Garvey 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 delegates 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 million 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.