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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

UNIVERSAL NEGRO IMPROVEMENT ASSN. (UNIA) - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

The UNIVERSAL NEGRO IMPROVEMENT ASSN. (UNIA), founded in 1914 in Jamaica and organized in Cleveland in 1921, was a branch of a national movement that stressed black pride, racial unity of blacks, and the need to redeem Africa from white rule. The group maintained its local division headquarters in Cleveland at 2200 E. 40th St. (see JACOB GOLDSMITH HOUSE) from 1923-40. Dubbed the "back to Africa" movement, the UNIA promoted limited recolonization. Founder Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican, opened branches in 30 cities between 1916-22. He established the Black Star Steamship Line, the Negro Factory Corp., and a newspaper, the Negro World, in which he articulated the frustrations of lower-class blacks. By exalting blackness, he underscored AFRICAN AMERICANS' inherent dignity, and encouraged the formation of separate institutions out of pride, not because of discrimination. Garvey emphasized unity between American and African blacks, based on their shared heritage.

Mason A. Hargrave, Pres. of the Marcus Garvey Foundation, places the African national flag in the City Hall Rotunda to commemorate the Universal Negro Improvement Association, 10 Feb. 1984. CPL.

Cleveland's branch of the UNIA was led by Dr. LEROY BUNDY†. Bundy, politically ambitious, oversaw the 1,000-member local while promoting himself as Garvey's $6,000-a-year asst. president. When Bundy realized that the salary was not forthcoming and professional losses became substantial, he did little to promote the organization and ignored Garvey on his visits to Cleveland. Eventually, the organization was headed by S. V. Robertson, sanitation worker and supporter of black party boss THOMAS W. FLEMING†. The local UNIA message was diluted by factional rivalry and by its ties to establishment politics. However, the real significance of the movement was in the hope and sense of unity it gave to the blacks of Cleveland's east-side ghetto. UNIA members met at Liberty Hall and had a brass marching band that performed on Central Ave. The local welcomed Garvey 3 times before he was convicted of fraud in 1924. After Garvey's death in 1940, the organization he had founded remained committed to Pan-Africanism.

In Aug. 1940, James R. Stewart, UNIA commissioner for the State of Ohio, was elected president general. The following October, Stewart established Cleveland as the new location for the UNIA Parent Body headquarters, as well as for the site of its revived publication, the New Negro World, which published its first issue that same month. The Parent Body remained in Cleveland until 1949 when Stewart took Liberian citizenship and moved the Parent Body to Monrovia, Liberia. After Stewart's death in 1964, the Parent Body moved to Chicago, where it remained until 1975. Thereafter MASON HARGRAVE† assumed the president generalship and moved the Parent Body back to its former location in Cleveland. The UNIA kept its office at E. 40th until it closed in 1982. Although the site was destroyed by fire in 1988, it is recognized, as a historic landmark by the National Register of Historic Places and the Ohio Historic Preservation Office. In its later years, the organization was headed by Mason Hargrave.

UNIA Records (microfilm), WRHS.

Hill, Robert A. The Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers, Vol. I-VII (1983).

Last Modified: 27 Mar 1998 11:08:20 AM

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