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Marcus Garvey and the UNIA

Image: UNIA parade in Harlem, New York City, 1920. (Courtesy of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library)

On the 80th anniversary of the Slavery Abolition Act of the British colonies, Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) on August 1, 1914. The UNIA was founded to spur the movement for the empowerment, solidarity, and unity of people of African descent worldwide, including here in Toronto.

Garvey believed in political and economic independence to advance the conditions of Black people globally in order to combat the lasting consequences of the trans-atlantic slave trade and ongoing anti-Black racism. Garvey himself was a leading figure of the Pan-African movement, which encouraged a return to Africa for people of African descent and an end to neo-colonial rule on the continent. Pan-Africanism is based on the idea of a shared history and a common destiny for those of African ancestry.

While Garvey’s vision and unrelenting efforts led one of the first movements to unite Black people internationally, he has received criticism, during his life and still to this day, for promoting unrealistic ideals and holding problematic beliefs. Garvey’s belief in the independence of people of African descent was rooted in racial separatism, the idea that different races should form physically and geographically separate nations. This idea was criticized by many, including contemporary Black leader W.E.B. Du Bois and others at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who advocated for interracial efforts towards justice. Moreover, Garvey’s wish for a return to Africa was rooted in colonial and fascist ideals; his wish for the creation of a Black nation was motivated by wanting to reproduce empires such as the Roman and British Empires. 

Garvey often cited that Hitler and Mussolini’s actions were modeled from the UNIA’s nationalist goals, and even held anti-semitic beliefs himself. Garvey’s historical context and the prevalent ideologies of the time informed his beliefs, although we can recognize that they were as harmful back then as we understand them to be now. Many of Garvey’s followers didn’t agree with all that he promoted, or didn’t believe his goals to be literal. It is widely understood that the philosophy of Garveyism and the ensuing movement became much more than Garvey himself. Marcus Garvey’s ambitions towards Black pride and pan-Africanism created a strong race consciousness, kindled a universal sense of purpose, and gave rise to a legacy that inspired and empowered generations of Black people all over the world. Many Black leaders were inspired by his movement, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Bob Marley, and the legacy of Garveyism in uniting Black people is undeniable.

Marcus Garvey, 1914.
(Courtesy of Library of Congress,
Prints & Photographs Division)

Born in Jamaica in 1887, Marcus Garvey founded the UNIA in Kingston, Jamaica, at the age of 26. In 1916, the UNIA’s headquarters were moved to Harlem, New York, in order to gain momentum for the organization. Garvey’s ideas picked up steam, and UNIA divisions started rapidly opening in various cities across North America. Sources vary about the location of the first UNIA division in Canada, but it is generally understood that a division was founded in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, in 1918 to support West Indian migrants working in mines. Other divisions rapidly followed; the Montreal branch opened in June 1919. In Toronto, the desire for an organisation to unite Black people in the face of rampant systemic racism had existed for a few years already. 

In April 1919, the Coloured Literary Association was founded by a few West Indian men; they would meet in the back room of Occidental Cleaners and Dyers store at 318 Spadina Avenue. Several months later, a charter was obtained from the UNIA headquarters in Harlem, and the Toronto UNIA division was officially founded on December 1, 1919. In its early days, members met at the Occidental Hall at the corner of Bathurst and Queen Street West, which later became a concert hall for many years and is now a CB2 store. Before finding permanent headquarters, UNIA meetings were held in a rented space at 339 Queen Street West, which is now an Arc’teryx store. After fundraising for many years, members were finally able to purchase a building at 355 College Street in 1925, which remained the UNIA’s until 1982 and later became the long-time location of reggae bar Thymeless. At its peak, the Toronto division had around 200-300 members working towards solidarity and independence, engaging in politics, celebrating culture, and fostering what remained a community hub for decades.

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651 Queen St W, 339 Queen St W and 355 College were all home to Toronto’s UNIA, the latter for over 50 years. (Google Maps)

By the early 1920s, the UNIA had over 1100 divisions worldwide in North, Central, and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Australia. In Canada alone, 32 divisions spanned the country from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, encompassing around 5000 members, or approximately a quarter of the Black population of Canada at the time. Strong diasporic connections and a cultural and political understanding of Pan-Africanism meant that the majority of Canada’s UNIA membership was made up of West Indian and Afro-Caribbean people. Many UNIA members in major cities such as Toronto and Montreal also worked as railway porters; they facilitated the expansion of Pan-Africanism and the UNIA across Canada and the northern United States, strengthening transnational networks along the way.

