By Morgan Files
Widespread misconceptions surround the aborted plans for a UNIA settlement program in the Republic of Liberia in the 1920s. Chief among these is that the Liberian upper classes were averse to Garvey’s plans which would have undermined “Americo-Liberian hegemony” over the country. 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.
Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914 and within a span of five years it was a world-wide organization of millions, headquartered in New York City. The UNIA launched the Black Star shipping line among other business ventures and began to look to Liberia, the only continuously independent state in colonial Africa, as the site of a Pan-African empire that would work for the upliftment, redemption and empowerment of people of African descent all over the world in the long term, and the decolonization of Africa in the short term.
In 1920, Garvey launched the Liberian Construction Loan program to raise two million dollars, for the UNIA settlement in Liberia and a sizable loan to the Government of Liberia. The loan was intended as an alternative to a five million dollar loan being offered to the Liberians by the United States Government. Overnight, Garvey’s followers bought up nearly 150 thousand dollars worth of bonds to finance the scheme. Untold hundreds of thousands more would be collected in succeeding months from Garvey’s mostly working class African-American followers.
Liberians, like Black people everywhere, were fascinated by Garvey’s eloquence and appeal to African pride, and the UNIA had a large and growing presence in the African country. Also Like Black people everywhere, they were divided as to the practicality of the UNIA’s ambitious schemes and not immune to the controversy surrounding Garvey’s own colorful, brash, larger-than- life persona.
High ranking members of government as well as ordinary working people were members of the UNIA or followers of Marcus Garvey, including former presidents Arthur Barclay and Daniel E. Howard, Thomas J.R. Faulkner, the former Mayor of Monrovia, Montserrado County Representative Didhwo Twe, Associate Justice Frederick E.R. Johnson, and his brother Gabriel M. Johnson, then the incumbent Mayor of Liberia’s capital city.
On August 1, 1920, the first International Convention of the Negro Peoples of The World opened at the UNIA’s Liberty Hall in Harlem. Black New York turned out in full to watch the spectacular parade, twenty-five thousand packed Madison Square Garden that night for a rally at which Garvey spoke, and Gabriel Johnson was elected Supreme Potentate of the UNIA, a rank second only to Provisional President-General Marcus Garvey himself. Johnson was the son of Liberia’s eleventh president Hilary R.W. Johnson, and grandson of Elijah Johnson, one of the country’s founders.
The UNIA loan came at one of the lowest points in Liberia’s history. The lucrative coffee trade had been co-opted by Brazil, revenues were near zero, and foreign loans with exorbitant compound interest were coming due. With the nation’s very sovereignty threatened by its indebtedness, Liberia had turned to the United States for a five million dollar loan to rescue her from her dire predicament. President Charles D.B. King was planning to lead a delegation to Washington and New York to plead their case with the American Senate when the UNIA’s Elie Garcia, head of the Black Star Line, assured King that the UNIA would “raise subscriptions all over the world” to help Liberia retire its burdensome foreign debt. Since the American loan came with equally burdensome demands for Liberian fiscal and administrative reform, the UNIA’s alternative offer was especially appealing. Liberia’s Secretary of State, Edwin Barclay in turn assured the UNIA Executive Council that Liberia stood ready “to afford the Association every facility legally possible in effectuating in Liberia industry, agriculture and business prospects.”
When Gabriel Johnson returned to Liberia, A UNIA delegation accompanied him, headed by Cyril Crichlow, the new Resident Commissioner for Liberia.
President Charles D. B. King welcomed the UNIA to Liberia and invited them to establish headquarters.
Cape Mount County was initially considered for the UNIA beachhead, but in the end five thousand square miles was set aside near Harper, Maryland County. Garvey issued a circular letter calling for 250 thousand dollars to secure a ship that would transport workmen and materials to the site. By mid-January 1921, that amount was raised and supplies were landed at Harper, even as President King and his delegation were arriving in New York for talks with US government and banking officials.
