In the immediate aftermath of the Great War, America experienced a sudden surge of both white supremacy and black nationalism. While the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan managed to briefly dominate politics on the West Coast in the early 1920s, black nationalism swept the entire country as Pan-Africa movements emerged around the globe.
The most influential nationalist organization of the 1920s was the United Negro Improvement Association, or UNIA. It was created by Marcus Garvey, a Caribbean immigrant, and became known as Garveyism. Garvey was a flamboyant character who excelled at staging elaborate public displays of pageantry and black pride. UNIA officers wore elaborate, full-dress military uniforms, and Garvey himself wore a Napoleon-style admiral’s hat with a giant plume. Although the displays were over-the-top, they derived their power from the fact that they in no way resembled mainstream white American culture.
The UNIA promoted economic self-sufficiency as well as black cultural pride. The basis of Garvey’s economic plan was practical: UNIA dues were to be invested in a line of steamships, the Black Star Line, that would establish commercial ties between black America and black Africa. This would enable blacks around the globe to grow strong and prosper together.
Garveyism spread rapidly throughout the country. It took only seven members to start a chapter, so the tiniest black communities of the midwest could organize and be part of the movement. Small-town chapters flourished everywhere, even in the most remote locations, and in the big cities formal membership was huge. At its height in early 1921, UNIA Division 156 in Los Angeles had about 1,000 members on its rolls.
In the summer of that year, Division 156 president Noah Thompson traveled to New York to represent LA at the UNIA national convention. The reports he sent back home were disturbing. Two days of the convention were spent discussing how many buttons should be on a certain officer’s uniform. Worse, when Thompson asked to see the ships of the Black Star Line, for which $250,000 in UNIA dues had been invested, he received evasive answers. Officials refused to discuss the Line’s finances. It soon became clear that the UNIA was broke, its dues invested in a few rickety ships that were worth only scrap.
The LA chapter promptly announced its independence from the national group and formed a new group, the PCUNIA, or Pacific Coast Universal Negro Improvement Association. The New York office decertified Division 156 and barred its former officers from membership in the new, officially-sanctioned LA chapter, which could only come up with about 100 members.
Nevertheless, Garvey himself remained a popular figure; the next summer, when he visited LA for the first time, he was given a hero’s welcome. But the UNIA’s accounting problems were never resolved. Eventually, Garvey was deported on charges of mail fraud, and Garveyism faded from the scene.
Black nationalism did not expire with the demise of Garveyism. Instead, it would continue to grow and flourish in new forms and under new leadership throughout the century.