Black Nationalist Messiah Marcus Garvey: the Early Years

Black Nationalist Messiah Marcus Garvey: the Early Years

Why you should care

Because Marcus Garvey — and black nationalist ideology — had a broader geographical impact than most people realize.

Black nationalist messiah Marcus Garvey has a past that you might not know about.

He gained fame for his outsize impact on New York’s black cultural nexus of the 1920s, and his home country of Jamaica. A leading advocate of Pan-African politics, he tried to establish a permanent haven on the African continent for black people from around the world.

”He was the first man on a mass scale and level to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny and make the Negro feel he was somebody,” Martin Luther King Jr. later put it.

Less well known: The most radical Garveyists of the era were found not in New York City or Jamaica, but on the shores of Central America — at least for a brief period.

Black West Indians began to join Garvey’s UNIA in droves, seeking a vehicle for overcoming class and cultural differences…

Garvey first traveled to the isthmus at the start of his career in 1910, stopping in Costa Rica and Panama, whose Caribbean coasts had attracted thousands of black West Indians seeking employment since 1850.

The poor treatment of West Indians on the United Fruit Company’s banana plantations in both countries shocked him. Central Americans viewed black English-speaking West Indians as threats to their jobs and their culture, and treated them accordingly.

Soon after arriving, Garvey started editing a local paper in Limón, Costa Rica, and used the platform to attack United Fruit for injustices against his countrymen. But the conservative West Indian elite saw him as an arrogant nobody and managed to turned working-class blacks against him.

Chased out of Costa Rica, Garvey traveled to Panama in 1911. Three years away from finishing the Panama Canal, the United States had imported much of its labor force from Barbados. Black West Indian workers received less pay than their white American counterparts and were segregated from better-quality housing and schools in the Canal Zone.

Bananas being loaded onto the Northern Railway in Costa Rica, circa 1915. The railway is owned by the United Fruit Company.

Bananas being loaded onto the Northern Railway in Costa Rica, circa 1915. The railway is owned by the United Fruit Company.

Source Paul Popper/Getty

Again Garvey found work at a local paper and decried these conditions, only to be ignored. But it was there that his political ideology began to take shape. He eventually used his experience in Central America to start the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), an international black nationalist organization that worked toward “the general uplift of the Black race.”

Only after World War I did West Indians in Central America start to embrace the idea of labor organizing. Thousands had joined the war on behalf of mother Britain and returned disillusioned by the poor treatment they received at her hands. Seeking work once again in Central America, they encountered even worse treatment from their bosses.

When Garvey visited Central America in 1919, he was greeted as a celebrity — and as a terrorist.

Black West Indians began to join Garvey’s UNIA in droves, seeking a vehicle for overcoming class and cultural differences and organizing for shared goals.

In 1919, 1,500 West Indian workers in Panama led a strike against poor conditions and dismal pay. Again in 1920, low-wage black workers on the Canal went on strike, presenting a list of 14 significant demands. The U.S. and Panamanian governments ruthlessly quashed both incidents, but the protests marked Garveyism’s success at promoting solidarity in the region.

When Garvey visited Central America in 1919, he was greeted as a celebrity — and as a terrorist. The United Fruit manager in Bocas del Toro, Panama, at first tried to block him from entering the country, fearing riots on the plantations.

In 1921, he captivated his majority black West Indian audience in Colón, Panama, with a laudatory speech. “Two years ago in New York, nobody paid any attention to us. When I used to speak, even the policemen on the beat never noticed me,” he said, comparing the change to the sudden rise of black consciousness and solidarity across the Caribbean diaspora.

Protest fever in Central America proved short-lived. After the 1920 strike defeat, and post-strike pay cuts and job losses, West Indians gradually became more conservative. And Garvey himself was too preoccupied with raising money for a new capital venture to rally his followers. In fact, he advised the protesters to go back to work, to appease corporate leadership.

Still, even when Garveyism was in decline in the mid-1920s, the UNIA had more than 49 branches throughout Panama.

Garveyism inspired the creation of later black nationalist movements, such as the Nation of Islam and Rastafarianism, which thrives in Panama today. Who knew a small strip of intercontinental land could spark a revolution?

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