The Black Star Line (BSL) was a steamship company that was completely owned, operated and financed by people of African descent. Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), a Jamaican national and master propagandist, was the leader of the Black Star Line. Garvey was a “Black nationalist and a leader of the pan-Africanism movement, which sought to unify and connect people of African descent worldwide.” Garvey also headed the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA); he told UNIA members in 1921, that “If you want liberty, you yourselves must strike the blow. If you must be free, you must become so through your own effort … Until you produce what the white man has produced you will not be his equal.”
The company only lasted a few years (1919−1922). Garvey and other UNIA started the shipping line “to facilitate the transportation of goods and eventually African-Americans throughout the African global economy.” The name of the company – Black Star Line – was a play on the success of the White Star Line. Garvey believed he could duplicate the success of the White Star Line.
The Black Star Line was part of Garvey’s contribution to the Back-to-Africa movement. However, the company was mostly unsuccessful, partially due to infiltration by federal agents. The Black Star Line was one of many businesses begun by the UNIA, including the Universal Printing House, Negro Factories Corporation, and the “widely distributed and highly successful” Negro World weekly newspaper.
As noted above, the Black Star Line and its successor, the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company, only operated between 1919 and 1922. However, the company remains as a key symbol for Garvey followers and Pan-Africanists.
The Black Moses
At the height of his popularity, people referred to Garvey as the “Black Moses.” This nickname had new meaning after October 14, 1919. George Tyler, a disgruntled investor in one of Garvey’s ventures, walked into the UNIA offices and shot Garvey. However, the bullet only grazed Garvey’s temple. Against his doctor’s orders, Garvey left the hospital where he was being treated, and used the failed murder attempt as an opportunity to sell stock and promote the Black Star Line in Philadelphia. The shooting garnered world-wide publicity in both the white and Black media, which increased Garvey’s popularity as well as the sale of Black Star Line stock.
Garvey envisioned the Black Star Line as part of the solution to the Black community’s problems – a company completely owned, operated and financed by black people would create pride, lessen economic dependency on the white community, provide opportunities for social and political advancement and create a strong economic base in Liberia, the only independent nation (at the time) in West Africa.
The Black Star Line also gained popularity because of its pledge to provide non-discriminatory travel for people of African descent. At that time in history, many steamship companies did not allow Blacks to purchase first-class tickets. The Black Star Line empowered Blacks across the world. However, colonial governments in Africa, the Caribbean and Central America were threatened by this symbol of Black freedom and power. In the Caribbean, many countries banned The Negro World. These governments believed that financial success for the Black Star Line would cause Blacks “to recognize their oppression and fight for economic independence and political freedom.”
At a time when employment opportunities were scarce, Black seamen were offered employment by the Black Star Line. With the exception of a few white officers, the Black Star Line employed an all-black crew. In addition, Black stevedores (dock workers who load and unload cargo from ships) saw the company as a workplace where they could receive honest wages and a chance at fair treatment.
Stock in the Black Star Line was priced at $5 per share, but the company also allowed installment payments, giving all a chance to invest in the company. Many investors purchased stock, believing that they could invest their money in a Black-owned business and help to uplift and improve conditions for members of their race.
Garvey started to solicit funds for the BSL from UNIA members at meetings in 1919 and soon raised enough money to establish the corporation. BSL shares sold for $5, which allowed Blacks of modest means to own a piece of the UNIA’s largest economic venture. In 1919-20 the UNIA sold $800,000 in stock. The Black Star Line was incorporated in Delaware on June 27, 1919.
The Black Star Line’s first directors were Marcus Garvey, Edgar M. Grey, Richard E. Warner, George Tobias, Jeremiah Certain, Henrietta Vinton Davis and Janie Jenkins. The company’s officers were: President Marcus Garvey, First Vice President Jeremiah Certain; Second Vice President Henrietta Vinton Davis; Treasurer George Tobias; Secretary Richard E. Warner; Assistant Secretary Edgar M. Grey; and Assistant Treasurer Janie Jenkins. Six months after incorporation the company’s board voted to increase the Black Star Line market capitalization to $10 million (equivalent to about $150 million today).
Lack of experience costs the company
Although Garvey was popular, neither he nor the other BSL officers had experience in the shipping industry – or in business in general. Also, Garvey’s mishandling of funds caused problems for BSL. Garvey hired Joshua Cockburn, one of the only Black men in the United States legally qualified to captain a ship. Having a Black man serving as captain was also good for promotion and sales.
However, Cockburn’s personal greed caused a number of financial mishaps for BSL. He purchased the S.S. Yarmouth, a small, 1,452 ton-ship built in 1887 and rebuilt in 1917. Cockburn took a $1,600 bribe from the ship’s owners, who then grossly inflated the cost of the ship.
When the BSL took possession of the SS Yarmouth in New York City, it had a number of unfixed repairs and there had also been attempted sabotage by various crew members. They SS Yarmouth was renamed by the BSL as the Frederick Douglass.
However, the SS Yarmouth was not the only ship that was purchased in poor condition and completely oversold. Garvey spent another $200,000 for more ships (equivalent to more than $2.6 million today). One, the SS Shady Side, sailed the “cruise to nowhere” on the Hudson River one summer and sank in the fall because of a leak. Another was the steam yacht Kanawha; the once well-maintained yacht had seen service during World War I. After it was renamed the SS Antonio Maceo by the BSL, it blew a boiler and killed a man.
