In the early twentieth century, Marcus Garvey and his movement, the
Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), founded in his native Jamaica in
1914, boosted emigration sentiment. Three years later, Garvey immigrated to New
York and set up headquarters in Harlem.
Though scorned by the black middle and professional classes, his "Back
to Africa" mantra and charismatic leadership rallied many African Americans.
The UNIA became the largest mass movement in African-American history, and
attracted followers throughout the Caribbean, Africa, South America, and Great
Garvey's version of Black Nationalism argued that African Americans' quest
for social equality was a delusion. They were fated to be a permanent minority
who could never assimilate because white Americans would never let them.
African Americans, therefore, could not improve their condition or gain
autonomy in the United States. Only in Africa was self-emancipation
Garvey drew his following largely from the lower end of the economic
scale. Southerners who had come North during the Great Migration that
accompanied World War I, servicemen returning from the European battlefields,
and his fellow West Indians seemed particularly attuned to his philosophy.
The UNIA's first convention, held in 1920 in New York, lasted for
thirty-one days with many thousands in attendance. It issued a manifesto, the
Declaration of Rights for the Negro People of the World, and developed plans
for a settlement in Liberia. The UNIA sold millions of shares in the Black Star
Line, its own shipping company, to its members. Three steamships were purchased, and black officers and crew were
contracted to sail the emigrants across the Atlantic.
The Black Star fleet did carry passengers on several journeys from New
York to Central America and the Caribbean, but it never reached Liberia.
As the line faced bankruptcy resulting from shady dealings by some UNIA
officials, the federal government launched an unrelenting investigation of the
man millions revered as the "Black Messiah." He was convicted in 1925 of
defrauding investors, sentenced to five years in prison, and, after serving
half of his term, deported to Jamaica. In 1940, Marcus Garvey died in
Although his efforts at sending African Americans back to Africa
ultimately failed, Garvey's influence remained strong and inspired some to
migrate, on their own, to the land of their ancestors.