Marcus Garvey Black Leader Personified  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

Marcus Garvey was one of the most controversial black leaders of the 20th century.  He said black people had given their lifeblood for 300 years to help build this country and ended up short changed.

I am equal to any white man.  I want to feel the same way.  No more fear.  No more cringing.
— Marcus Garvey

He used World War I as an example.  In speeches and newspapers Garvey blasted laws that kept thousands of black soldiers in segregated units as they battled for America.

“I am equal to any white man,” he said.  “I want to feel the same way.  No more fear.  No more cringing.”

On March 23, 1916 at age 28 Garvey left his home in Jamaica and settled in Harlem.  The area had become the center of the city’s black population. 

Garvey spent his free time on the street corners of Harlem speaking about a program for racial solidarity.  Black businesses thrived in Harlem and so did the black protest movement.  And Garvey spoke to anyone who would listen about the racial climate in Jamaica and the Caribbean.  He also met with community leaders here and learned about racism in America. 

The charismatic activist lectured from one end of the country to another and thousands of people came to hear him speak.  Lynchings were still common in America and Garvey encouraged blacks to demand better housing and jobs, the right to join unions, the right to vote in the South, and the right to use public restrooms. 

He believed blacks needed to own their own businesses to achieve real economic success.  So in 1919 he started the Black Star Line.  The shipping company was owned and operated solely by blacks.  He also started the Negro Factories Corporation.  The idea was to build and operate black-run grocery stores, a steam laundry, two restaurants, a clothing factory and a printing plant.  

“Girls who could only be washer women in your homes, we made clerks and stenographers.  We tried to dignify our race,” he said.

Garvey wanted to set up a homeland in Africa, a place where blacks could go if racial injustice became intolerable in their own countries.  His movement was called the “Back to Africa” drive, something Garvey never intended.  He saw the creation of a strong African state ruled by blacks as a way to put pressure on the world to treat black people fairly, not for a black mass exodus to Africa. 

His relationship with the black establishment in America was often strained.  They believed he came here with a chip on his shoulder and demanded the government investigate financial irregularities in Black Star Line.  On Feb. 2, 1925, Garvey surrendered to federal marshals in New York after being convicted of mail fraud in conjunction with his businesses. 

President Coolidge commuted Garvey’s prison sentence in 1927 and his petition for citizenship was immediately denied.  He was also deported as an undesirable alien.   

Garvey continued his political activism in Jamaica and moved to London in 1935.  By then he had lost most of his political clout.  Garvey died in London in 1940.

In 1965, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., laid a wreath on Garvey’s grave in Kingston.  He called him the first man of color in the history of America to lead and develop a mass movement.

On March 1, Swann Auction Galleries, New York featured a selection of Garvey related items in its Printed & Manuscript African Americana sale.  

Marcus Garvey

Speech; Garvey’s speech given at Royal Albert Hall; 31 pages; London, 1928;  $510.

Book; “Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey,” 102 pages; New York, 1923;  $1,020.

Stock Certificate; Black Star Line; two shares of common stock; Garvey signed; 1919;  $2,280.

Broadside Poster; “A Call to Colored Citizens;” Garvey delivered speech to the citizens of Atlanta; 6 inches by 4 ½ inches;  $5,040.


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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