At this point Garvey’s bold pronouncements of his Liberia scheme had begun to attract the attention of the country’s colonial neighbors, France and Britain. As W.E.B. Du Bois put it, “Instead of keeping this plan hidden, Garvey yelled and shouted and telegraphed it all over the world,” placing the beleaguered Liberians in a very difficult position.
Edwin Barclay had expressed a similar concern over unwarranted publicity in accepting the UNIA offer:
“It is not always advisable nor politic to openly expose our secret intentions, our secret thoughts. That is the way we do-or rather don’t do-in Liberia. We don’t tell them what we think; we only tell them what they like to hear.”
Compounding matters even further, Cyril Crichlow had a falling out with Supreme Potentate Gabriel Johnson and other members of the UNIA delegation in Monrovia. Crichlow, penniless and stranded, went to the US Ambassador for help in returning home. The Ambassador somehow persuaded him to hand over confidential UNIA documents. These documents included a very unflattering appraisal of Liberian government officials that was published in the London-based AFRICAN WORLD. The UNIA plans had also become a source of friction and division in the True Whig Party halls of power, exacerbated by the fact that Garvey’s promises of financial aid to replace that of the United States were not forthcoming; The Black Star Line was in financial trouble as business declined and contributions decreased due to the post World War I economic slump.
Pressure from Britain, France and Washington DC intensified. As Gabriel Johnson made plans to attend the 1921 convention in New York City, the diplomatic wires were already burning up with Washington’s concern over the new closeness between the UNIA and America’s only ally in Black Africa, a country founded largely as an outpost of American commercial and shipping interests:
From: John C. Wiley
Division of Western European Affairs
To: William C. Hurley
United States Department of State, June 6,
Re: Visit of Gabriel Johnson, High Potentate of
the UNIA and Mayor of Monrovia.
“Gabriel Johnson is a brother of F.E.R. Johnson, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia, now in the US as one of the four members of the Liberian Plenary Mission to negotiate for the five million dollar loan. F.E.R. Johnson is very anti-American and opposed to the loan. Gabriel Johnson is a member of the UNIA and of course, opposed to the loan. He is probably being brought over by the Garvey people in an endeavor to negative the Department’s plans. The Division considers it important that immediate steps be taken to stop Gabriel Johnson’s voyage.”
Johnson made it to the convention despite the diplomatic intrigue, but another telegram followed him, from Joseph C. Johnson, the US Minister Resident/Consul General in Monrovia, to Charles Evans Hughes at the US State Department, in which the Minister Resident stated, “Don’t believe Gabriel Johnson’s reasons in America are in the best interests of the United States.”
Johnson succeeded in gaining entry into the United States only due to a feud between the State Department and the FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The Department had refused to cooperate with the FBI in blocking Marcus Garvey’s reentry into the United States after his tour of South America, and Hoover in retaliation refused to cooperate in preventing Gabriel Johnson’s entry. Hoover saw that the State Department viewed Gabriel Johnson’s UNIA ties and the Liberian construction scheme as a bigger threat than Marcus Garvey himself. Hoover was less concerned with the foreign policy implications than with Garvey’s ability to stir up domestic unrest inside the United States.
Into this web of diplomatic intrigue and behind- the-scenes machinations stepped Garvey’s old nemesis, W.E.B. Du Bois. A close friend of President C.D.B. King, Du Bois was also a longtime enemy of Marcus Garvey. He was from a socioeconomic class that wasn’t as impressed with Garvey as the masses of working people were: the Talented Tenth. This was class struggle in the simplest of terms, as African-Americans, long protected from internal class conflicts by “smaller inequities in wealth and education,” in Du Bois’ own words, were gradually becoming more divided by affluence and education. According to Du Bois’ biographer David Levering Lewis, this feud mirrored Du Bois’ earlier battles with Booker T. Washington; mostly southern working people, farmers, domestics and tradesmen represented by Booker T. Washington, against the mostly northern, urban, college-educated, professional and light-skinned upper classes.
