Universal Negro Improvement Association

Negro World

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 25

Founded in July 1914 in Jamaica by a twenty-six-year-old Marcus Garvey, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) is considered the most significant Pan-African movement of the twentieth century.

Triggered by the uniform nature of Black exploitation around the world and inspired by prominent Pan-African writers of his time, Garvey developed an ambitious Black empowerment programme.

The foundations of the UNIA can essentially be summarised in its two most famous slogans:

“One God! One Aim! One Destiny!”
“Africa for the Africans at home and abroad.”

From its humble beginnings in Jamaica, the UNIA established itself in Harlem, New York, in 1916. It was here that the UNIA’s philosophy committed itself to promoting "racial love and pride" and overcoming "the universal disunity existing among the people of the Negro or African race."

A truly Pan-African organisation, the UNIA emphasised that no matter where a Black person may live, they were still African.

From its Harlem base, over 1,000 branches of the UNIA were established throughout the world. At its height, the UNIA’s worldwide membership has been estimated at over 2 million.

The achievements of the UNIA include the formation of several auxiliary groups and ventures, such as women’s groups, youth leagues, laundries, restaurants and grocery stores. However, its most important enterprise was its newspaper, the Negro World.

The Negro World was the primary vehicle of the UNIA and self-ordained:

‘Newspaper Devoted to the Interests of the Negro Race Without the Hope of Profit as a Business Investment’

As Marcus Garvey once asserted:

“The white man’s propaganda has made him the master of the world, and all those who have come in contact with it and accepted it have become his slaves.”

It was in keeping with this mentality that the Negro World preached an anti-colonial message, challenged the notions of white supremacy and extolled the greatness of Africans and of Africa’s history.

The Negro World penetrated every area where Black people lived and had a considerable influence on its readers. It was for this reason that Garvey, the UNIA and the Negro World were feared by the major colonial powers.

The newspaper was invariably banned across colonial territories. It was even cited as a factor in uprisings and unrest in places such as Dahomey (modern-day Benin), British Honduras (modern-day Belize), Kenya, Trinidad and Cuba.

The fear of the Negro World publication can be seen in the words of white South African newspaper, the Cape Argus, which expressed concern over the "increasing influence of Garveyism in Africa" and how it was "capturing the imagination of the black people in Africa."

Despite the best efforts of imperialist powers such as Britain, France and the United States, the Negro World was widely read across Africa.

Jomo Kenyatta, who would go on to become Kenya’s first Prime Minister, explained how even illiterate countrymen would gather around a reader to listen to articles and then memorise the words to share with others.

The King of Swaziland famously expressed that he only knew the name of two Black men outside of Africa, American boxer Jack Johnson and Marcus Garvey.

However, punishments for possession and distribution of the Negro World were severe. A vendor in Nyasaland (modern-day Malawi), for example, was sentenced to three years of hard labour.

In 1928, Garvey petitioned the League of Nations specifically to protest the banning of the Negro World and the imposition of penalties such as life imprisonment and even death for possessing it. Despite this censorship, readership did not wane.

The legacy of the Negro World can be seen in this shortlist of readers and contributions and their influence on the Pan-African movement of the twentieth century: