Who was "Black Moses"?

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy.

Katie Lambert: And Sarah and I decided to do some episodes for Black History Month, so our topic for today is a man some people know as Black Moses.

Sarah Dowdy: By 1919, this Black Moses claimed a following of as many as 2 million people, and they're African Americans and people from the West Indies who were just tired of being denied their rights or subjected to violence just because they're black.

Katie Lambert: But unlike his predecessor, Booker T. Washington and his contemporary, W. E. B. Dubois, Black Moses didn't preach assimilation. He didn't even oppose segregation, just the mistreatment that went along with it.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. Instead, his line was Pan Africanism, and it was a desire to unite all the people separated under the black Diaspora as one people. And he believed that once Africa became associated with, quote, armies, navies, and men of big affairs, people of African descent wouldn't be denied their rights anymore and they wouldn't be subjected to violence and to pity.

Katie Lambert: And this line of thought put him at the head of America's first major Black Nationalist movement, based in Harlem, which was known as Garveyism. And the name gives you a clue as to the answer to our question, who is black Moses?

Sarah Dowdy: Black Moses was Malcus Mosiah Garvey, who today we know as Marcus Garvey, who was born in 1887 at Saint Ann's Bay in Jamaica.

Katie Lambert: And as far as what we know about his parents, his dad may have been a master mason, or perhaps just someone who broke stones on the roadway, but regardless of what he did as a profession, he really, truly loved books. And he spent as much time as he could in his own private library, which was a building actually separate from the family home, I can only hope.

Sarah Dowdy: And his mother helped support the family by selling her delectable pastries, but later in life, Garvey really emphasized that he came from a family of, quote, black Negroes. He really wants to distinguish himself from the other terms that people in the West Indies used to describe themselves, like brown or mulatto. He emphasizes that his people are from Africa.

Katie Lambert: And he's not even completely sure about people who do have white lineage. As much as he emphasizes that in himself, he actually does a lot of work with people who are of mixed race.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. A lot of it is kind of talk.

Katie Lambert: Yes. But he does make statements like this, which of course, are important when you're talking about his life. He's largely self-taught, but he does get a valuable apprenticeship with a printer, which helped him learn a lot about the art of composition and about the business of running a press, which will come in handy later.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. He - he learned the journalistic trade in this apprenticeship, as well as the mechanics of it, but he travels some as a youth. He goes to Central America where he's really disappointed to find black people living in similarly bad conditions as they are in Jamaica. And as many young people living in countries with a strong British influence, he is also driven to London. And he lives there from 1912 to 1914, and he starts to learn about Pan Africanism and that sort of thing when he's in London. But he also reads Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, and Garvey was certainly an admirer of Washington, even though they disagree on that major point of integration, Washington obviously being for it and Garvey not so much.

Katie Lambert: But he did really like the idea of Washington's Tuskegee Institute and comes up with a dream of making his own trade school in Jamaica, and he writes to Washington and secures an invitation to visit, but before he can, Washington dies.

Sarah Dowdy: So Garvey comes to the United States, nevertheless, in 1916. But all right, so before we talk about his early days in the United States, we should mention that in Jamaica in 1914, he founds the very long name -

Katie Lambert: It's very unwieldy.

Sarah Dowdy: - Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation A ssociation in African Communities League, which is usually just called The Universal Negro Improvement Association. And we're gonna call it the UNIA.

Katie Lambert: And the group had a Pan African agenda, so we wanted to talk a little bit about what that means. There's a bit of a spectrum. On one side, according to Wilson Jeremiah Moses, sometimes it just is a call for unity among black or African peoples wherever they might reside. That's a quote from Moses. And on the other side, we've got the goal of uniting the entire African continent under one government to be controlled by Africans.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. So I kinda see this as a Pan African light and then a very intense version. But the UNIA, which has this Pan African agenda, doesn't really catch on in Jamaica, and this is partly why Garvey is attracted to the US. And he actually becomes so involved in UNIA work when he's in the United States that he eventually abandons his other motive for coming, which was the Jamaican trade school plan.

