Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA)

Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was an ambitious organization of people of African descent worldwide in the late 1910s and 1920s. The movement built upon Back-to-Africa movements of the late 1800s, which encouraged people of color to look to Africa both as an ancestral homeland and a hope for a future. The association’s founder, Jamaican-born Garvey, had come to the United States in 1916, and he took advantage of a wave of racial violence following the end of World War I to mobilize African Americans to eschew integration for black nationalist goals. The message of racial pride, separation from white society, and emigration to the African continent distinguished the UNIA from other civil rights movements of the period. At its height, the UNIA owned restaurants, stores, a printing plant, and other businesses mostly in the New York City area, and had inaugurated the Black Star Line, a shipping company formed to trade with Africa and transport passengers to the continent. Garvey’s movement declined after he was found guilty of mail fraud and served two years in federal prison, 1925 to 1927. Garvey was deported upon his release from prison, and he spent his last years living in London, England. While it had been part of a mass movement in the early 1920s, the UNIA continued in decline without Garvey, though it still exists in the twenty-first century.

Most historians have treated the UNIA, with its headquarters in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, primarily as a northern and urban movement, ignoring the reality that many African Americans living in New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois, in the 1920s had recently arrived from the rural South. The UNIA in fact had broad membership in the South and particularly in the cotton-producing areas of the Arkansas Delta. In the late 1800s, the Back-to-Africa movement had been extremely strong in Arkansas. Dozens of “Exodus clubs” formed in mostly rural communities, and approximately 700 black Arkansans emigrated to Liberia. In addition, more than two dozen black Arkansans left as missionaries to Africa in the 1890s and 1900s. A generation later, the Garvey movement picked up on this interest in the African continent.

At least forty-six divisions of the UNIA were organized in Arkansas, with most of them chartered in rural areas of the Delta between 1921 and 1924. Mississippi County had eight divisions, Monroe County had seven, and Phillips County, the site of the Elaine Massacre of 1919, had six divisions. Other Delta counties with more than one division included St. Francis (four), Crittenden (three), Cross (three), Jefferson (three), Woodruff (two), and Lee (two). Elsewhere in Arkansas, there was one division each in Sebastian, Faulkner, Ouachita, Sevier, and Lincoln counties. Oddly, no divisions were chartered in the black-majority counties in southeastern Arkansas, nor in Little Rock (Pulaski County). The more moderate and “respectable” National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had five chapters in Arkansas in the 1920s, however.

It appears that the Arkansas UNIA divisions were developed spontaneously by local leaders, not outside organizers. Marcus Garvey never visited the state of Arkansas nor the Mississippi Delta region. Divisions often were organized around churches, and a few UNIA leaders were preachers, such as E. B. “Britt” McKinney, who in the 1930s became an organizer and vice president of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union. Other known UNIA leaders were wage farm laborers, sharecroppers, or tenant farmers.

The influence of Garvey spread far beyond the communities that had organized UNIA divisions. The movement’s newspaper, the Negro World, circulated throughout the black community in Arkansas as early as 1919. A man in Fort Smith (Sebastian County) was noted by the Negro World as one of the top forty-two distributors of the paper worldwide. When Garvey faced legal trouble and imprisonment, scores of letters, telegrams, and petitions from various locations in Arkansas poured in to Washington DC and New York showing support for Garvey. A count of those sending communications, signing petitions, or attending mass meetings of support for Garvey totaled 28,495 for Arkansas, a number greater than any other Southern state except Louisiana. Hundreds of donations for Garvey’s legal defense fund came to New York from locations in Arkansas with and without UNIA divisions, and the contributions ranged from five cents to a dollar.

Garvey’s plan for African Americans to colonize Liberia and to build up the African economy received more attention in 1924, and this plan particularly resonated among his supporters in Arkansas. When he called for contributions for the colonization through the African Redemption Fund in 1924, he immediately received fifteen-dollar donations each from UNIA divisions in rural Arkansas in Burton Spurr (Mississippi County), Round Pond (St. Francis County), Armorel (Mississippi County), Howell (Woodruff County), Indian Bay (Monroe County), Blackton (Monroe County), and Pine City (Monroe County). Correspondents wrote to the Negro World expressing their hopes for the redemption of Africa or emigration there. The Blytheville (Mississippi County) divisions of the UNIA sent two delegates to the 1924 international convention in Harlem to investigate the possibilities for a large party to emigrate to Liberia.

An additional Arkansas connection to Garvey’s movement was William LeVan Sherrill, one of the key leaders of the organization. Sherrill was born in Altheimer (Jefferson County) in 1894 and graduated from Philander Smith College in 1917. After service in the army in World War I, he lived in Chicago and then Baltimore, Maryland, where Garvey heard him speak at a UNIA meeting and made Sherrill a part of the leadership team. At the international UNIA convention of 1922 in New York, Sherrill was chosen as the organization’s representative to the League of Nations in Geneva and given the title of Leader of American Negroes and Assistant President General. He became the acting president of the UNIA when Garvey went to prison in 1925. Garvey later turned on Sherrill for failing to visit him or send money while in prison. Garvey charged Sherrill with disloyalty and with wasting the UNIA’s funds, and a special meeting of the organization held in March 1926 turned Sherrill out of his offices. Ironically, Sherrill in later years again became a top official in the UNIA. In 1956, he gave a eulogy at the unveiling of a bust of Garvey in his Jamaican homeland (Garvey died in 1940). By this time, the movement had no visible presence in Arkansas.

For additional information:
Barnes, Kenneth C. “Inspiration from the East: Black Arkansans Look to Japan.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 69 (Autumn 2010): 201–219.

Hill, Robert A., ed. The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers. 10 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983–2006.

Rolinson, Mary. Grassroots Garveyism: The Universal Negro Improvement Association in the Rural South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Kenneth C. Barnes
University of Central Arkansas


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