In an article entitled " The Negro's Greatest Enemy", published in Current History (September 1923) Garvey explained the origin of the organization's name:
According to the preamble of the 1929 constitution as amended, the UNIA is a "social, friendly, humanitarian, charitable, educational, institutional, constructive and expansive society, and is founded by persons desiring to the utmost to work for the general uplift of the people of African ancestry of the world. And the members pledge themselves to do all in their power to conserve the rights of their noble race and to respect the rights of all mankind, believing always in the Brotherhood of Man and the Fatherhood of God. The motto of the organization is 'One God! One Aim! One Destiny!' Therefore, let justice be done to all mankind, realizing that if the strong oppresses the weak, confusion and discontent will ever mark the path of man but with love, faith and charity towards all the reign of peace and plenty will be heralded into the world and the generations of men shall be called Blessed."
Amongst the auxiliary components of the UNIA were the Universal African Legion, a paramilitary group; the African Black Cross Nurses; African Black Cross Society; the Universal African Motor Corps; the Black Eagle Flying Corps; the Black Star Steamship Line; the Black Cross Trading and Navigation Corporation; as well as the Negro Factories Corporation.
In 1919 the UNIA purchased the first of what would be numerous Liberty Halls. Located at 114 West 138th Street, New York City the building had a seating capacity of six thousand. It was dedicated on July 27, 1919. Later that year the Association organized the first of its two steamship companies and a separate business corporation.
Incorporated in Delaware as a domestic corporation on June 27, 1919, the Black Star Line, Inc. (BSL) was capitalized at ten million dollars. It sold shares individually valued at five dollars to both UNIA members and non-members alike. Proceeds from stock sales were used to purchase first the S.S. Yarmouth and then the S.S. Shadyside. The Shadyside was used by the Association for summer outings and excursions, as well as rented out on charter to other organizations. The BSL later purchased the Kanawha as its third vessel. This small yacht was intended for inter-island transportation in the West Indies and was rechristened the S.S. Antonio Maceo.
Also established in 1919 was the Negro Factories Corporation, with a capitalization of one million dollars. It generated income and provided jobs by its numerous enterprises, including a chain of grocery stores and restaurants, steam laundry, tailor shop, dress making shop, millinery store, publishing house and doll factory.
With the growth of its membership from 1918 through 1924, as well as, income from its various economic enterprises, UNIA purchased additional Liberty Halls in the USA, Canada, Costa Rica, Belize, Panama, Jamaica, and other countries. Furthermore, UNIA purchased farms in Ohio and other states. It purchased land in Claremont, Virginia with the intention of founding Liberty University.
For the entire month of August 1920, the UNIA-ACL held its first international convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The 20,000 members in attendance promulgated the The Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World on August 13, 1920, and elected the leaders of the UNIA as "leaders for the Negro people of the world". The organization put forth a program based on "The Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World", marking the evolution of the movement into a black nationalist one. It sought the uplift of the black race and encouraged self-reliance and nationhood. Amongst the declarations was one proclaiming the red, black and green flag the official banner of the African race. (Beginning in the 1960s, black nationalists and Pan-Africanists adopted the same flag as the Black Liberation Flag.) UNIA-ACL officially designated the song "Ethiopia the land of our fathers" as the official anthem of "Africa and the Africans, at home and Abroad".
Under the provisions of the UNIA constitution, Gabriel Johnson was elected Potentate; G. O. Marke, Supreme Deputy Potentate; J. W. [H]. Eason, leader of the fifteen million "Negroes" of the United States of America; Sam Biglari, Chief Communications Officer; and Henrietta Vinton Davis, International Organizer. Garvey was elected "Provisional President of Africa", a mostly ceremonial title.
By 1924 the Chief Justice J.J. Dossen of Liberia wrote to UNIA conveying the government's support: "The President directs me to say in reply to your letter of June 8 setting forth the objects and purposes of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, that the Government of Liberia, appreciating as they do the aims of your organization as outlined by you, have no hesitancy in assuring you that they will afford the Association every facility legally possible in effectuating in Liberia its industrial, agricultural and business projects."
About two months later, however, the Liberian President unexpectedly ordered all Liberian ports to refuse entry to any member of the "Garvey Movement". Some historians fail to note that his action closely followed the Firestone Rubber Company's agreement with Liberia for a 99-year lease of one million acres (4,000 km²) of land. The land deal had been assisted by American and European governments. Originally Liberia had intended to lease the land to UNIA at an unprecedented dollar an acre ($247/km²). The commercial agreement with Firestone Tire dealt a severe blow to the UNIA's African repatriation program.
