On December 1, 1927, an overall-clad longshoreman interrupted a Sunday evening gathering of the New Orleans Division of the Universal Negro Improvement Association: Marcus Garvey, the organization’s founder, was to be deported to Jamaica through the city’s port the next morning. Congregants held vigil at Liberty Hall, meeting the sun at the Mississippi River’s bank together that Monday. Altogether, an estimated 5,000 people flocked to the docks and levees on either side of the river to catch a glimpse of the man who had galvanized millions of Black people throughout the Americas, Africa, and Europe with the call “Africa, unite!”
Garvey established the UNIA in 1917, amidst nationwide unrest following the First World War. Droves of Black men and women had migrated from the rural south to the urban centers in the south and north for industrial jobs during the War, only to be removed or demoted to make way for white veterans’ return, and the continuance of virulent racism disappointed those Black soldiers who’d expected their veteran status to be of social consequence. Garvey entered here with a gospel of Black autonomy and borderless nationalism that connected desires for economic security, spiritual sustenance, and cultural reclamation.
Alaida Robertson established a division of the UNIA in New Orleans, then the largest urban center in the South, in 1920. Quickly she grew it into one of the largest in the country, with 4,000 dues-paying members in just the first year.
The New Orleans Division (NOD) had a tense relationship with the parent organization in New York. Though fiercely loyal to Garvey and the Association, they bent the rules to fit a southern context yet defined by former enslavers and plantation owners, empowered by the wealth accrued through the trade in Black bodies and labor. One of the ways in which they did so was through the informal leadership of women within the intensely patriarchal organization.
The NOD did not distinguish between their love for arts, culture, and celebration and their firm beliefs in economic and social justice. After visiting New Orleans in 1923, Garvey fondly recounted the festive spirit of the Division, with its house band and parties.
Once the S.S. Salmacca docked, Garvey asked the crowd if, contrary to his captors’ admonition, they would like him to speak. They pulled out their guns and responded affirmatively.