The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers

Akinbami Agbebi[1]to the Lagos Weekly Record[2]

American Negroes United Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League and "The Black Star Line"

Dear Mr. Editor,

I hasten to communicate to you this news and I trust you will make room for its publication for the general information of the negroes in Africa, in the next issue of your newspaper.
In Liberty Hall in New York City[3] on Sunday evening, 21st December, 1919, a meeting of the above was held in respect of The Black Star Line.
The meeting was presided over by Honourable Marcus Garvey, and over two thousand persons were in attendance, exclusive of those without the Hall, all Negroes, for whom there was no room, meeting called to order at 8 P.M. with song: "From Greenland[']s icy mountains" and prayer by the president for the prosperity of the U.N.I.A. and the A.C.L. and the blessing of the negro nation.
The negro National Anthem[4] was played by the Negro Musical Association; different kinds of musical instruments were used, it was splendid, and we all in the hall stood up, the ladies of the association were all in their beautiful robes.
Selected songs and recitations were delivered, all wishing the welfare and the success of the Black star line.
Reports and addresses from Jamaica, Cuba, etc., on the safe arrival and the hearty reception of the S.S. Frederick Douglas [Douglass], the first ship of "The Black star line,"[5] which made her pleasant voyage from New York on November 24 [23], were read. A brief statement of the voyage:—
“The vessel left New York on November 24 [23] and had a successful voyage down to Sag[u]a le Grande, Cuba, where she landed a cargo of cement. She left that port on December 7th for Kingston where she arrived on December 11th after a pleasant trip across.”“Frederick Douglas is a vessel of 727 tons nett and has accommodation for fifty cabin passengers and plenty of deck space. Her cabins are neatly and comfortably equipped and she has a very nice saloon, the companionway of which is adorned by a life-size painting of Mr. Marcus Garvey, the president of the Black Star line.”“The vessel Frederick Douglas is now on her way from Jamaica, West Indies, to New York with full load of cargo and passengers.”
The meeting continued, and the president asks for subscription of 200 dollars for current expenses, and to my surprise over 200 dollars were collected within five minutes.
A letter, written to the president by a friend, introducing to him a wonderful Negro inventor[,] was read to the audience.[6]
The president announced that the capital of the Black-star line has been increased from 500,000 to 10,000,000 dollars. Addresses were given by two professors and a song by an individual and the meeting was closed with the Negro National Anthem.
From the above, we see that American Negroes have been doing great work for the past three years, for the uplift of the negro nation: their motto is:—"one God! one aim! one destiny!" [A]n African negro has been appointed, and he will leave New York city for West Africa early next year to represent the Black Star line, he will carry with him the constitution of the [U].N.I.A. and A.C.L.
The cooperation and support of African negroes are needed in this great work to carry the Black star Line to a success all over the world.
A second ship of the Black Star Line, S.S. Phyllis Wheatly [Wheatley], will sail for West Africa sometime next year.[7] I trust my fellow citizens of West Africa will be prepared to welcome her. Yours faithfully,
Akinbami Agbebi
Printed in LWR, 7 February 1920.
[1] Akinbami Agbebi (1893?–ca. 1960), UNIA operative in West Africa, was the son of Mojola Agbebi and Adeline Adeotan Agbebi. Little is known of Agbebi's early life and education in Nigeria, and much of what we know of his early adulthood comes from his correspondence with John E. Bruce. In 1919 his recently widowed mother sent him to the U.S. to learn a trade, and he stayed with Bruce, who had been a friend of his father. Soon after his arrival in New York, he attended a meeting of the BSL and was introduced to Garvey, presumably by Bruce. As a result, Agbebi became a BSL agent and returned to Lagos to establish a BSL office. Over the next year he had little success in promoting the shipping line, but he did have ideas about establishing other kinds of commercial enterprises, ideas that he shared with Bruce. He returned to New York in 1920 to obtain the necessary documents to register the BSL in Nigeria. According to a police report on the UNIA filed in Ibadan, however, no BSL shares were ever sold in Lagos. Nothing more is known of Agbebi after the dissolution of the BSL Corporation in New York in April 1922. One family member stated in an interview that Agbebi may have later worked as a civil servant for the government (deputy inspector general of police, Lagos, to inspector general of police, Lagos, 28 March 1922, NAN, CSO 26 06069; interview by Rina L. Okonkwo with D. B. Agbebi, cousin of Mojola Agbebi, Lagos, 24 June 1979; Nigerian Daily Times [Lagos], 5 August 1936; Rina L. Okonkwo, "The Garvey Movement in British West Africa," JAH 21, no. 1 [1980]: 105–117).
[2] The Lagos Weekly Record (LWR), founded in 1891 by John Payne Jackson, consistently led the protest against the major injustices of colonial rule. Following Jackson's death in 1918, his son, Thomas Horatio Jackson (1879–1936), continued as publisher. The newspaper also supported ideas of cultural nationalism associated with Edward Wilmot Blyden. LWR had a long-standing interest in pan-African movements, probably derived from Blyden's influence and from Jackson's own Americo-Liberian ancestry. Jackson also delivered a speech at the inaugural dinner for the African Progress Union in London in April 1919. In the same issue that printed Agbebi's letter from New York, Jackson urged his readers to embrace the Garvey movement: "The present time is most opportune and favorable for the initiation of any great movement for the betterment of our race. What are we going to do?"