On its first trip as a BSL vessel, the Frederick Douglass carried a shipment of whiskey from the U.S. to Cuba (before Prohibition) in record time. However, the ship did not have docking arrangements in Havana, and the company lost money as the ship sat at the docks during a longshoremen strike. On another voyage a load of coconuts rotted in a ship because Garvey insisted that the company’s ships make ceremonial stops at politically important ports.
These largely symbolic port visits in the Caribbean and Latin America were meant to celebrate Black self-determination, business ownership and economic potential. BSL ships visited various ports in Panama, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Cuba and other countries. However, no BSL vessel ever reached Africa.
Despite the mismanagement, the BSL’s receptions at its ports of call demonstrated the hope and pride that Blacks had about the company. When the Frederick Douglass docked in Cuba on December 2, 1919, Cockburn noted, “People are just crazy about the organization.” Cuban stevedores purchased $250 in stock – believing in the potential of an all-Black corporation as well as a chance to battle racist white shippers. Thousands invested in the company, including people from Cuba, West Africa and the Panama Canal Zone.
The Frederick Douglass made three voyages as a BSL vessel. It failed to turn a profit and her defective boilers could not be repaired. Unseaworthy, the ship was sold at auction in November 1921 for $1,625. The ship’s operating losses totaled $136,011.62, excluding her exorbitant purchase price. Both the Shady Side and Kanawha suffered similar fates.
Targeted by the federal government
Despite (or perhaps because of) the promise of the BSL, the federal government targeted Garvey. The Bureau of Investigation (BOI) was a precursor to the FBI. Agents opened a file on Garvey in 1918, and the BOI surveilled Garvey from that point until 1923. A July 10, 1919 BOI report called Garvey, “the most prominent Negro radical agitator in New York.” Many did their best to discredit and stop Garvey’s endeavors, including the bureau’s J. Edgar Hoover, the Justice Department’s Edwin P. Kilroe, black integrationists like W.E.B. Du Bois of the NAACP, Secretary of the NAACP James Weldon Johnson, and A. Philip Randolph, editor of The Messenger. The BOI planted spies at UNIA rallies and in the Black Star Line office.
The bureau’s focus was to deport foreign radicals and it tried to revoke the second-class mailing permit of the UNIA’s newspaper, the Negro World, claiming that “Garvey preached race hatred and promoted conflict in Africa.”
All of this took place during the period known as the First Red Scare, which occurred from about 1915-39. There was widespread fear of Bolshevism and anarchism across the nation. At its height in 1919-20, “concerns over the effects of radical political agitation in American society and the alleged spread of communism and anarchism in the American labor movement fueled a general sense of concern.”
The bureau used Black informants in an attempt to find evidence of crimes in order to deport Garvey. James Wormley Jones was a bureau informant who worked his way up the ranks of the BSL. Jones suggested that Garvey be indicted under the Mann Act, a federal law in which traveling with a woman for illicit or immoral reasons over a state line is against the law. It is the same law that was used against heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson in 1912 when he married a white woman.
According to historian Winston James, other Bureau agents sabotaged BSL ships by adding foreign matter to the fuel, damaging the engines. Jones was followed by Jamaican Herbert S. Boulin, who was known as agent P-136. While Boulin became a confidante of Garvey, he never found evidence of crimes. Other Bureau agents posed as newspaper reporters or church representatives. Although agents searched for disgruntled customers, the BOI found investors were mostly satisfied with the BSL.
The Black Star Line brochure for the SS Phyllis Wheatley was a key exhibit in the BSL mail fraud case. The ship did not exist – the BSL used a doctored photograph of the SS Orion, which had been put up for sale by the United States Shipping Board. The Black Star Line had proposed to buy her, but the transaction was never completed.
Garvey was arrested by federal agents on January 15, 1922 for the SS Orion mailing circular. Although the BSL was negotiating to buy the ship and had deposited $22,500, the federal government still indicted him.
Because the ship was not owned yet by the BSL, Garvey was charged with mail fraud. “In 1922, Garvey and three other Black Star Line officials were indicted by the U.S. government for using the mails fraudulently to solicit stock for the recently defunct steamship line.” When he testified, Garvey admitted that $600,000 (nearly $9.3 million in 2021) had been “blown to the wind.”
The jury convicted Garvey in 1923 on the federal mail fraud charges, and he was sentenced to five years in prison. After appealing his sentence, Garvey was imprisoned in 1925.
John Sargent, the Attorney General of the United States, received a petition with 70,000 signatures urging Garvey’s release. President Calvin Coolidge was warned by Sargent that “African-Americans regard Garvey’s imprisonment not as a form of justice against a man who had swindled them but as an act of oppression of the race in their efforts in the direction of race progress.” Coolidge agreed to commute Garvey’s sentence on November 18, 1927. Garvey was deported to Jamaica after his release.
The Black Star Line ceased sailing in February 1922. The Shady Side was abandoned on mudflats at Fort Lee, New Jersey. The company’s losses were estimated to be between $630,000 and $1.25 million (equivalent to $19.3 million in 2021).