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In the late 1910s and 1920s United States was under the air of racial violence. As bad as it sounds it was one of the worst situations of its time. In these circumstances, Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was formed by Marcus Garvey’s who wanted an enthusiastic organization of people of African descent all around the world. Following the end of World War I, the movement expedites to mobilize African Americans to avoid integration for Black Nationalist goals. The campaign 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 better future.
The primary factor which distinguished the UNIA from other civil rights movements was their aim to deliver the message of believing and having pride one’s identity and separation from white society. As racial pride was an essential factor to consider, this movement also promotes the migration of Africans to the African continent. At its rise, the UNIA owned stores, restaurants, a printing plant, and other businesses mainly in the New York City area, and had introduced the Black Star Line, a shipping company formed to trade with Africa and transport passengers to the continent. Garvey’s movement deteriorates after he was found guilty of mail fraud and served two years in federal prison from 1925 to 1927. He was deported upon his liberation from prison, and send to London, England where he spent his last years of living. While it had been the significant section of a mass movement in the early 1920s, the UNIA continued in deterioration without Garvey, though it still breathes in the twenty-first century.
Garvey planed for African Americans to settle Liberia and to strengthen the African economy. This idea received more recognition in 1924, and particularly resonated amongst his supporters in Arkansas. As the movement needed contribution to excel in its aim and perform, Garvey called for donations for the colonization through the African Redemption Fund in 1924. He instantly received fifteen-dollar grants each from UNIA divisions in rural Arkansas Journalists wrote to the Negro World expressing their belief and hopes for the reclamation of Africa. The Blytheville (Mississippi County) divisions of the UNIA sent two representatives to the 1924 international convention in Harlem to investigate the probability for a large party to emigrate to Liberia.
The impact of Garvey expanded far beyond the communities that had organized UNIA divisions. The movement’s newspaper, the Negro World, distributed everywhere in the black community in Arkansas as early as 1919. The Negro World noted a man in Fort Smith (Sebastian County) as one of the top forty-two distributors of the paper worldwide. When Garvey confronted legal trouble and imprisonment, numbers of letters, petitions, and telegrams, from various locations poured into Washington DC and New York giving support for Garvey. A count of those attending mass meetings of support for Garvey or signing petitions totaled 28,495 for Arkansas, a number higher than any other Southern state except Louisiana. Hundreds of contributions for Garvey’s legal defense fund came to New York from locations in Arkansas with and without UNIA divisions, and the grants varied from five cents to a dollar.
Most historians have handled the UNIA, with its headquarters in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. Initially as a northern and urban movement, they overlook the reality that many African Americans living in New York such as in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; Detroit, Michigan; and Illinois, Chicago in the 1920s had newly arrived from the rural South. The UNIA, in fact, had significant membership in the South and especially in the cotton-producing states of the Arkansas Delta. , the Back-to-Africa movement had been remarkably steady in Arkansas in the late 1800s. Dozens of “Exodus clubs” established in rural communities and around 700 black Arkansans emigrated to Liberia. Additionally, in the 1890s and 1900s, more than two dozen black Arkansans left as missionaries to Africa. A period later, the Garvey campaign pulled up on this importance in the African region.
Approximately forty-six divisions of the UNIA were arranged in Arkansas. Most of them were established in rural areas of the Delta between 1921 and 1924. Monroe County had seven, Mississippi County had eight sections, and Phillips County had six divisions. Other Delta counties had more than one division. Hence in Arkansas, there was one division each in Sebastian, Ouachita, Faulkner, Sevier, and Lincoln counties. Strangely, no divisions were chartered in the counties with black-majority as in southeastern Arkansas. It seems that the Arkansas UNIA divisions were developed instinctively by local leaders. During his movement, Marcus Garvey never visited the state of Arkansas nor the Mississippi Delta region. Sections often were organized around churches, and a few UNIA leaders were parsons, such as E. B. “Britt” McKinney, who became vice president of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union in the 1930s. Other known UNIA leaders were sharecroppers, farm laborers, or tenant farmers.
Garvey’s movement flourished, with an additional Arkansas connection William LeVan Sherrill, one of the critical leaders of the action. Sherrill was born in Altheimer (Jefferson County) and graduated from Philander Smith College in 1917. After his service in the army in World War I, he resides 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, Sherrill was elected as the organization’s delegate to the League of Nations in Geneva and given the title of Leader of American Negroes and Assistant President General.
When Garvey went to prison in 1925, He became the acting president of the UNIA. Garvey later turned on Sherrill for failing to visit him or send money while in prison. In a special meeting of the organization held in March 1926, Garvey charged Sherrill with dishonesty and with wasting the UNIA’s funds and turned Sherrill out of his offices. Ironically, in following years again became the highest official in the UNIA. As Garvey died in 1940, Sherrill gave a panegyric at the unveiling of a bust of Garvey in his Jamaican homeland in 1956. By this time, the campaign had no apparent existence in Arkansas.
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