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Marcus Garvey

Jamaican, 1887-1940

John Baker’s portrait of Marcus Garvey for The Freedom Wall, 2017. Photograph by Tom Loonan.

Marcus Garvey was a pioneer of pan-Africanism, persuasively arguing for a vision of social and political equality through the global unification of all peoples of African descent that would be hugely influential to activists working outside the mainstream Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Born and raised in Jamaica, where he learned the printing trade and got his start in public speaking as a union activist, Garvey also worked in Costa Rica and in Panama in his early twenties. These experiences convinced him that racial discrimination was an issue that transcended national boundaries and one that whites were never going to solve. After studying in London for two years, Garvey returned to Jamaica in 1914 to start the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA): an umbrella organization dedicated to encouraging black pride, providing educational opportunities, and supporting black-owned businesses geared toward people of color as consumers.

When the organization failed initially to take off, Garvey moved to United States, where his new community in Harlem was much more receptive to his speeches, delivered everywhere from street corners to church pulpits. To further publicize his message, Garvey founded his own newspaper, Negro World, which was eventually distributed in Spanish- and French-language editions across Latin America and Africa. In 1919, he successfully crowd-funded the beginnings of an international fleet of steamships, the Black Star Line, which was intended to connect black-owned enterprises in Africa and the Americas, as well as the Negro Factories Corporation, which provided start-up funding for a number of small businesses. The popularity and success of the UNIA’s message and projects alarmed British and French colonial authorities as well as the United States government, and in 1922, Garvey was convicted on charges related to fraud. When his sentence was ultimately commuted in 1927, Garvey was deported and was never successful in trying to revive the UNIA’s momentum of the early 1920s.

Last updated 2019