Katie Lambert: But the UNIA really picks up steam, especially in Harlem and in other cities, and by 1919, he's got that following of about 2 million people. This is really the height of his popularity.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. So let's talk a little bit about Garvey and his work with the UNIA.

Katie Lambert: Garvey is a pitchman, and he speaks to black power, but specifically, black economic power. He's also interested in black history and in African identity, but black economic power is kind of at the center of what he wants to do.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. And that interest in black history and African identity - we talked about the Pan Africanism already, but he's also interested in Afro Centrism, which is really more of a philosophical movement. And it's the idea that Africa is the center of black history and cultural identity and that black people all around the world should celebrate the Ethiopians and the Egyptian civilization and kind of consider that a golden age of the Pharaohs was going on at the same time that Europeans were considered barbarians living in caves.

Katie Lambert: And Garvey was also convinced that whenever black people accomplish something amazing, they're basically reclassified as white. So he went with that whole racist one drop rule, and -

Sarah Dowdy: That one drop of blood makes you black.

Katie Lambert: Makes you black, right, and reclaimed it and embraced it for historical vindication saying, well, all right then, the Pharaohs are black, so deal with that.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. So his newspaper, Negro World, is very Afro Centric, and it's really his instrument to communicate Afro Centrism and Pan Africanism to his followers. And he's got a lot of popular articles, not just on news, but on African history in society, and he's really good at this paper business. We've talked a lot about these great publishing men recently, but he's good at this. He's a journalist, and it's the UNIA's big success and something to remember when we talk about some of its spectacular failures later on. But Garvey is a born publicist, and he's got this great sense of style and composition. And at its peak, Negro World has a regular circulation of 50,000 or more readers, and -

Katie Lambert: But that doesn't count -

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: - even all the people who were listening to it being read aloud at work or in beauty parlors all around the city, so that's a low estimate.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, definitely.

Katie Lambert: But don't think of Marcus Garvey as a retiring sort of newspaperman. He's very showy. He wears plumes and military style clothing. Sarah emailed me some fabulous pictures earlier.

Sarah Dowdy: You know, Katie and I are always interested in the plumes.

Katie Lambert: Well, we're bit into that. You're the green editor. We have to be.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: But he's not just about talking and promoting and pitching. It's - it's not all talk. He wants to be the guy at the head of this economic revolution that he dreams of, but unfortunately, he is no businessman.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. And his goal is to establish and independent black economy, so not integrate into the existing white economy, but have his own. So he establishes the Negro Factories Corporation and then a line of blackren restaurants and grocery stores, laundries, a hotel, a printing press, and then most famously, the Black Star Line.

Katie Lambert: Most famously for being a complete misadventure, so the idea behind the Black Star Line is actually really impressive. It was a shipping line that was meant to be the foundation of trade between Africans around the world. So it would increase the distribution of black made products and make more money for the black community.

Sarah Dowdy: And it's popular. People wanna be involved in this. It's incorporated in 1919 selling stocks at $5.00 a share. And it has between 30,000 and 40,000 stockholders, and these are people who could have invested in some of the businesses, the restaurants and the laundry mats and all that, and many do, but a lot of people choose the Black Star Line because it offers economic independence and because it just seemed so militant.

Katie Lambert: Well, it was so bold.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: It was a really bold, impressive, showy kind of idea, but unfortunately, terrible investments and mismanagement lead to the line and Garvey's downfall. There was just a lot of incompetence, not only with Garvey but also with the people he hired and surrounded himself with.

Sarah Dowdy: The vessels are dilapidated and sometimes just unseaworthy. One of them, originally called the Yarmouth, and renamed Frederick Douglas - you'll see this as a - they rename their boats - it was purchased on the advice of a West Indian Captain, named Joshua Cockburn, who gets a $1600.00 brokerage fee for buying it. And it's not that great of a ship, but still, people are excited about the inauguration of the Black Star Line and maybe it seems like it'll work out. But on its voyage to Cuba with a cargo of whiskey, it runs aground off the Bahamas. Well, Cockburn is asleep. And then, finally it does get to Cuba, makes no profit, runs aground again off of Boston, and it sold at public auction the next year. And this is just epitomizes these - these boats here.

Katie Lambert: It's just a pattern. They're all sunk, abandoned, or sold at public auction shortly thereafter. And the other side of this whole shipping line idea was transporting people because that was the ultimate plan. You would resettle all of the black people in Africa, which is the scheme Garvey is probably best known for.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. So one year after the launch of the Black Star Line, Garvey starts the Liberia program. And in fact, in 1920, which once again this is like the height of his popularity, there is a Madison Square Garden meeting of 25,000 people, and they elect him the Provisional President of Africa, which -

Katie Lambert: I have no idea what that means.

Sarah Dowdy: - is a rather bold title. But the idea was to give American blacks an African base and to develop Liberia as a kind of economic powerhouse.

Katie Lambert: So in 1920, a UNIA delegation sets up a deal with the Liberian government to set aside land for the UNIA to develop. And you know, Liberia says okay. They're agreed. And the UNIA sets up this Liberian development corporation and raises $750,000.00, but this money simply disappears, again, through mismanagement.

Sarah Dowdy: Like so many of the UNIA's investments.

Katie Lambert: Yes. You got all the money and then it's gone.

Sarah Dowdy: So the Liberians, who are definitely in need of some kind of influx of capital here - they need to develop their country - move on because at this point, there's increasingly bad PR around Garvey and the UNIA. And France and Great Britain even pressure Liberia to announce that the UNIA can't have the land after all. So instead, the Liberians set up a partnership with the American rubber industry, specifica lly, Firestone company because you gotta consider at this time the automobile industry is really picking up, and we need tires in America.

Katie Lambert: Right. But this whole venture is the beginning of the end for Garvey. We've got some bad business deals going on, some definite failures, and Garvey's popularity ensures that the white establishment is looking for a way to bring him down. He's very powerful and they don't like it.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. A young J. Edgar Hoover is especially hard after him. He sees him as a threat to the American way.

Katie Lambert: But he also has enemies from within and from within his own organization. In 1919, a guy named George Tyler actually shoots him four times in the UNIA offices, but then, it gets a little sketchy.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. The State Attorney General, Edwin P. Kilrow, says that Tyler was gonna make damaging revelations about Garvey's business practices. And then, shortly after, Tyler dies in police custody, and Garvey sort of puts out the word that maybe the UNIA was a victim of a plot by Kilrow, the Attorney General. And he says that and many of his followers end up believing him.

Katie Lambert: And Garvey's also clashing with leaders of other black movements. He's having confrontations with A. Phillip Randolph, with Dubois, who's head of the NAACP at the time, and also Robert S. Abbott, who's the publisher and editor of Chicago Defender, a rival black paper.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. Abbott really cannot stand Garvey. He thinks he's a charlatan, essentially. But Garvey falls out hard after the government finally pins some charges on him. On January 12, 1922, he's arrested and later indicted on 12 counts of mail fraud, which you know, mail fraud. Lawyer have been hunting for some kind of technical charge.

Katie Lambert: Anything they can get him on.

Sarah Dowdy: And they stumbled upon this one.

Katie Lambert: The arrest, though, stirs up a lot of existing negative press about the Black Star Line's financial problems, and the black press demands some proof that this company works, that it's not just a front or that they're money's not going to waste.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. Think of all the investment that's gone into this shipping line, so the Black Star Line says that it will buy the ship, O'Ryan, which they'll rename the Phyllis Wheatley, and this is really the nail in the coffin of Garvey's career. The purchase is bogged down by a bunch of legal and financial problems. The white agent negotiates a purchase and takes a third of the deposit money for himself. And meanwhile, the US Shipping Board, which owns the O'Ryan, is being urged by the FBI to demand a bond of $450,000.00, which is three times the purchase price. So Garvey is stuck. He can't get his ship. He can't pay $450,000.00, so he's in a real pickle by this point.

Katie Lambert: And it really, really does not help that he tries to get pretty much the worst allies ever as his popularity plummets. He meets with the KKK, meets up with the Imperial Wizard in Atlanta in June of 1922. And if this absolutely makes no sense to you, he justifies himself by saying, and I quote, "I was speaking to a man who was brutally a white man, and I was speaking to him as a man who was brutally a Negro," so I can't justify it for you anymore than Garvey did.

Sarah Dowdy: So Garvey is convicted in 1923, and his appeal is unsuccessful. He is sentenced to federal prison, back in Atlanta again, for six years.

Katie Lambert: But Calvin Coolidge commutes his sentence after two, and he's deported to Jamaica, but he ultimately ends up in England, where he dies pretty much in obscurity in middle age.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. Yeah. The UNIA really can't press on without charismatic Garvey at its head, and interestingly, though, despite this Black Star Line, despite the failed Liberian movement, it's not seen as a failure. It helps shape what's to come, which is the Black Nationalism that really strengthens after World War II.

Katie Lambert: And according to Wilson Jeremiah Moses again, he had quite a lot of accomplishments. This is a quote from him, "Marcus Garvey revealed the ability of African Americans to combine capital, organize politically, create jobs, provide a forum for writers and intellectuals, and sustain institutions independent of white philanthropy."

Sarah Dowdy: Which is of note because even the early NAACP was pretty heavy on white leadership. But kind of an interesting footnote to this whole story, if we're not gonna just leave you with mail fraud and dying in obscurity, in 1987 Representative Charles Rangel introduced measures to Congress to have Garvey exonerated on those mail fraud charges. And he was going off of research done by Robert A. Hill, who had found evidence in the national archives that the conviction was politically motivated because Hoover and the Justice Department saw links between Garveyism and the Communist movement.

Katie Lambert: That Hoover.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, that Hoover. So it's interesting and I think that people are still trying to make this happen. It's kind of an unprecedented thing to have a - a post humus pardon, but -

Katie Lambert: Or at least that we know of.

Sarah Dowdy: At least as far as we know, so send us an email if you - if you have any updates on the Garvey exoneration process at historypodcast@howstuffworks.com.

Katie Lambert: And that brings us to listener mail. We got an email from Ann from Houston, who'd written us a bit of a follow up to our Burke and Wills expedition, talking about the camels in Australia, which have become a huge problem. She said -

Sarah Dowdy: Feral camels.

Katie Lambert: Right. She sent a link to The Times Online, a story from January 21st of this year, 2010, and apparently, the government had committed $19 million to culling the camel population of Australia over four years.

Sarah Dowdy: They're gonna shoot them down from helicopters.

Katie Lambert: Yeah. That never really goes over well in the press.

Sarah Dowdy: No.

Katie Lambert: And instead, some people are trying to get them sent to Saudi Arabia, where apparently, you can buy a baby camel burger, which tastes a lot like beef.

Sarah Dowdy: So amnesty for Australian camels, I guess.

Katie Lambert: Right. And thank you for the footnote from Ann.

Sarah Dowdy: But going back to Garvey, if you wanna learn more about where all these movements led, you should read our article, How the Civil Rights Movement Worked. It's on our homepage, www.howstuffworks.com, and we will inevitably be talking about the '60s and the later black history movement when we continue this February series.

Katie Lambert: So you'll want a little more background, and if you would also like to connect with us in another way, you can now follow us on Twitter at Missed in History, so come find us.

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