"Grand Old Man of the Movement:" John Edward Bruce, Marcus Garvey, and the UNIA

Article excerpt

Mrs. Florence Bruce was the only woman among a group of middle-aged Black men gathered around the gravesite. All of the mourners were dressed in black while Florence wore a large hat with a long black veil to cover the tears in her eyes. Marcus Garvey stood next to her resembling an aristocrat in his Black tux with two medals on the lapels. He was a man who had always found the right words for difficult times but now he stood quietly gazing on the casket and reflected on the loss of a valuable member of his movement. Arthur Schomburg positioned himself next to Garvey's left. His sober demeanor was complemented by a faint smile on his face. He had known "Bruce Grit" longer than any other member of the funeral party. Schomburg knew that life had been difficult for Bruce during the last year. He was in great pain and doctors had given up on his condition two years earlier. Schomburg also remembered the good times he shared with the man who was his friend, comrade, and surrogate father. The remaining mourners wore white gloves and the ceremonial aprons of the Prince Hall Masons. Bruce had been a member of Lodge Number 38, and it was time for his fraternal brothers to play their part in the funeral ceremony. (2)

When John Edward Bruce died an August 7, 1924, he was an honored official of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) with the title of "Duke of Uganda." The New York Age reported that "Harlem buried its first 'royalty'." Three memorial services, one after another, lasted the entire day. Rev. Charles Martin, his good friend and fellow bibliophile, conducted the religious rites at Liberty Hall. Then members of the UNIA took charge, "with speeches by Garvey, William Sherrill, his first assistant, and George Carter, Secretary General." At the end of these ceremonies "a brief service was held under the auspices of Prince Hall Lodge of Negro Masons." The UNIA was holding its fourth international convention, and "5000 members" of the association, "in regalia of crimson and gold, with sabers drawn, marched behind the hearse to Liberty Hall." Foreign dignitaries from "colored nations around the world" took time to honor the "grand old man" of the UNIA while the local Black community grieved at the lost of a true warrior. (3)

What was Bruce's contribution to UNIA? How did he influence the thinking and views of Marcus Garvey? Did his extensive organizational activities predate Garvey's vision of a worldwide race movement? What was Bruce's role as a UNIA intellectual? How did he promote Black history and cultural programs within the UNIA? What role did his extensive international contacts play within the spread of Garveyism in Africa? How did Bruce continue his passion for journalism as a UNIA stalwart? This article will address these questions and provide an analysis of Bruce's role as a UNIA leader and important mentor to Marcus Garvey.

Bruce met Marcus Mosiah Garvey (1887-1940) in New York Sometime in March or April 1916. Garvey, who was unknown to the masses of Harlem, had few funds and no influential contacts. He had initially come to America to raise funds for a Tuskegee-like industrial school for Blacks in Jamaica. Bruce described him as "a little sawed-off and hammered-down Black Man, with determination written all over his face, and an engaging smile that caught you and compelled you to listen to his story." Garvey had the "strongest regard" for Bruce and delighted in calling him a "true Negro" who felt "honored to be a member" of the race. Although this was their first direct contact, they had probably known of one another through a network of friends and associates long before 1916. This casual meeting survived Bruce's initial skepticism, eventually producing an enduring friendship and a firm alliance that both men cherished. Within five years Garvey had built the largest mass movement in African American history and Bruce emerged as his trusted ally, an invaluable advisor, and the most uncompromising UNIA promoter among the Black intelligentsia. …


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