This animosity between the two men hadn’t always existed; Garvey had sought Du Bois’ support for years before he finally dismissed him as a mulatto with divided loyalties who simply could not be trusted. Du Bois had long railed against Garvey as a “demagog” who had come “to mislead, inflame, lie and steal, to gather large followings and then burst and disappear.” These sentiments were expressed in articles he wrote for the NEGRO WORLD, the CHICAGO DEFENDER, and the CRISIS, the NAACP magazine that he edited. He had exposed financial improprieties and faulty accounting within the UNIA and in “The Demagog,” an article he published in the CRISIS, had managed to persuade readers that Garvey and his movement invited shame and catastrophe. A “Marcus Garvey Must Go” movement arose, fired up by Du Bois’ writings and led by A. Philip Randolph, James Weldon Johnson, Carl Murphy, publisher of the BALTIMORE AFRO-AMERICAN, among others. This “Friends of The Negro” movement was instrumental in making the Justice Department’s case against Marcus Garvey for mail fraud, and loudly demanded his deportation.
Not all readers of the CRISIS were persuaded that Garvey’s movement spelled catastrophe for Black people. In letters to the editor, some expressed displeasure at the NAACP aiding “in sending Mr. Garvey to jail and wrecking the UNIA rather than helping that organization. ”
In his reply to those readers, Du Bois sidestepped the question of group loyalty and used his influence with President C.D.B. King to hammer the final nail in the coffin of Garvey’s Liberia plan. He met with King while the latter was in New York negotiating for the loan, and persuaded him to publish an open letter in the CRISIS. “Under no circumstances, ” C.D.B. King’s letter stated, “will Liberia allow her territory to be made a center of aggression or conspiracy against other sovereign states.” Note that the “sovereign states” referred to were the colonial territories of France and Britain surrounding Liberia.
Certainly Garvey’s garish flamboyance and ostentatiousness also helped to turn public opinion against him, with his “Duke of The Niger” and “Duke of Uganda” titles, imitating the British nobility he was supposed to be against. His flirtations with the Ku Klux Klan, believing their racist ideology to be somehow in line with his philosophy of black separatism, didn’t endear him to many black Americans. His well-publicized financial improprieties and pompous authoritarianism, his inability to appreciate the value of discretion and secrecy, all factored into his downfall. Still, Du Bois’ obsession with destroying another great Pan-African is difficult for many to understand.
Du Bois may have believed he was acting in the best interests of Liberia. His first visit to Africa was a trip to Liberia in 1923, after he got himself appointed US Special Envoy to the country, just as Harvey S. Firestone was negotiating his rubber concession. Du Bois wrote a letter to Firestone urging fair play for the Liberians, and during the forced labor scandal of 1930, he unwaveringly defended the Republic, publishing his seminal LIBERIA, THE LEAGUE AND THE UNITED STATES.
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, US and European interests be damned. That may be debatable, but it is difficult to argue that Du Bois, who died in Ghana after years of hard work organizing the Pan African Conferences, did not have the best interests of Africa at heart.
Much easier to understand is the action of the C.D.B. King government in scuttling the Liberian Construction scheme given their precarious position and Garvey’s inability to keep his own ship afloat, much less deliver on his promises regarding Liberia’s finances.
In 1924 Chief Justice J.J. Dossen wrote a letter to the UNIA reiterating Edwin Barclay’s promise to cooperate fully with the Association’ s Liberia plan, but two months later, President King unexpectedly ordered all ports to refuse entry to any member of “The Garvey Movement.” What the so-called “experts” on Liberian history overlook is that King’s action came right after his government signed the Firestone concession agreement. The land set aside for the UNIA became part of the million acres leased to Firestone at six cents an acre for a hundred years, compared to the dollar an acre lease agreement with the UNIA.
