(1887-1940) leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association,
first African-American leader in American history to organize
masses of people in a political movement
Van der Zee
was born in Jamaica and immigrated to Harlem in 1916 at the
age of 28. In his homeland he had been an admirer of Booker
T. Washington's philosophy of self-improvement for people
of African descent and had formed the Jamaica Improvement
Association. When he arrived in America his ideas expanded
and he became a Black Nationalist. For him, Africa was the
ancestral home and spiritual base for all people of African
descent. His political goal was to take Africa back from European
domination and build a free and United Black Africa. He advocated
the Back-to-Africa Movement and organized a shipping company
called the Black Star Line which was part of his program to
conduct international trade between black Africans and the
rest of the world in order to "uplift the race"
and eventually return to Africa.
Garvey studied all of the literature
he could find on African history and culture and decided to
launch the Universal Negro Improvement Association with the
goal of unifying "all the Negro peoples of the world
into one great body and to establish a country and government
absolutely on their own". The motto of the U.N.I.A. was
"One God! One Aim! One Destiny." The Negro World
was the U.N.I.A. weekly newspaper founded in 1918. It was
published in French and Spanish as well as English. In it
African history and heroes were glorified.
The ranks of the U.N.I.A. were comprised
of African "nobility" - knights of the Nile, dukes
of the Niger and Uganda; knights of Ethiopia, duchesses, etc.
Garvey himself was the "Provisional President of Africa"
and he and the members of his empire paraded in elaborate
military uniforms. Harlem loved parades and street ceremonies,
and the U.N.I.A. gave the grandest. During their annual conventions,
thousands of delgates from all over the United States, the
Caribbean, Central America and Africa marched up and down
the streets of Harlem with their banners, uniforms and colorfully
decorated cars. Garvey travelled throughout the United States
speaking and meeting with African-American leaders. In the
post World War I economic crisis and with racial discrimination,
lynching and poor housing, the masses of Black people were
ready for a leader who was aggressive and had a plan to "uplift
the race". The U.N.I.A. grew quickly. By 1919 there were
over 30 branches throughout the United States, the Caribbean,
Latin America and Africa. Garvey claimed over a milllion people
had joined his organization in 3 years.
In nine years Garvey built
the largest mass movement of people of African descent in
this country's history. It began to fail after he was convicted
of mail fraud and was deported from the U.S. The Black Star
Line failed because of purported mismanagement and lack of
sufficient funds. However, the U.N.I.A. still survives today
and Garvey left a legacy of racial pride and identification
with a glorious African heritage for African Americans.