The Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), a black nationalist group founded by Marcus Garvey in 1914, had at least fifty-seven divisions in Mississippi between 1920 and 1940. The state’s first known division, located in Forest, received its charter before 1 August 1920. Garvey, a British subject originally from Jamaica, sought to unite all of the dispersed peoples of African ancestry in a “race first” alliance by establishing a black-ruled nation in Africa. To that end, the UNIA promoted political organization, race consciousness, and modernity. An emphasis on social, economic, physical, and political separation from whites made the UNIA different from class- or citizenship-oriented organizations such as the Communist Party and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, neither of which was as successful in Mississippi as the UNIA during its heyday in the 1920s, in large part because the UNIA’s separatist orientation did not challenge Jim Crow segregation. In Mississippi, UNIA members became devoted to the ideals of self-determination, the liberation of Africa from white imperialists (a goal they called “African redemption”), and the creation of an independent black nation in Africa.
Twenty-three Mississippi counties had at least one UNIA division, but most divisions lay in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, where blacks constituted a majority of the population and cotton was cultivated. Bolivar County hosted at least seventeen divisions, the most of any county in the United States. Delta UNIA members were typically middle-aged, male cotton farmers who lived under oppressive conditions of economic dependence, racial violence, and disfranchisement. Other types of black laborers and even some professionals joined the UNIA in towns along the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi River. While many Delta divisions were relatively small, the coastal cities of Biloxi and Gulfport had large memberships, and Natchez, on the Mississippi River, was the biggest division, with at least 133 documented members in 1927. Unaffiliated supporters swelled these numbers for special events and guest speakers.
Ministers dominated the local leadership in at least 20 percent of Mississippi’s divisions. Most notable was Adam Newson of Merigold, a town in Bolivar County that was home to four UNIA divisions. Newson organized a 1923 convention attended by more than fifteen hundred people, among them the UNIA high commissioner for Louisiana and Mississippi, Sylvester V. Robertson. The same year, Newson attended a regional convention of UNIA divisions in Pine City, Arkansas, illustrating the Mississippi divisions’ links to divisions on the other side of the river. In 1924 Newson represented Mississippi as a delegate to the UNIA’s annual convention in Harlem.
Local, regional, and international conventions were essential to the UNIA’s goal of promoting race allegiance and unity. In Mississippi as in many places in the United States, UNIA divisions met in churches, sang Christian missionary hymns and UNIA anthems, and listened to readings of Garvey’s addresses from the front page of the organization’s Harlem-based weekly, Negro World. The organization emphasized education (especially Afrocentric education), racial dignity and pride, and self-defense in the face of physical and sexual violence. Women participated in community nursing and service with the UNIA auxiliary Black Cross Nurses. Members showed their loyalty to the organization and to Garvey by providing funds to support numerous causes publicized in the Negro World, including the Marcus Garvey Defense Fund, which arose when Garvey was indicted and jailed for mail fraud. In Mound Bayou, 330 citizens signed a petition to the US pardon attorney, and thousands of other black Mississippians from Tutwiler to Gulfport rallied for Garvey’s release from federal prison during 1926–27. The UNIA declined abruptly after Garvey’s release from prison and deportation from the United States in 1927, but divisions in Tylertown, Sumner, and Natchez remained active well into the 1930s.
- Robert A. Hill, ed., The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, 7 vols. (1983–90)
- Mary G. Rolinson, Grassroots Garveyism: The Universal Improvement Association in the Rural South, 1920–1927 (2007)
- Universal Negro Improvement Association, Records of the Central Division (New York), 1918–1959, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library