Marcus Garvey at Carnegie Hall
Although these days there are usually no events at Carnegie Hall during the month of August to allow for necessary maintenance, in the early years of the 20th century the Hall was frequently used during August for meetings by civic and political groups. This month, we look back at the Carnegie Hall appearances by one of the most interesting and complicated black civic leaders, Marcus Garvey.
Black social causes frequently found a platform at Carnegie Hall during its first half century. Booker T. Washington made the first of his 17 appearances here in 1896, delivering an address at a Presbyterian Home Missions rally. In January of 1904, Washington shared the stage with W. E. B. Du Bois on a three-day conference of African American leaders. Du Bois returned in 1918 to speak alongside Theodore Roosevelt on a benefit for the Circle for Negro War Relief.
The more controversial Marcus Garvey, inspired by Washington but denounced by Du Bois, addressed Carnegie Hall audiences five times between 1919 and 1924. Four of these events were meetings of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, an organization founded by Garvey in 1914 and dedicated to fostering black pride and self-reliance. The meeting at Carnegie Hall on August 25, 1919, provided a platform for a very important announcement: the scheduled launch that fall of the first ship of the Black Star Line, Garvey's newly-incorporated shipping company that he envisioned becoming a grand symbol of black enterprise and commerce. The SS Yarmouth sailed in November, 1919, and was soon joined by two other ships, the SS Shadyside and the Kanawha. Unfortunately, although the Black Star Line had great symbolic value and was a powerful UNIA recruiting tool, the company crumbled by 1922, the victim of corruption and mismanagement.
The UNIA returned to Carnegie Hall for two meetings in early 1923. The program for March 27, 1923, was announced as "The Future of the Black and White Races—The Building of a Negro Nation" (see below). In the introduction to his speech that night, Garvey said he was there "to explain the aims and objects of this organization and to defend its principles ... This association adopts an attitude not of hostility to other races and peoples of the world, but an attitude of self-respect and manhood rights on behalf of 400,000,000 Negroes of the world." In his introductory remarks, master of ceremonies William H. Ferris summed up the impact of Garvey's movement on his contemporaries, saying "the UNIA has swept the world like a tidal wave. No movement since Abraham Lincoln has so electrified the Negro race."
Garvey's final Carnegie Hall appearances took place at the opening and closing meetings of the Fourth International Convention of Negro Peoples of the World on August 1 and 31, 1924. In his introductory remarks on August 1, Garvey didn't sugar coat his feelings: "As usual, I am not here to flatter you, I am not here to tell you how happy and prosperous we are as a people, because that is all false." But when he returned to close the proceedings at the end of the month, he praised the delegates, saying "you were able, thousands of you, to conduct your affairs every day and every night of this month without even appointing in your midst a sergeant-at-arms to keep order—something the Democrats couldn't do in their convention, something that the Republicans couldn't do, and for the whole month we never had to call a policeman or anyone else to restore order. It shows that the Negro is nearly where he should be—the leader of the world in decency, in character making, in decorum; and if the world gives us a chance we will show them how to run the world."
Source: The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, Robert A. Hill, editor, University of California Press
Program from Marcus Garvey's March 27, 1923 appearance at Carnegie Hall. Courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Archives.