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Universal Negro Improvement Association

Universal Negro Improvement Association

The Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), with its motto "One God, One Aim, One Destiny," stands as one of the most important political and social organizations in African-American history. It was founded by Marcus Garvey in July 1914, in Kingston, Jamaica, in the West Indies.

At the time of its establishment, its full name was the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities (Imperial) League (ACL). Originally organized as a mutual benefit and reform association dedicated to racial uplift, the UNIA and ACL migrated with Garvey to the United States in 1916. Incorporated

in New York in 1918, the UNIA gradually began to give voice to the rising mood of New Negro radicalism that emerged within the African-American population following the signing of the armistice ending World War I in November 1918.

The UNIA experienced a sudden massive expansion of membership beginning in the spring of 1919, spearheaded by the spectacular success of the stock-selling promotion of the Black Star Line (BSL). Together with the Negro Factories Corporation and other commercial endeavors, all of which were constituted under the ACL, the BSL represented the heart of the movement's economic program.

Outfitted with its own flag, national anthem, Universal African Legion and other uniformed ranks, official organ (the Negro World ), African repatriation and resettlement scheme in Liberia, constitution, and laws, the UNIA attempted to function as a sort of provisional government of Africa. The result was that by 19201921 the UNIA had become the dominant voice advocating black self-determination under its irredentist program of African Redemption. Accompanied by spectacular parades, annual month-long conventions were held at Liberty Hall in Harlem, in New York City, between 1920 and 1924, at all of which Garvey presided. The document with the greatest lasting significance was the "Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World," passed at the first UNIA convention in August 1920.

Nearly a thousand local divisions and chapters of the UNIA were established by the mid-1920s in the United States, Canada, the West Indies, Central and South America, Africa, and the United Kingdom, causing the influence of the UNIA to be felt wherever peoples of African descent lived. With actual membership running into the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, the UNIA is reputed to have been the largest political organization in African-American history.

After Garvey's 1923 conviction on charges of mail fraud following the collapse of the Black Star Line and his incarceration in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary starting in 1925, membership in the UNIA declined rapidly. When President Calvin Coolidge commuted Garvey's sentence and he was deported from the United States in 1927, the organization found itself racked by increasing factionalization.

Garvey incorporated a new UNIA and ACL of the World in Jamaica at the August 1929 convention, competing with the New Yorkbased UNIA parent body headed at the time by Fred A. Toote, who was succeeded by Lionel Francis in 1931. With the worldwide economic collapse that followed the 1929 stock market crash, the UNIA went into further decline as members' resources dwindled, making it difficult to support two separate wings of the movement. Demoralization also set in as a result of the UNIA leadership's increasing fragmentation. Garvey was able to retain the loyalty of only a part of the movement, notably the Garvey Club and the Tiger division of the New York UNIA.

When Garvey moved his headquarters in 1935 from Jamaica to London, he tried once again to revive the movement but soon found himself confronting considerable opposition by members who were in the forefront of the campaign to support Ethiopia during the ItalianEthiopian War of 1935. These members repudiated the criticisms Garvey leveled against Ethiopia's Emperor, Haile Selassie I, following the invasion by Mussolini and the Fascist Italian Army.

After Garvey's death in 1940, loyalists moved the headquarters of the organization to Cleveland, Ohio, under the leadership of its new president general, James Stewart, who thereafter relocated with it to Liberia. By the 1940s and 1950s, the UNIA had a mere shadow of its former strength, but it still continues to function into the twenty-first century.

See also Garvey, Marcus; Pan-Africanism


Hill, Robert A., ed. The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, vols. 17. Berkeley: University of California Press, 19831991.

Hill, Robert A., and Barbara Bair. Marcus Garvey: Life and Lessons. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

robert a. hill (1996)

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