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Richard Phillips | The Garvey Letter: May 24, 1916

Published:Saturday | July 9, 2016 | 12:00 AMRichard Phillips

One hundred years ago, on July 8, 1916, the now obscure Jamaica Times newspaper published a letter written by Marcus Garvey. It was while researching for the book 'The Richest Man in Jamaica', a story of Raglan Phillips, a contemporary of Marcus Garvey, that I may have providentially found an insight into Marcus Garvey's remarkable thinking and some of his early influences in Jamaica.

The Jamaica Times newspaper microfilm copy, which the Jamaica National Library had kept in its archives, I have been told, has since been destroyed because of mould contagion. The microfilm copy I purchased in 2006 was the only known surviving copy, which I have since shared with Dr Robert Hill (UCLA) and Edward Seaga, authorities on Marcus Garvey.

Garvey had left Jamaica on March 6, 1916, bound to Belize, British Honduras, and the United States aboard the SS Tallac. Garvey moved in with a Jamaican family in Harlem, New York, and he found work as a printer. The letter had been written from 53 W 140th Street in New York City on May 24, 1916. Marcus Garvey was about to leave later in that year on a speaking tour across America.

The letter described some of his activities since he left Jamaica and it went on to read: "I shall always repose confidence in the white and coloured gentry of Jamaica who never failed to encourage and help me to succeed; I shall ever hold myself grateful ... ."

He continues by mentioning the governor general, Sir William Henry Manning, and 15 other leaders and gentry-class individuals. Included in the list was General Leonard Shadwell Blackden, commanding officer of Jamaica in 1916; Sir John Pringle, one of the largest landholders in Jamaica at the time; James Rowland Williams, a director of education in Jamaica; Edwin Charley, rum distiller and large rum exporter; Altamont DaCosta, merchant and one-time mayor of Kingston; and Joseph Levy, merchant from Brown's Town, St Ann. The list also included Bishop John Collins and Archibald Munro, a director of The Gleaner Company.

Garvey goes on to say: "I know that I HAVE DISPLEASED SOME PEOPLE who think that the only way for the mass to rise is by militant and disloyal methods, and some men who have tried to influence me to propagate an anti-British policy among my dear people. These men are very treacherous, and knowing them as I do, I shall always keep wide of them and incur their displeasure.

Yours, etc.

Marcus Garvey

24th of May 1916.

In early 1932 or 1933, Stewart DaCosta remembers Marcus Garvey being introduced to him in his grandfather's study. His grandfather, Braham Judah, was the city engineer for Kingston at the time. The Cavaliers home was across from Mico College, where the family lived. Stewart would describe his grandfather as "entertaining a Garvey in deep discussion".


No troublemaker


There is a mistaken view by some that Marcus Garvey was an embittered and narrow-minded troublemaker whose goal in life was to stir up racial and class tensions. Much of this view may be attributed to his opponents' habit of using his pronouncements selectively and quoting them out of context.

Marcus Garvey's letter may have been a forerunner in the art of reconciliation, like Nelson Mandela wearing the jersey of the Springboks rugby team in 1995 in South Africa. Garvey seems as progressive in his thinking as his mentor, Booker T. Washington, in America, having been born into slavery but rising to be the most respected African-American of his generation. Booker T. Washington worked with the wealthy - Andrew Carnegie, Julius Rosenwald, Anna T. Jeanes and others - to provide about 4,700 schools between 1890 and 1915 in the southern states of America.

Could this early letter envision a future of positive mutual respect and inclusivity? It seems that he was not attempting to replace class prejudice and racism with a new form of regressive racism. Did he actually embody the spirit of our national motto ('Out of Many, One People') prior to the influences of his American experience?

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