Although the UNIA was headquartered out of the United States, it had a wide-reaching system of connections around the world. Canadian UNIA divisions were especially involved in the development of the organization; many Canadian members participated in larger UNIA affairs by attending annual conventions, hosting international events, and contributing to the UNIA’s global newspaper, The Negro World. Marcus Garvey spent considerable time in Canada over the years to develop the UNIA’s operations, spread his message, and foster support for the Pan-African movement. He toured around the country in the late 1930s, and based his operations out of Toronto during this time due to legal issues in the United States.

August 1938 Globe and Mail article describing the UNIA’s 8th international convention, which was held at Toronto’s Liberty Hall under the chairmanship of Marcus Garvey. (Globe and Mail, August 12, 1938. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library)
The Toronto division had a very significant role in the UNIA’s global network. UNIA regional conferences were hosted in Toronto in 1936-37, and Garvey attended the annual Big Picnic in St. Catharines in 1938. As an Emancipation Day celebration, the Toronto UNIA organized the Big Picnic every year from the 1920s to the 1950s. The picnic drew thousands of attendees from Ontario and New York state every year, and remained a key gathering for Black communities for decades. Garvey also founded the School of African Philosophy in Toronto in 1937, a course he taught at the local division in order to educate future UNIA leaders. In Garvey’s own words, spoken during a speech given in Windsor, Ontario that same year: “I am trying to make everyone a Marcus Garvey personified. The new leadership of the U.N.I.A. shall be by and through men and women who have been particularly trained […] on the scope and the work of the U.N.I.A.” Garvey emphasized that “[t]he purpose of the U.N.I.A. is to emancipate and our primary duty is to emancipate your minds because it is the mind that makes the man, that directs him.”

One of the most memorable speeches he gave during this time in Canada was immortalized in Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’. The song contains the lyrics “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; None but ourselves can free our minds,” paraphrased from a 1937 speech Marcus Garvey gave in Sydney, Nova Scotia. The title of the song also refers to the Garveyist goal of African redemption.

Garveyism and the UNIA took hold in Canada at a time where Black people were denied entry, inclusion, and opportunity in many spaces due to widespread racism and inequality. Liberty Halls, where UNIA divisions were based, became political meeting places and cultural hubs amongst Black communities. Outside of church, halls were some of the only spaces where large groups of Black people could congregate, organize, and celebrate. They served to create networks to relieve housing and employment discrimination, and were used as spaces to hold meetings, bazaars, dances, classes, clubs, plays, concerts, and much more. Liberty Halls across North America provided spaces where entertainment, culture, politics, and mutual aid came together. For instance, Toronto’s Liberty Hall was home to the United Negro Credit Union, while also being a regular venue for entertainment; jazz musician Archie Alleyne played at the 355 College Street Hall many times over the years. Violet Blackman, a former member of the Toronto UNIA, expressed the active nature of the organization: “Everyday of the week there was something going on up in the UNIA.” Marjorie Lewsie, another former member, remembers, “We all used to meet at the Hall […] and it was a lot of fun.” These insights make it easy to understand how halls remained significant focal points in Black communities for decades.

Volunteer school teacher Clem Marshall helps kids with their courses at the UNIA Hall at 355 College Street. This image is from a 1973 Toronto Star article describing the UNIA’s facilities as “overcrowded,” and that the organisation was looking to build a larger community centre. Although loyalty to the Garveyist movement declined after 1940, UNIA halls remained important community hubs for decades. (Photo by Ron Bull, 1973, Toronto Star. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library)

Many of the UNIA’s goals, such as fostering empowerment and solidarity, were realized through various auxiliary groups that offered opportunities for advancement, education, skill-building, and community care to its members. The Universal African Legion was an auxiliary group for men with a militaristic focus on discipline and protection. The Juvenile Branch was created to cultivate leadership for youth members. One of the most popular auxiliary groups was the Black Cross Nurses (BCN), an organisation for Black women inspired by the Red Cross. The BCN didn’t provide professional training; Black women were barred from studying nursing in Canada until the late 1940s. However, it allowed Black women to develop skills, promote health and hygiene, and provide care to their communities in many ways. Women in the BCN created informational pamphlets and newsletters, answered calls, visited sick community members, and helped new mothers with childcare, among other initiatives. The BCN in Toronto even sent medical supplies to Ethiopia during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War of 1935-36, showing that their focus on community care transcended borders. Nursing was seen as one of the most respectable careers for women at the time because it demonstrated traditional gender roles and ideals of womanhood through nurturing and maternal values. 

The UNIA gave Black women the opportunity to gain respected skills and exemplify these values at a time where pursuing nursing professionally was denied to them in Canada. The Universal African Legion had a similar purpose; it empowered Black men by allowing them to embody traditional gender roles as protectors and defenders. The halls and their auxiliary groups were central to maintaining the growth and safety of individual Black communities while strengthening global solidarity between UNIA divisions.

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