And with increased American investment came increased foreign control, and the end of any hope of UNIA settlement or any other form of Pan-African empire. Indeed, President William Tubman years later would impose severe restrictions on the immigration of Black Muslims and other American and Caribbean Nationalists, a manifestation of the dark side of his “Open Door Policy.”
In 1949, UNIA President-General James R. Stewart of Ohio moved the Association’ s headquarters to Monrovia, where it remained until Stewart’s death in 1964, when it was again moved to Youngstown, Ohio. By this time of course the organization was a shadow of its former self, and badly fragmented by opposing ideologies and personality clashes.
With all this information readily available in books and on the internet, one finds it hard to understand why the old myths, distortions and outright lies persist. In analyzing the histories of European peoples, allowance is made for divergence of opinions, attitudes and intentions. In the case of Liberia, it seems much easier to ascribe everything the founders did to sinister group motives. According to the so-called “experts,” the ACS founders had varying motivations; philanthropy, slave-holding interests, anti-slavery interests, the spread of Christianity, etc. Compare that to their description of the immigrants themselves as monolithic; they unanimously “despised and disdained the indigenous people they met,” and were as a group disposed to view all Black Nationalist and Pan-African movements with suspicion. Their portrayal of Liberia’s indigenous people is just as insulting: They were all ignorant, primitive savages easily manipulated by the American colonists, or willing stooges in “Americo-Liberian” oppression. That some indigenous elements shared common values and interests with the colonists doesn’t seem to occur to the so-called “experts.”
Such people forget that Pan-African sentiments were a large part of Liberia’s founding, at least on the part of some immigrants if not the American Colonization Society. They overlook or dismiss people such as Thomas Faulkner, Arthur Barclay, Gabriel and Frederick Johnson, and one of the greatest Pan-Africans that ever lived, Edward Wilmot Blyden. Liberia’s very makeup is Pan-African: local indigenous people, American/Caribbean immigrants, Congolese, Yoruba, Fon and Ibo recaptives, and immigrants from all over Africa.
Whatever the reasons for these misconceptions, while the UNIA itself was not allowed to flourish in Liberia, its principles remained, and they heavily influenced the reform movement of the late 1920s that culminated in the formation of the Peoples Party by former President Daniel E. Howard, who was concerned over C.D.B. King’s consolidation of personal power bordering on dictatorship. The Peoples Party was led by Garveyites and challenged King in the 1927 elections. Their candidate, Thomas J.R. Faulkner clearly won that election, though King succeeded in stealing it.
Liberian Garveyites also founded the Citizens Nonpartisan League, in defense and support of Didhwo Twe and TJR Faulkner after they exposed the Fernando Po forced labor shame and suffered severe recriminations from the entrenched King-Yancy, American-Grebo, Monrovia-Cape Palmas power structure. The Citizens Nonpartisan League led by Justice Frederick Johnson and Gabriel Johnson, held huge rallies in the streets of Monrovia and forced the Legislature to compel King and Yancy to resign.
The lasting power and influence of the Garvey name in Liberia was also demonstrated in the overwhelming response to the visit of Garvey’s widow during the Tubman administration. Amy Ashwood Garvey was greeted as a hero, warmly and lavishly feted, accorded the country’s highest honors, and propositioned by President Tubman who was then a widower. Mrs. Garvey applied for Liberian citizenship, established a residence in Monrovia, and adopted President Tubman’s cousin. She was commissioned by the Liberian government as a special representative to the Gold Coast and Nigeria in 1946. Even then, long after Marcus Garvey was dead and buried, the US State Department was there, watching her every movement and reporting back to Washington on her activities.
Main pic: vidarasta.net/ Marcus Garvey
David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. DU BOIS
Marcus Garvey/UNIA Papers Project, UCLA
Ibrahim Sundiata, BROTHERS AND STRANGERS; BLACK ZION, BLACK SLAVERY
Charles S. Johnson, SEASONS IN HELL, and BITTER CANAAN: STORY OF THE NEGRO REPUBLIC
Tony Martin, AMY ASHWOOD GARVEY