Science + Technology

UCLA Professor Robert Hill Directs Nation's Only University-based Marcus Garvey History Project; Housed on Campus Since 1977


In his own time he was known as a redeemer and a "Black Moses." In more modern days, Marcus Garvey, the leader of the largest organized mass movement in black history, is best remembered as a champion of the back-to-Africa movement and progenitor of the modern "black is beautiful" ideal. Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) form a critical link in black America's centuries-long struggle for freedom, justice and equality.

Robert Hill, UCLA history professor, is the director of the only Marcus Garvey Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers Project at any university in the country. The project has been housed on campus at the UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center since 1977. Hill also was executive consultant on the new PBS documentary, "Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind," which premiered Feb. 12.

Hill's interest in Garvey began in high school when he wrote an essay about him and won a prize for it. After winning the prize, Hill began meeting dozens of Garvey followers, also known as Garveyites, in his native country, Jamaica. His interest in Garvey never faded.

Hill is internationally recognized as a leading authority on the life of Garvey and the history of the Garvey movement. In recent years he has received invitations to speak on Garvey from institutions throughout the United States, as well as the Caribbean, England and Africa. He was guest curator of the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded Marcus Garvey Centenary Exhibition at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library, and was an advisor to the government of Jamaica on its Garvey centennial.

"Garvey's message forms an intrinsic part of American blacks struggle for freedom," Hill said. "He's become a real icon of 20th-century black thought."

Garvey was born in 1887 in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica. He left school at 14, worked as a printer, joined Jamaican nationalist organizations, toured Central America and spent time in London. Garvey arrived in America at the dawn of the "New Negro" era. Black discontent, punctuated by East St. Louis' bloody race riots in 1917 and intensified by postwar disillusionment, peaked in 1919's Red Summer when 40 race riots swept across the United States.

Drawing on a gift of oratory, Garvey preached economic and cultural independence to create a new gospel of racial pride. In 1919 the Universal Negro Improvement Association incorporated the Black Star Line to foster black trade; transport passengers between America, the Caribbean and Africa; and to serve as a symbol of black enterprise.

By 1920 the Universal Negro Improvement Association had hundreds of chapters worldwide and published the Negro World, a weekly newspaper that was banned in many parts of Africa and the Caribbean. Over the next few years, however, the movement began to unravel due to internal dissension, opposition from black critics and government harassment.

In 1922 the federal government indicted Garvey on mail fraud charges. The government commuted his sentence, but deported him back to Jamaica in 1927. He never returned to America. His final move was to London in 1935. In his last years he slid into obscurity and died in 1940.

"The big question people ask is how did he do it?" Hill said. "How did Garvey pull off this extraordinary success? Did his movement fail or did he?"

Hill said Garvey's message of taking back Africa for blacks and regaining political control resonated with many people, but it was also a source of conflict with African-American leaders in the United States.

"The Marcus Garvey Papers Project is quite simply one of the most important such archival initiatives in black studies today," said Richard Yarborough, director of UCLA's Center for African American Studies. "Garvey continues to be an understudied and underappreciated figure among 20th-century black leaders. He and his United Negro Improvement Association provide us with a unique opportunity to engage in such critical issues as the nature of black mass political movements, the roots of modern black nationalism, black emigation in the 20th century and the impact of West Indian intellectuals on black culture in the United States."

Yarborough also said Hill has proven himself to be the perfect person to oversee this ambitious and groundbreaking project. "UCLA should consider itself fortunate that it serves as the institutional home for the Garvey Project."



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