Garvey and racial consciousness in the 1920s and 1930s
IT IS DIFFICULT to think of anything else that could have contributed to the growth of racial consciousness at that time than the Garvey Movement and the impact it was having worldwide. St. Vincent’s population in 1921 was about 44,000, with the Universal Negro Improvement Association declaring a membership of just under 500. Let us recognise that the impact of Garvey stretched well beyond its membership. The authorities were very concerned about the Negro World newspaper. A memo from the Administrator in June 1919 stated that the paper was sold extensively in St.Vincent. What this meant in terms of numbers is difficult to say. The content of the paper bothered them, the Administrator stating that in one issue the people were advised to turn to Lenin and the Bolsheviks against their real oppressors, the leaders of France and England.
By October the paper was banned, as it eventually was in the other colonies.
The newspapers carried sensational news items on the achievements of blacks worldwide as they did with Martiniquan Rane Maran who won a top French Literary prize. They were at the same time quick to shower attacks on anyone who defamed blacks.
Into this atmosphere the Italian invasion of Abyssinia/ Ethiopia inflamed the populace as it did elsewhere. Albert T Marryshow of Grenada, ”father of the Federation as he was later dubbed”, played a major role. A friend and close associate of George McIntosh, Marryshow was an acquaintance of Garvey and spoke at least at one of his rallies. He admitted to reverence of the man and sympathy for his mission.
To him Garvey was the greatest black man ‘raised’ in the world since Toussaint L’Ouverture.
In an article in the Gold Coast Leader after Garvey’s imprisonment he wrote, “No Negro has any cause to hang his head in shame on account of Marcus Garvey, the man. Rather he should hold his head high. To have occupied the centre of the world’s stage in the manner he did and with a mission such as he fathered, it was in itself no mean achievement.” Marryshow’s real contribution to the cause in St. Vincent was to educate the people about the Italian invasion of Abyssinia and to mobilise full support against the invasion. He spoke at rallies of the Representative Government Association, of which McIntosh was a founding father.
By August of 1935, two months before the riots, the newspapers reported that the issue had become heated and referred to the number of persons congregating around the Cable Board to follow developments in Abyssinia. It is at one of those meetings that Samuel ‘Sheriff’ Lewis christened himself Haile Selassie.
Following Maryshow’s call for support for Abyssinia, Sheriff volunteered and declared that he was no longer Sheriff but must be called Haile Selassie. These racial feelings generated by the work of Garvey and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia played into the riots of October. Planter Hayward whose house at Cane Garden was looted, claimed that the suspected leader of the gang, Martin Durham, said that “We are the Abyssinians,
the white men are the Italians. We chop off the white man’s head tonight”. There were other reports indicating heightened racial tension.
An incident at the Anglican School a month after the riots testifies to this racial tension. Rumours had been circulating that an Italian doctor was to visit schools and distribute sweets and inject a poisonous substance on children. At the Anglican School one Branch, of a “fair complexion” who was a relative of the headmaster paid him a visit. The school was thrown into an uproar as the children dashed away and parents came running. So deep had the Italian invasion penetrated the consciousness of the people.
Two years later Garvey gave two lectures at the Carnegie Hall, hosted by George McIntosh and the Workingmen’s Association, McIntosh, chairing both meetings. He spoke to packed audiences, but it is difficult to know the type of people present since there was a small fee charged to cover the expenses.
Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian