Filed Under Race and Ethnicity

Liberty Hall

The Universal Negro Improvement Association in Cleveland

“Cleveland Garveyites regularly paraded through the city’s black belt, proudly wearing their all-black military styled uniforms and carrying the UNIA’s red, black, and green flag. The flag signified black pride and African Liberation.” – Erick McDuffie

After the Great Migration a new nationalist movement arose in African American communities across the U.S., with Marcus Garvey as its spearhead. Founded by Garvey in 1914, the Universal Negro Improvement Movement (UNIA) stressed black pride, community solidarity, connecting the racial struggles in the U.S. to those of black people across the world. Garvey protested white colonization and called for “all men and women within the reach of the blood of Afric[a]" to be proud of their race.” The UNIA by-laws provided a script for each member oath to the organization that included a pledge to “the redemption of my motherland Africa.” This pride in African heritage in the UNIA is evident even in their anthem, “Ethiopia, Thou Land of our Fathers.” Garveyism and the UNIA gained influence in the Midwest, and more specifically in Cleveland, which would house the UNIA headquarters throughout the 1940s and again in the 1970s and 1980s.

During Marcus Garvey’s visit to Cleveland in May 1920, he spoke to more than 400 people at Cory United Methodist Episcopal Church. The audience's exuberant response demonstrates how Garvey’s Pan-African message truly captured the lives of those present. Inspired by Garvey’s message, the UNIA in Cleveland became a major force in local politics, as illustrated in continuous coverage of its Cleveland activates in Garvey’s newspaper Negro World. These efforts helped expand the Cleveland UNIA (Division 59) to more than 5,000 members by 1922, and by 1923 it claimed 15,000. This was the same year that the Cleveland UNIA, through the small donations of organization members, was able to purchase a stately three-story mansion located at 2200 East 40th Street. Liberty Hall, as it was later named, was located in the heart of the Central neighborhood. This building served not only as the headquarters space for the UNIA but also as a bustling African American community center, committed to uplifting black peoples in Cleveland and globally.

Initially, following Garvey’s mail fraud conviction and deportation, he reorganized the international UNIA at the 1929 convention, forming the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, August 1929 of the World (UNIA-ACL). Although some charters fought Garvey on his changes, the Cleveland UNIA remained loyal and received its new charter as Division 133 from the UNIA Parent Body in 1930. It was during this time that the chapter started to face factionalism and decline. Issues with intra-racial strife, sexism, and class issues, among others, caused initial decline for the organization. Debates also focused around the issues of dancing, drinking, smoking, and women’s behavior. The black middle class, which comprised most of the Cleveland chapter, traditionally associated these activities with the recklessness of the black urban working-class. During the Depression many African Americans on Cleveland’s East Side started to migrate toward other black power groups, including the Future Outlook League (FOL) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a result of this strife within the organization.

The UNIA-ACL Cleveland branch, however, committed itself to the ideals of Pan-Africanism throughout the 1940s. In August 1940, James R. Stewart, who was serving as a UNIA-ACL commissioner for the state of Ohio and as president of the Cleveland branch, was elected acting president general at the time of Garvey’s death. By October, Stewart had established Cleveland as the new location for the UNIA-ACL Parent Body headquarters. The Parent Body remained in Cleveland until 1949. Part of what led to the chapter's downfall during this time was Stewart's push for voluntary African American repatriation to Liberia. Similar to Garvey, Stewart believed that the repatriation would assist in civilizing Africa and solving the American race issue. In the case of Cleveland, most African Americans were more concerned about obtaining full citizenship and rights in the U.S., rather than emigrating to Africa. These ideas, in conjunction with other black rights organizations like the FOL and NAACP supporting black rights at home, led to a continuing decline in membership. Stewart decided to take Liberian citizenship for himself in 1949, moving the Parent Body to Monrovia, Liberia. After Stewart’s death in 1964, the Parent Body moved to Chicago where it remained until 1975.

When the Civil Rights and Black Power movements arrived to Cleveland in the 1960s, the Cleveland UNIA-ACL was playing a marginal role at best. Garveyism during this time, however, took on a new life though new local Black Power organizations comprised of young black nationalists who consciously saw themselves as Garveyites. Inspired by Garvey’s defiant call for black self-determination, young black Clevelanders formed other Black Nationalist groups such as the House of Israel and the Afro-Set. Most of this new generation of Garveyites was unaware of the UNIA-ACL, but rather had come to Garveyism through the Nation of Islam or other veteran black nationalists. Kwame Nkrumah, the leader during Ghana’s independence, is said to have been greatly inspired by Garvey. In the U.S., Malcolm X is also said to have been influenced by Garvey in his desire to make a unified black pride on an international scale. In Cleveland’s more recent past, and even today, as the struggle for black rights rages on, people remember the influences of Garvey, and the UNIA-ACL, and the role they played in shaping the black power movements still present today.