The success of the Lagos Garvey movement owed much to the paper's support. LWR gave wide coverage to the progress of the Lagos UNIA branch. It carried the first announcement of the branch's formation and gave regular reports on its meetings: "The UNIA and ACL is making quite good progress in Lagos. The movement is supported by some of the most intelligent men in Lagos who see in it a means of improving the industrial and social condition of the black man" (9 October 1920). Like the Times of Nigeria, LWR rejected Garvey's political program but embraced his economic ideas: "While we would hesitate to endorse the political program of Marcus Garvey with its aggressive and militaristic tendencies, we entertain no doubts whatever in the soundness of his doctrine of world wide cooperation among Negroes for their economic and industrial uplift" (27 November 1920). After the local decline of the Garvey movement, LWR became absorbed in the Legislative Council elections. The newspaper collapsed in 1930, partly as a result of the introduction of daily newspapers in the late 1920s, and partly as a result of Jackson's careless stewardship (Nigerian Daily Telegrap h [Lagos], 27 January 1936, quoted in Fred I. A. Omu, Press and Politics in Nigeria, 1880 – 1937 [London: Longman, 1978], p. 54; James S. Coleman, Nigeria: Background to Nationalism [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1958], pp. 183–185; African Telegraph [London], April 1919).
[3] The UNIA Liberty Hall, located at 120 West 138th Street, was dedicated in a lavish ceremony on 27 July 1919. The adjoining property of 140 West 138th Street was acquired by the UNIA in April 1920, doubling the size of the original space. The original property was acquired from the Metropolitan Baptist Church for a purchase price of $27,000; the second property was purchased for $23,000. W. E. B. Du Bois described the renovated Liberty Hall as "a long, low, unfurnished church basement, roofed over," and also as "a low, rambling basement of brick and rough stone . . . designed as the beginning of a church long ago, but abandoned" ("Back to Africa," Century 105 [February 1923]: 539–548). Liberty Hall took its name from the Dublin headquarters of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, and was described by radical Irish socialist James Connolly as "the fortress of the militant working class of Ireland" (Workers ' Republic [Dublin], 8 April 1916; reprinted in James Connolly, Labour and Easterweek, ed. Desmond Ryan [Dublin: Sign of Three Candles, 1949], p. 175). The decision to proceed with the Easter Rising was made at a meeting of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood in Dublin's Liberty Hall (New York County Clerk, Deeds and Mortgages, serial no. C 13319, liber 3101, p. 219, and serial no. C 7826, liber 3248, p. 113; Fifty Years of Liberty Hall: The Golden Jubilee of the Irish Transport and General Workers ' Union, 1909 – 1959 [Dublin: ITGWU, 1959]).
[4] UNIA meetings traditionally closed with the singing of the Universal Ethiopian Anthem, with lyrics by UNIA musical director Arnold J. Ford and former UNIA associate secretary Benjamin Burrell. Initially entitled "Ethiopia, Thou Land of Our Fathers," the song was designated the official "UNIA anthem of the Negro race" in the 1920 UNIA Declaration of Rights. Its lyrics promised the eventual liberation of Africa, in keeping with biblical prophecy: "Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hand, / By Thee shall all fetters be broken / And Heav'n bless our dear mother land." The chorus urged blacks, "Advance, advance to victory, / Let Africa be free, / Advance to meet the foe / With the might / Of the red, the black and the green" (MGP 1:280; 2:576, 681; see also version printed in document at 13 August 1920). The UNIA anthem was published as part of the UNIA Constitution and Book of Laws in July 1918. Its first use at the close of a meeting was probably at Liberty Hall in New York on 21 December 1919. According to a British military intelligence informer who was present, "Marcus Garvey announced that the national anthem of the African Republic would be sung for the first time that evening," and the audience stood to hear the hymn sung by Marie Barrier Houston, a prominent UNIA soloist (NW, 25 August 1923; Randall K. Burkett, "The Religious Ethos of the UNIA," in African American Religious Studies: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, ed. Gayraud Wilmore [Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1989], pp. 76–77; MGP 2:179, 575–576).
[5] The SS Yarmouth was unofficially rechristened the SS Frederick Douglass by the UNIA; however, Yarmouth remained its working title, even among UNIA members and those selling BSL stock (MGP 2:150–271, passim).
[6] This letter has not been found.
[7]In the euphoria over the launching of the Yarmouth in late November 1919, Garvey wrote an editorial announcing that the BSL directors planned to launch a new BSL ship every two months, that the next ship would be named the SS Phyllis Wheatley (after the African-American poet Phillis Wheatley), and that it would be launched in January 1920. By December 1919, the launching date announced at UNIA meetings and in BSL circulars had been moved back to February 1920. Over the next few months, Garvey continued to use the promise of the Wheatley as a selling point for BSL stock; in January 1920 he was projecting the launching date as March 1920. By June 1920, however, the date by which the Phyllis Wheatley would be "launched and set sail for the shores of Africa" was no longer specified, even though the BSL had been accepting deposits on passenger tickets to Africa (BMo, p. 97). While the UNIA was using the name of the ship to raise funds, actual negotiations for purchase of the Orion (to be renamed the Wheatley) were stalemated. By December 1921 the BSL had deposited only $12,500 of its scheduled $22,500 down payment. Negotiations eventually collapsed when the U.S. Shipping Board responded fearfully to surveillance reports of Garvey's alleged radicalism. Meanwhile, black American leaders critical of Garvey seized upon the BSL's practice of "selling passage on a boat that does not exist" to call for Garvey's ouster (ibid., p. 100). Early in 1922 Garvey was arrested and charged with using the mails to defraud in connection with using circulars advertising acquisition of the Phyllis Wheatley to increase sales of BSL stock (ibid., pp. 98–101; MGP 2:151, 177, 187, 397).