Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican-born political activist, publisher and entrepreneur who wanted to create a separate economy and society run for and by African Americans. But ultimately, Garvey pushed for all Black people in the world to return to their homeland in Africa — specifically, Liberia.
Born in 1887, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, most commonly abbreviated as UNIA — an organization dedicated to racial pride and economic self-sufficiency.
Liberia began in the early 19th century as a settlement of the American Colonization Society (ACS), which was founded in 1817 by clergyman Robert Finley to send free African Americans to Africa.
The American Colonization Society believed that Black Americans would face better chances for freedom in Africa than in the U.S.
In 1822, the American Colonization Society established a colony on the West Coast of Africa, and in 1847 it became the independent nation of Liberia.
Between 1822 and the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, more than 15,000 freed and free-born Black people, along with 3,198 Afro-Caribbeans, relocated to Liberia, History.com reported. Liberia declared independence on July 26, 1847. On Jan. 3, 1848, Liberia elected its first president — Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a wealthy free-born African American from Virginia who had settled in Liberia.
The settlers developed an “Americo-Liberian” identity, with the Liberian constitution and flag modeled after the U.S The capital was named after U.S. President James Monroe, an American Colonization Society supporter. Liberia today has a population of around 5 million with English as the official language. There are more than 20 indigenous languages spoken.
Here are seven things to know about pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey and his plan to settle in Liberia.
Transporting Black Americans back to Africa wasn’t going to be cheap so in 1920, Garvey launched the Liberian Construction Loan program to raise $2 million for the Universal Negro Improvement Association settlement in Liberia. The $2 million would also include a promised and sizable loan to the government of Liberia. Almost immediately, Garvey’s followers bought up nearly $150,000 worth of bonds to finance the plan, Liberian Listener reported.
The Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had a large and growing presence in Liberia. High-ranking members of the government and ordinary Liberian citizens were members of the UNIA or followers of Marcus Garvey, including former presidents Arthur Barclay and Daniel E. Howard. Then-President Charles D. B. King welcomed the UNIA to Liberia and invited it to establish headquarters in the country.
Liberia was selected as the base for the establishment of the great African nation envisioned by Garvey. He saw the West African nation as the rightful home of those wanting to return to Africa, Jamaicans.com reported.
Garvey wanted to settle in Liberia before “white nations of Europe robbed Liberia of its autonomy, under the guise of friendship,” Jamaicans.com reported.
Garvey and all those who espoused “back-to-Africa” views were “intent on a ‘civilizing mission. They envisioned West Indian and American Blacks, as the most likely administrators of affairs in Africa and in particular, Liberia,” Jamaicans.com reported.
The conflict between Garvey and civil rights activist and fellow pan-Africanist W.E.B. Du Bois negatively affected his back-to-Africa plan. Du Bois’s anti-Garvey rhetoric played a major role in sabotaging Garvey’s efforts.
Du Bois disagreed with how Garvey was promoting the back-to-Africa cause. Du Bois reportedly complained, “Instead of keeping this plan hidden, Garvey yelled and shouted and telegraphed it all over the world,” placing the struggling Liberians in a very difficult position, the Liberian Listener reported.
Du Bois had a close relationship with Liberia and thought Garvey’s elaborate and public plans were putting Liberians at risk. In 1923, Du Bois was appointed U.S. Special Envoy to Liberia.
Du Bois wrote a 1924 editorial in The Crisis newspaper calling Garvey a “lunatic or traitor,” PBS’s “American Experience” reported.
Du Bois played a role in getting Firestone Tire and Rubber Company to open a rubber plantation in Liberia in 1926. Some in Black America complained that Du Bois should have helped Garvey’s project instead.
“Some may argue that helping to bring Firestone to Liberia instead of the UNIA was not exactly doing the country a favor, and wonder what the outcome would have been had Du Bois advised President King to let the UNIA in, the U.S. and European interests be damned. That may be debatable, but it is difficult to argue that Du Bois…did not have the best interests of Africa at heart,” the Liberian Listener reported.
In 1933, Du Bois published his critical article “Liberia, The League And The United States.”
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Many misconceptions surrounded the aborted plans for a UNIA settlement program in Liberia in the 1920s. Among the rumors was that the Liberian upper classes didn’t agree with Garvey’s plans.
“The more complicated truth has less to do with ‘Americo-Liberian hegemony’ than a curious combination of French, British and American interests in Africa, an all-too-human rivalry between Garvey and African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey’s own failure to keep his grandiose plans under the requisite cloak of secrecy,” the Liberian Listener reported.
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