Universal Negro Improvement Association Establishes a U.S. Chapter Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The establishment of a U.S. chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, an organization dedicated to advancing racial pride among people of African heritage, represented a major step in the growth of black nationalism.

Summary of Event

In March, 1916, Marcus Garvey, a young black Jamaican, arrived in New York City. He had come to the United States in the hope of securing financial help for the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), an organization he had founded in Jamaica two years earlier. After delivering his first public speech in Harlem in May, 1916, Garvey began a long speaking tour that took him through thirty-eight U.S. states. In May, 1917, he returned to Harlem and—with the help of his secretary and future wife, Amy Ashwood—organized the first American chapter of the UNIA. Although hardly noticed at the time, this infant organization was a significant first step in the growth of black nationalism Black nationalism in the United States. Within a few years, the UNIA would claim millions of members and hundreds of branches throughout the United States, the Caribbean region, and Africa, and Garvey would be one of the most famous black people in the world. Universal Negro Improvement Association African Americans;organizations [kw]Universal Negro Improvement Association Establishes a U.S. Chapter (May, 1917) Universal Negro Improvement Association African Americans;organizations [g]United States;May, 1917: Universal Negro Improvement Association Establishes a U.S. Chapter[04270] [c]Civil rights and liberties;May, 1917: Universal Negro Improvement Association Establishes a U.S. Chapter[04270] [c]Organizations and institutions;May, 1917: Universal Negro Improvement Association Establishes a U.S. Chapter[04270] Garvey, Marcus Garvey, Amy Jacques

Garvey was born in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, in 1887. He claimed to be of pure African descent. His father was a descendant of the maroons, or Jamaican slaves, who successfully revolted against their British masters in 1739. During his early years, Garvey gradually became aware that some in his society considered his color to be a badge of inferiority. Jamaica, unlike the United States, placed the mulatto in a higher caste as a buffer against the unlettered black masses. This reality gave the young black man a sense of racial isolation and yet stimulated pride in him as well.

Marcus Garvey.

(Library of Congress)

By his twentieth birthday, Garvey had started a program to change the lives of black Jamaicans. While working as a foreman in a printing shop in 1907, he joined a labor strike as a leader. The strike was quickly broken by the shop owners, and Garvey lost faith in reform through labor unions. In 1910, he started publishing a newspaper, Garvey’s Watchman, and helped form a political organization, the National Club. These efforts, which were not particularly fruitful, led Garvey to visit Central America, where he was able to observe the wretched conditions of black people in Costa Rica and Panama.

Garvey’s travels finally brought him to London, the center of the British Empire. There he met Dusé Mohamed Ali, an Egyptian scholar, who increased the young Jamaican’s knowledge and awareness of Africa. During his stay in England, Garvey also became acquainted with the plight of African Americans through reading Booker T. Washington’s Washington, Booker T. autobiography Up from Slavery (1901). Up from Slavery (Washington, B. T.) Washington’s book raised questions in Garvey’s mind: “I asked, where is the black man’s Government? Where is his King and his Kingdom? Where is his President, his country and his ambassador, his army, his navy, his men of big affairs? I could not find them, and then I declared, I will help to make them.”

Returning to Jamaica in 1914, Garvey created a self-help organization for black people to which he gave the imposing name the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities League. This new organization, later renamed the Universal Negro Improvement Association, based its philosophy on the need to unite “all people of Negro or African parentage.” The goals of the UNIA were to increase racial pride, to aid black people throughout the world, and “to establish a central nation for the race.” Garvey, elected the first president of the association, realized that black people would have to achieve these goals without assistance from white people. This self-help concept, similar to the philosophy (but not the practice) of Booker T. Washington, led Garvey to propose the establishment of a black trade school in Kingston, Jamaica, similar to Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. The idea did not attract wide support, however, and Garvey was temporarily frustrated.

In 1915, Garvey decided to travel to the United States to seek aid for his Jamaica-based organization. He had corresponded with Booker T. Washington, but Washington died before Garvey arrived in the United States in 1916. Garvey went directly to Harlem in New York City, which in the early twentieth century was becoming a center of black culture.