Images

"Liberty Hall" / The Jacob Goldsmith House 2200 East 40th Street was the home of the UNIA Division 59 and later Division 133. Originally built for Jacob Goldsmith, a leading clothing merchant who eventually created the Joseph & Feiss Co., the building is architecturally attributed to Cudell & Richardson. By 1908 the house was converted into housing the Jewish Infants Orphan Home. Not long after, however, the orphan home would become absorbed by the Welfare Association of Jewish Children. It was not until 1923 that the home became the headquarters for the Cleveland branch of the UNIA. Source: Cleveland Public Library Digital Collections Date: 1957
Marcus Garvey Marcus Garvey was the leader and namesake of the Garveyism movement and UNIA until his death in 1940. He additionally established the Black Star Steamship line, the Negro Factory Corp, and his newspaper the Negro World. Garvey’s ideas of giving the black community a voice and identity, by joining together as one black nation against their white oppressors, resonated not only with many in the U.S. but was heard by hundreds of other black communities across the world. Garvey’s black nationalism movement advocated for emigration of African Americans to Africa, as well as the creation of a transatlantic black nation. Garvey recognized the importance of Midwestern sites, like Cleveland, for his organization. He considered many of the newly arrived southern black migrants who fled to the cities of the Midwest, in search of freedom from Jim Crow, some of his most loyal followers. Source: Library of Congress Date: 1924
Negro World Newspaper Marcus Garvey's newspaper provided an outlet for working-class blacks to express their frustrations with the white world. Until it folded in 1944, Negro World was one of the nation’s very few militant black newspapers. Many of the articles addressed the atrocities of Jim Crow oppression, colonialism in Africa, and provided an outlet for black nationalist women's opinion. Source: The New York Public Library Digital Collection Creator: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. Date: July 31, 1920
Dr. Leroy Bundy One of the leaders during the early years of the Cleveland branch was Dr. Leroy Bundy. Bundy, who was a prominent black dentist from Cleveland, drew fame from his efforts in defending blacks during the 1917 East St. Louis race riots in Illinois. Bundy and the events of the St. Louis Riots created a call for action among black Clevelanders. His leadership continued up and through the creation of the official Cleveland UNIA chapter and up until election into city Council in 1929 where he served four terms as a Republican councilman for Ward 17. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: 1930
UNIA Parade in Harlem Although this image depicts a parade in Harlem, the parades that used to be held in Cleveland were of a very similar caliber. Many of the gatherings or conferences of the UNIA-ACL would conclude with a large parade. The Cleveland group specifically held a good number of these events, with subsequent parades and marches. In June 1935, Cleveland hosted a three-day session of the local UNIA divisions, in which they discussed the goals of the UNIA-ACL to rebuild “the morale of the official body in America.” In June 1937, members of the Cleveland group demonstrated their dedication to the UNIA-ACL organization by expressing interest in attending the 1937 UNIA conference in Toronto, attending via charter bus. Source: Photo also seen in the Cleveland Call and Post
UNIA-ACL Cleveland, OH.
James Robert Stewart Stewart, the leader of the UNIA-ACL after Marcus Garvey, from 1940 and 1964, was responsible for bringing the Parent Body of the UNIA-ACL to Cleveland from 1940 to 1949. It was under his tenure that events such as the Western Hemisphere Conference for the UNIA-ACL (August 1941) were held in Cleveland. It was estimated that 10,000 Garveyites from around the world were to attend the event. He also hosted the 9th international conference in August 1942. Blacks from the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean all converged on the city. Stewart additionally made Cleveland the center for the revival of Garvey’s newspaper, now called the New Negro World. One of Stewart's downfalls was his position on emigration, and an evolving social climate. Due to Stewart's and the UNIA-ACL’s mindset of Africans as uncivilized and their remaining wedded to emigration and entrepreneurial endeavors, many African Americans thought the UNIA program was behind the times. Prompted by his flagging fortunes, he emigrated to Liberia, taking the seat of the UNIA-ACL parent organization with him from 1949 to 1964. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Date: 1940
Amy Ashwood Garvey in Ghana The role of women and the number of women in leadership in the UNIA was high. After Garvey's death, both Garvey's wife and his ex-wife became leaders in the movement in their own ways. Amy Ashwood Garvey is depicted in this image during her visit to Ghana to spread the ideology of Garveyism. Source: New York Public Library Date: 1940
Mason A. Hargrave Although Clevelander Mason Hargrave was elected president general in 1975 and was the one responsible for moving the Parent Body back to Cleveland, this small resurgence in the movement was not enough to continue the organization in perpetuity. It was in his tenure, however, that the organization promoted the acceptance of the red, green, and black nationalist flag and was instrumental in having it flown for the first time over Cleveland City Hall in 1974. You can see his placement of the flag within City Hall in this photo. It was also Hargrave that led efforts to restore the UNIA-ACL Building in the 1980s. Source: Cleveland Public Library Digital Collection Date: 1984
UNIA-ACL Headquarters In the 1980s there was a push to restore the UNIA- ACL building so it could serve as a museum and cultural neighborhood center in addition to its headquarters functions. This, however, was short-lived and the UNIA headquarters building closed in 1982. In 1988 the abandoned building suffered a devastating fire and not even a month later the then UNIA leader Mason Hargrave died. Upon the death of Hargrave, Cleophus Miller became president of the UNIA in 1988. And in 2007 the UNIA-ACL and the UNIA, Inc. held a unification conferences and have operated as a single organization since. Garvey and the UNIA-ACL’s impact were still felt throughout the Civil Rights era and beyond. Source: Cleveland Public Library Digital Collection Date: 1974

Location

2200 E. 40th St, Cleveland, OH 44103 | Demolished

Metadata

Rebekah Knaggs, “Liberty Hall,” Cleveland Historical, accessed May 24, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/898.