As a result, the UNIA continued to be officially recognized as the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, and a rival "UNIA-ACL August 1929 of the World" emerged, headed by Marcus Garvey after his deportation to Jamaica.
The UNIA, Inc., after Mr. Garvey's departure, continued to operate out of New York until 1941. After George Weston's 1926 election to President-General, he was seceded by Frederick Augustus Toote (1929), Clifford Bourne (1930), Lionel Antonio Francis (1931 - 1934), Henrietta Vinton Davis (1934-1940), Lionel Antonio Francis (1940-1961), Captain A L King (1961 - 1981) and Milton Kelly, Jr. (1981 - 2007).
In a historic 1939 British Supreme Court decision, President-General Lionel Francis was recognized as the rightful administrative heir to the huge Sir Isaiah Emmanuel Morter(DSOE) Estate in Belize. The organization's administrative headquarters then shifted to Belize in 1941 when the President-General relocated there from New York.
Upon his death in 1961 during Hurricane Hattie, the Presidency shifted back to New York under the leadership of Captain A L King, formerly President of the Central Division of the UNIA in New York.
After his death in the early 1980s, longtime Garveyite Organizer Milton Kelly, Jr. assumed the administrative reigns and continued to head the Association until 2007.
The UNIA 1929 headed by Mr. Garvey continued operating in Jamaica until he moved to England in 1935. There he set up office for the Parent Body of the UNIA 1929 and maintained contact with all its divisions. UNIA 1929 conventions were held in Canada during 1936, 1937 and 1938. The 1937 sessions were highlighted by the introduction of the first Course of African Philosophy conducted by Garvey. In January 1940 Garvey became ill. He died on June 10, 1940. UNIA members worldwide participated in eulogies, memorial services and processions in his honor. Secretary General Ethel Collins briefly managed the affairs of the UNIA from New York until a successor to Garvey could be formally installed to complete his term as President General.
During an emergency Commissioners' conference in June 1940, James R. Stewart, Commissioner from Ohio and graduate of the Course of African Philosophy, was named the successor. In the months to follow, the Parent Body of the UNIA was moved from its temporary headquarters in New York to Cleveland. In October 1940 the New Negro World started publishing out of Cleveland. After the 1942 International Convention in Cleveland, a rehabilitating committee of disgruntled members was held in New York during September.
From August to September 1949, the rehabilitating committee held a conference in Detroit, Michigan. Following that conference, the committee denounced the leadership of President Stewart and the UNIA became fragmented once again.
Former High Chancellor Thomas W. Harvey became President General of the new faction. An international headquarters was established in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after a conference was held there in August 1951. Although some divisions severed ties with the Monrovia Parent Body after the Rehabilitation Conference, a number also continued to report to Monrovia consistent with the laws in the constitution.
The first International Convention held under President General Harvey occurred in August 1953. William LeVan Sherrill was elected President General then. As First Assistant President General, Sherrill had previously served as acting President General beginning in 1925, during the time when the UNIA's founder Garvey was incarcerated. During his administration, Sherrill claimed to have 36 divisions associated with the Philadelphia Parent Body.
Harvey was elected President General in August 1960. Prior to his election, the UNIA began publication of the third house organ, a monthly newspaper entitled "Garvey's Voice". President Sherrill resigned in December 1958 and Harvey became Acting President General of the UNIA. Harvey then held the post for nearly 20 years, winning re-election every four years until his demise in June of 1978.
When Stewart died in 1964, the Parent Body was moved from Monrovia to Youngstown, Ohio, where James A. Bennett took the reins. In 1968 Bennett was succeeded by Vernon Wilson.
After President-General Wilson's death in 1975, Mason Harvgrave became next President General. Hargrave testified during the congressional hearings in August 1987 in relation to the exoneration of Marcus Garvey on charges of mail fraud. The findings of the Judiciary Committee were: Garvey was innocent of the charges against him. Although the Committee determined he had been found guilty earlier due to the social climate of America at the time, they had no legal basis upon which to exonerate a person who was deceased.
After President General Hargrave died in 1988, all his papers and other Parent Body material were turned over to the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio for safe-keeping. From 1988 until the present (2007), the Honorable Cleo Miller, Jr. has held the title of President General.
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