The lives of African Americans changed rapidly during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Metropolitan areas in the North were experiencing mass in-migration of African Americans from the South. In New York City, for example, the black population increased from 91,709 in 1910 to 152,467 in 1920. Great Northern Migration African Americans were attracted to northern urban areas by the promise of jobs and by the possibility of escaping the rigid system of segregation in the South. They found, however, that they could not escape racism simply by moving. Northern whites also believed in the racial inferiority of African Americans and opposed black competitors for their jobs. The new immigrants, like their foreign-born counterparts, were crowded into ghettos in northern cities, without proper housing or the possibility of escape. Race-related violence broke out in several northern cities. The North proved to be no utopia for African Americans.

These harsh realities aided Garvey in establishing the UNIA in New York. The residents of Harlem were not attracted to the accommodationist philosophy of Booker T. Washington or the middle-class goals of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Indeed, urban African Americans were wary of all prophets, even Garvey. The young Jamaican was able to obtain support from Jamaican immigrants in Harlem, who felt isolated, and he established a branch of the UNIA there in May, 1917.


At first the Harlem UNIA chapter encountered difficulties. Local politicians tried to gain control of it, and Garvey had to fight to save its autonomy. The original branch of the UNIA was dissolved, and a charter was obtained from the state of New York that prevented other groups from using the organization’s name. By 1918, under Garvey’s dynamic leadership, the New York chapter of the UNIA boasted thirty-five hundred members. By 1919, Garvey optimistically claimed two million members for his organization throughout the world and 200,000 subscribers for his weekly newspaper, The Negro World.

In an effort to promote the economic welfare of blacks under the auspices of the UNIA, Garvey established in 1919 two joint stock companies: the Black Star Line, an international commercial shipping company, and the Negro Factories Corporation, which was to “build and operate factories . . . to manufacture every marketable commodity.” Stock in these companies was sold only to black investors. The Black Star Line was to establish commerce with Africa and transport willing emigrants “back to Africa.” Although both companies were financial failures, the fact that they existed gave many black people a feeling of dignity.

Based on his promotional efforts on behalf of the Black Star Line, the U.S. government, prodded by rival black leaders, indicted Garvey for fraudulent use of the mails in 1922. He was tried, found guilty, and sent to prison in 1923. Although his second wife, Amy Jacques Garvey, worked to hold the UNIA together, it declined rapidly. In 1927, Garvey was released from prison and deported as an undesirable alien. He returned to Jamaica and then went to London and Paris in an effort to resurrect the UNIA, but with little success. He died in poverty in London in 1940.

Although a bad businessman, Garvey was a master propagandist and popular leader. His promotion of the UNIA made a major contribution toward increased race consciousness among African Americans. Universal Negro Improvement Association African Americans;organizations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cronon, E. David. Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1955. This first scholarly biography of Garvey remains one of the best introductions to his life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garvey, Amy Jacques. Garvey and Garveyism. 1963. Reprint. New York: Collier Books, 1976. Intimate memoir of Garvey written by his widow more than two decades after his death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garvey, Marcus. Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey. Edited by Amy Jacques Garvey, with new introduction by Robert A. Hill. New York: Atheneum, 1992. This classic collection of Garvey’s speeches and writings was assembled by his wife during the early 1920’s, while Garvey was fighting charges of mail fraud. New introduction places the work in a broad historical perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hill, Robert A., et al., eds. The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers. 10 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983-2006. The most extensive collection of original documents by and about Garvey and his movement, this set is the best starting point for all research on the UNIA.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hill, Robert A., and Barbara Bair, eds. Marcus Garvey: Life and Lessons. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. Collection of Garvey’s most didactic writings, including autobiographical material that he wrote in 1930. A long appendix includes biographies of figures important in his life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Rupert, and Maureen Warner-Lewis, eds. Garvey: Africa, Europe, the Americas. Kingston, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, 1986. Collection of original research papers on international aspects of Garveyism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wintz, Cary D., ed. African American Political Thought, 1890-1930: Washington, Du Bois, Garvey, and Randolph. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1996. Presents personal correspondence, speeches, and essays written by these four black leaders to illustrate the ideas and the evolution of political thought among African Americans during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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Categories: History