with the UNIA parent body leadership began soon after he arrived in Atlanta and occupied a major share of his time and energy in prison. From directing the policy of the Negro World through its editor, Norton G. Thomas---who also served as Garvey's executive secretary and principal political informant during his incarceration---to disposing of leaders who failed to do his bidding or perform to his satisfaction, Garvey was tireless in his effort to assert absolute control over the affairs of the UNIA. In the crisis conditions created by the disastrous financial problems of the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company, the exercise of Garvey's power from prison diminished the authority of the leaders whom he nominally entrusted with the administration of the UNIA. The autonomous force of Garvey's authority derived from his positive function as a charismatic leader, but its impact proved corrosive when superimposed on the bureaucratic apparatus of the UNIA. It produced an inherently unstable parent body, subject to dissension and collapse in each new crisis. The notion of Garvey as a prophetic leader with a special calling to heroism and greatness was a premise that the American movement was unable to reconcile easily with his absence from daily UNIA affairs and his gradual political eclipse. The contradiction promoted increasingly fragmented and disorganized regions of rival power, and an extended crisis of legitimation for the organization as a whole.

After one year of imprisonment Garvey called on members loyal to him to hold an emergency convention in Detroit in March 1926, to elect new officers to lead the organization in place of those that he had appointed. Fred A. Toote was elected acting president general at that convention, replacing William Sherrill, who had fallen into disfavor with Garvey. Toote's leadership was always tenuous, subject to Garvey's fluctuating approval. In the same year the New York local UNIA division and its leaders held their own convention. It convened, as all previous international UNIA conventions had, in August at Liberty Hall in Harlem. A competing slate of officers with national titles was elected at that August convention, resulting in confusion between the UNIA parent body or UNIA, Incorporated, and the New York local division.

Garvey's authority was also challenged in other regions of the country. In 1927 a new organizer appeared in Florida in the person of the putative African princess Laura Adorkor Kofey. A stirring and charismatic speaker, Kofey began as a disciple of the Garvey movement but soon began to attract her own loyal following, causing Garvey to denounce her in the Negro World. In the year following Garvey's deportation, the effect of her rival influence upon the operation of the UNIA in Florida culminated in a tragic event that will be documented in the next Garvey Papers volume.

In spite of these institutionalized conflicts among parent body leaders and Garvey, on the one hand, and between the parent body and the local leadership of the divisions, on the other hand, the organization realized a long-held dream during Garvey's imprisonment. From the first, establishment of a regular educational training institution on the model of Tuskegee had been a goal of the UNIA. In July 1926 the organization purchased the Smallwood-Corey Institute in Claremont, Virginia, and renamed it Liberty University. Local UNIA divisions were encouraged to enroll their young people in the school, which operated at the secondary education level, and excursions were organized so that UNIA members could tour the school buildings and grounds. Liberty University formally opened for the fall session in September 1926.

Operation of the school, like many other UNIA projects, was plagued by mismanagement and lack of funds. At the same time that it purchased Liberty University, the UNIA was struggling to maintain control over existing properties in New York. Several mortgages were placed on Liberty Hall, the symbolic center of the Garvey movement. The administrative offices at 54--56 West 135th Street, which housed the headquarters and the staffs of the Negro World and the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company, were also heavily mortgaged. Efforts to raise emergency funds to save Liberty Hall eventually failed. It was owned for a time by Harlem philanthropist Casper Holstein, who continued to rent it to the UNIA for its weekly meetings; it was finally sold at auction in foreclosure proceedings in September 1927.

The loss of Liberty Hall was a symbolic blow to the movement, and one of a series of financial disasters exacerbated by legal proceedings that denied the UNIA a large legacy left to the organization by Isaiah Morter, a wealthy planter in Belize, British Honduras, who died in 1924. Morter's disinherited widow contested the right of the UNIA to collect the property and funds bequeathed to it in the Morter will. In the subsequent trial, the Supreme Court of British Honduras ruled that the UNIA could not collect the legacy because it existed for what the colonial powers defined as an illegal purpose---the redemption of Africa from colonial rule. Appeals in the Morter case continued to higher courts and eventually resulted in the victory of the UNIA. This victory, however, came much later and did not help save the organization from financial ruin during Garvey's incarceration.

By January 1927 even the members of the jury who had convicted Garvey joined in the call for his release. Public pressure and persistent work by Garvey's lawyers were finally rewarded on 18 November 1927, when President Calvin Coolidge commuted his sentence. Garvey's requests for a brief period of time to arrange the affairs of the UNIA in New York were denied, and he was scheduled for immediate deportation. Nevertheless, he was allowed to meet with UNIA officers aboard the S.S. Saramacca while it was in port in New Orleans. There, from the deck of the ship, he delivered a moving farewell address to hundreds of followers who crowded the docks to hear him, despite heavy rain. He then returned to the land of his birth.

Although Garvey never again set foot in the United States, he continued to inspire the UNIA from abroad. His deportation ushered in a new era in the history of the Garvey movement---an era that would be played out first in Jamaica and, finally, in England.

Copyright © 1995-2014 The Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers Project, UCLA