Perhaps the Times Have Not Yet Caught Up to Marcus Garvey, an Early Champion of Ethnic Entrepreneurship

Journal of Small Business Management, July 1998 | Go to article overview

Perhaps the Times Have Not Yet Caught Up to Marcus Garvey, an Early Champion of Ethnic Entrepreneurship


"A race that is solely dependent upon another for its economic existence sooner or later dies." - Marcus Garvey, President, Black Star Lines (A Garvey 1992, p.48).

In his lifetime, Marcus Garvey (18871940) achieved accomplishments on many fronts. He created the largest, worldwide Black political organization, The United Negro Improvement Association. He created the first and, to this day, one of the largest Black-owned multinational businesses, the Black Star Lines. He founded and edited several newspapers in four countries. He wrote and spoke prolifically on topics from theology' to ethics to history.

But Garvey's life was also very controversial. He was convicted of mail fraud in connection with the sale of stock in his shipping company, for which he served three years in prison before being pardoned and deported to Jamaica. He was shot and wounded during an attempted assassination, accused of being a Communist, and investigated by J. Edgar Hoover (Stein 1986). The animus between Garvey and Black scholar W.E.B. DuBois reached such levels that DuBois and Garvey often resorted to name calling (Hill introduction to A. Garvey 1992).

One of Garvey's most important themes was the role of entrepreneurship in improving the economic position of Blacks. Now, nearly sixty years after his death, is an opportune time to revisit his thoughts, accomplishments, standards, and goals and reflect on their impact on the current state of minority enterprise.

The son of a literate stonemason from the north coast of the island of Jamaica, Garvey attended school to the age of 14, when he went to work as an apprentice in his godfather's printing business in Kingston (Stein 1986). By 18, he was a foreman. In 1907, a major earthquake and fire destroyed much of Kingston, leading to a depressed economy which eventually resulted in a printers' strike. Although he was part of management, Garvey joined the strikers as their leader. When the strike failed, he found himself without a job and blacklisted from the printing trade (Stein 1986).

Unable to find a job in the private sector, Garvey went to work at the government printing office. He also began editing a privately published periodical known as Garvey's Watchman, a reformist journal devoted to the enlightenment of Black Jamaican peasants, which soon folded. Garvey moved to Costa Rica where he obtained a job as a timekeeper on a banana plantation (Lewis 1988). The plight of the Black field workers on the plantation heightened Garvey's determination to improve the lot of Black workers everywhere, and he established another newspaper, Lou Nationale, but it, too, soon failed (Stein 1986).

Proceeding to Panama, Garvey witnessed the inferior status of Black workers on the Panama Canal. Once more he started a newspaper, La Prensa, but that, too, was short-lived. Moving on again, he systematically traveled throughout the major West Indian immigrant communities of Central and South America. In all of these places he found the situation to be similar - Black workers enduring abominable hardships in their effort to make a living (Stein 1986).

In 1912 he traveled to England and worked as a freelance writer. Later he found a writing position with the American Times and Orient Banner (Lewis 1988). This was a prestigious journal that concerned itself with the welfare of people of both African and Pan-Oriental origins. It was during this stay in England that Garvey first envisioned using the free enterprise system to create a new world for Blacks (Stein 1986).

In 1914 he returned to Jamaica and founded the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The objectives of the UNIA were to promote racial pride, create colleges and universities for Blacks, and establish world-wide commercial ventures (Stein 1986). He traveled to New York in 1916 to set up a branch of the UNIA in Harlem. Until then, no group, including the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had seriously attempted or succeeded in organizing the rank and file of African-American workers (Stein 1986). …

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