On 18 May 1940, Marcus Garvey, the once ostentatious and extravagant Black Nationalist, read an obituary of himself in the Chicago Defender. Garvey, who had been living in London since 1935 and residing in Talgarth Road, W14, was recovering from a stroke when he read,
“Alone, deserted by his followers, broke and unpopular, Marcus Garvey, once leader of the greatest mass organization ever assembled by a member of the Race, died here during the last week in April.”
The shock was so much that he did indeed die – a month later on 10th June.
Born in Jamaica on 17 August 1887, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914. Its purpose, according to its 1929 constitution, was “to do the utmost to work for the general uplift of the people of African ancestry of the world”. But frustrated by the lack of progress in Jamaica, Garvey left his homeland, travelled around Central America, moved to London, where he preached on Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner, before finally settling in New York in 1916.
Black Is Beautiful
Basing himself in Harlem, Garvey declared that “Black Is Beautiful” and campaigned for the repatriation of African Americans, his “Back to Africa” campaign, extolling the virtues of the continent, despite never having stepped foot on it, and advocating the removal of European influence.
His message found an audience and by the mid-1920s the UNIA could boast a membership of over four million Americans.
Energetic and enterprising, Garvey had many more ventures – he founded the Negro Factories Corporation for the production of various goods but primarily to provide employment for African Americans, started various chains of restaurants, grocery shops and laundries; built a hotel and established and edited a newspaper, Negro World, and, most impressively, started up his own shipping line, Black Star Line.
A lunatic or traitor?
But his success, extravagance and his strong views made him many enemies, even within the black community. He alienated those of mixed race or whose skin was not so dark by declaring that the best blacks were the “blackest blacks”. His approval of the Ku Klux Klan certainly didn’t help, but Garvey supported their notion of the separation of the races. It put him at odds with other black leaders particularly W. E. B. Du Bois, leader and founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Du Bois, refined and thoughtful, found Garvey’s brash approach to black advancement a hindrance to his own work. “Without doubt,” wrote Du Bois, Garvey is “the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world. He is either a lunatic or a traitor.”
In a written appeal, eight African-American leaders appealed to U.S. Attorney General to have Garvey deported as an undesirable alien, describing him as “an unscrupulous demagogue, who has ceaselessly and assiduously sought to spread among Negroes distrust and hatred of all white people.”
In 1919 a young J. Edgar Hoover, working for the Bureau of Investigation (BOI), led on the investigation to discredit Garvey. In doing so the BOI, forerunner of the FBI, employed its first African American agents.
Their work was eventually successful and proved the undoing of the charismatic leader – Garvey was charged with fraud in his dealings with his Black Star Line and in June 1923 he was convicted and sentenced to five years, a sentence commuted after two and a half by President Coolidge. He was deported back to Jamaica where, to Garvey’s delight, he received a rapturous welcome home.
Still as ambitious as ever, Garvey entered politics and set up an entertainment company when, in 1935, he moved to London.
By now his influence had waned and it was in London he suffered his first stroke. Then came the premature obituary courtesy of the Chicago Defender. Garvey died aged 52. He died on the day that Italy had declared war on Britain and in the midst of global war and the restrictions placed on travel, Garvey had to be buried in London – in the Kensal Green cemetery.
Almost a quarter of a century later, in 1964, Garvey’s remains were returned to Jamaica and buried at the National Heroes Park. The following year, Martin Luther King, Jr. laid a wreath at his grave and referred to Garvey as “the first man of colour to lead and develop a mass movement, the first man on a mass scale and level to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny.”
Rupert Colley’s novella, set during World War Two and Paris in 1968, The Woman on the Train, is now available.