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“The Collapse of the Only Thing in the Garvey Movement Which Was Original or Promising”: Du Bois on Garvey

After fighting World War I, ostensibly to defend democracy and the right of self-determination, thousands of African-American soldiers returned home to face intensified discrimination, segregation, and racial violence. Drawing on this frustration, Marcus Garvey attracted thousands of disillusioned black working-class and lower middle-class followers to his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The UNIA, committed to notions of racial purity and separatism, insisted that salvation for African Americans meant building an autonomous, black-led nation in Africa. The Black Star Line, an all-black shipping company chartered by the UNIA, was the movement’s boldest and most important project, and many African Americans bought shares of stock in the company. For all its grandeur and promise, however, the Black Star Line was soon beset by financial and legal problems, largely resulting from Garvey’s mismanagement. The company folded only a few years after its founding. The company’s collapse was detailed in an essay by black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, who cast doubt on Garvey’s trustworthiness and suspicion on UNIA’s overall program.

The main economic venture of Marcus Garvey was the Black Star Line.

This steamship venture was the foundation stone of Garvey’s rise to popularity among Negroes. African migration is a century old and a pretty thoroughly discredited dream. Autonomous African Negro States have been forecast by scores of Negro leaders and writers. But a definite plan to unite Negrodom by a line of steamships was a brilliant suggestion and Garvey’s only original contribution to the race problem. But, asked the critic, can it be done? Has Garvey the business sense, can he raise the capital, can he gather the men? . . .

Of the staggering losses on the [ship] Yarmouth no hint appears in Mr. Garvey’s glowing speeches concerning the Black Star Line, or in the advertisements in the Negro World, or even in the first annual financial report issued in 1920. . . . No losses whatsoever are recorded there. The Yarmouth is entered at full value and an organization expense of $289,066 is put down as an asset because it is an “organization expense.” It was also recorded: “We have much to be thankful for in that no unfortunate accident has befallen us!”

The Yarmouth made three trips to the West Indies in three years. It was then docked for repairs. This bill was apparently not paid. . . . [For in December 1921] the first boat of the Black Star Line . . . was sold by U. S. Marshall . . . for $1,625.

The [steamer] Kanawha was listed in the Black Star report as worth $75,359. Garvey swore that he paid $60,000 for it. It was apparently bought to do a small carrying trade between the West Indian Islands. The Kanawha left New York about Easter time 1921 and sailed for Cuba and the West Indies. Garvey testified [in court] that she with another ship “was repaired in drydock and sailed from here; she broke down between Cuba and the Virginia Coast and we had to tow her back to New York. We had to spend seventy or eighty thousand dollars on that boat.” The Negro World announced that this boat “arrived in Cuba in a blaze of glory, April 16.”

[But] according to the New York Evening World, the boat was held up in Cuba because of boiler troubles, although several thousand dollars had been recently spent on new boilers. Finally she was tied up in Santiago de Cuba and the United States Government brought the crew back. The boat itself has never reappeared.

The Shadyside was listed by the Black Star Line as worth $35,000. It did a small excursion business up the Hudson during one summer. In March, 1921, the Shadyside lay on the beach beside North River at the foot of 157th Street and was in a hopeless condition, quite beyond repair.

The three first boats of the Garvey fleet disappeared and if the Black Star’s own figures and Mr. Garvey’s statements of losses are true, this involves a total disappearance of at least $630,000 of the hard-earned savings of colored folk.

But this is not all.

On Sunday night, April 10, according to the Negro World of April 16, 1921: "Unexpectedly, like a bolt of lightening, came the announcement at Liberty Hall tonight that the Black Star Line Steamship Corporation expected by May 1, next, to float the Phyllis Wheatley, its latest addition to the corporation’s line of steamships to engage in transportation between this country and Africa. The news was hailed with wild expressions of joy and delight by the immense audience that filled the great hall.The ship was said to carry 4,500 tons of cargo and 2,000 passengers, was equipped with electric lights, fans, music and smoking rooms and refrigerating machinery."

. . . Beginning in April and continuing for seven or more months, there appeared advertisements announcing “passengers and freight” for the West Indies and West Africa by the S. S. Phyllis Wheatley, “sailing on or about April 25” or without definite date. When the delegates came to the [Black Star Line business] convention August 1st, they naturally asked to see the Phyllis Wheatley, but a delegate, Noah Thompson, says . . . “None of the boasted ships were shown the delegates, who were daily promised that on ‘tomorrow’ the ships would be shown.” Mr. Thompson said that he was in New York thirty-five days, and with others persisted in demanding to be shown the ships, but was told daily that they could see the ships “tomorrow,” and “later,” but “tomorrow” never came. . . .

What excuses does Mr. Garvey offer for his failures? His excuses are various and extraordinary. First and perhaps the most astonishing is the following statement in the Negro World of January 21, 1922: “All the troubles we have had on our ships have been caused because men were paid to make this trouble by certain organizations calling themselves Negro Advancement Associations. They paid men to dismantle our machinery and otherwise damage it so as to bring about the downfall of the movement.”

Secondly, Mr. Garvey alleges gigantic “conspiracies.” He said, as reported in the Negro World, May 13, 1922, at Liberty Hall: “Millions of dollars were expended in the shipping industries to boycott and put out of existence the Black Star Line.” In the Negro World of January 28, 1922, he adds: “The matter of my arrest last week for the alleged fraudulent use of the mails is but a concoction decided upon by the unseen forces operating against us to find some criminal excuse by which the promoter of the greatest movement among Negroes could be held up to world scorn and ridicule, thereby exposing the movement to contempt. It is a mean, low-down, contemptible method of embarrassing any movement for human uplift. He also says that ”Bolshevists" are paying for attacks on the line. (Negro World, December 14, 1921).

Thirdly and chiefly, Mr. Garvey accuses his associates and employees of dishonesty. In the Negro World of February 18, 1922, Mr. Garvey writes of a “treacherous plot” against him and a “great state of demoralization” in the Black Star Line during his absence, and of “the tricks and dishonesty of a few employees of the Black Star Line.” In the Negro World of December 24, 1921, he says: Through the dishonesty of some of the “so-called educated,” Garvey has had to suffer many reverses. Business transactions and financial arrangements which Garvey was to busy to attend to himself and left to others opened the door for several of these “so-called educated” (whom he trusted to represent him) to rob and cheat the organization, and thus make it harder for Garvey to protect and represent the interests of the people. . . .

Finally, Mr. Garvey alleges his own lack of experience in the shipping business: “Marcus Garvey is not a navigator; he is not a marine engineer; he is not even a good sailor; therefore the individual who would criticize Marcus Garvey for a ship of the Black Star Line not making a success at sea is a fool.” (Negro World, July 8, 1922.) Mr. Garvey consequently writes in the Negro World of April 1, 1922, “We have suspended the activities of the Black Star Line.”. . .

Here then is the collapse of the only thing in the Garvey movement which was original or promising. Of course, Mr. Garvey promises repayment, reorganization and a “new” Black Star Line.

What are his statements and promises worth?

Source: W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Black Star Line,” Crisis, September 1922, 210–214.

See Also:Robert Bagnall on "The Madness of Marcus Garvey"
"Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World": The Principles of the Universal Negro Improvement Association
"The Black Star Line": Singing a Song of Garveyism
"If You Believe the Negro Has a Soul": "Back to Africa" with Marcus Garvey