The Collision In Liberia Of Marcus Garvey's and W.E.B Du Bois’s Version of Pan Africanisms


Joseph E. Holloway


Leaders of the postwar nationalist movement throughout Africa and leaders of the African Diaspora both sought an effective response to the legacy of slavery in the New World, racial segregation in the U.S., and Colonial rule in Africa.  Behind their endeavors, we can see the influence of both W.E.B. Dubois’ Pan-African ideology and Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement.  Liberia was an important focal point for both.  They held two competing views of how to uplift the Black race.  Du Bois viewed Liberia as evidence of the ability of Blacks to govern themselves without Whites.  Garvey viewed Liberia as the ideal place to start the return to Africa, and Liberia as the center of the African Diaspora.[i]Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa vision and Du Bois’ Pan African ideology would collide in Liberia and destroy Garvey’s Pan African dream of a homeland in Africa.

The Pan African Conferences start with Sylvester William in 1900 and continue with W.E.B. Du Bois.  The Pan African Conferences and movement found an intellectual father in Du Bois, who could articulate the movement and philosophy academically.  The movement found in Garvey an organizer, who was capable of articulating the ideas into a mass movement as the world had never seen before.  On the surface, it would appear that W. E. B. Dubois and Marcus Garvey had much in common in that both believed in the redemption of Africa for Africans and their New World descendants—Du Bois believed that Africans were capable, and Marcus Garvey believed it was his mission to be their President.  Yet, both fought each other as mortal enemies destroying any possibility of the Pan African Movement taking roots in Africa. The roots of this conflict appears to be have been deeper that what appeared on the surface, and more rooted in a personal conflict that was deeply rooted in the African American version of discrimination called colorism—that is, discrimination by African Americans against other African Americans based on shades of color.  This essay will explore how a personal feud between Du Bois and Garvey based on this discretionary practice by Black Americans destroyed Garvey’s Dream of an African Homeland in Liberia.

Both Du Bois and Garvey’s visions of Liberia were a response to white racism.  Du Bois wanted to prove to whites that Africans could govern themselves by demonstrating equality and intelligence in self-governance.  In other words, Du Bois  would not compromise the principle of absolute racial equality and the eventual rule of Africa by Africans and no one else, whereas, Garvey wanted to establish the United states of Africa with himself as President.  Garvey believed white racism forced black people to build their own segregated institutions and thus develop a racial consciousness that in time could command white respect.  This was the fundamental construct of Garveyism—racial liberation, empowerment and a Black homeland in Africa.

Much of the conflict between Du Bois and Garvey was not based on ideology because both were Pan Africanist, but colorism that was rooted in ideas of caste, class and color by America’s mulatto class. The conflict also had much to do with the cultural background of each leader. Marcus Garvey was born on the West Indian island of Jamaica in 1887.  He worked as a printer, labor organizer, and later as a newspaper publisher.  He attempted to expose the racial situation inside Jamaica and give the darker colored Jamaicans fairer treatment.  After becoming dismayed by the living conditions of workers and the exploitation by white and mulatto overseers, Garvey tried in vain to persuade Jamaican officials to intervene.  In 1912, he was exiled from Jamaica to London by the British Colonial government.  There he met Duse Mohamed, a Black Egyptian who was promoting the defeat of European colonialism everywhere.  He worked on Mohamed’s magazine Africans Times and the Orient Review.  There he met Africans and studied about the continent, and became a Pan African nationalist.  Strongly influenced by Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Up From Slavery, he returned to Jamaica in 1914 and set up an organization called the Universal Negro Improvement Association and the African Communities League (UNIA) to unite people of color all over the world.

To bring this to reality, Garvey moved to New York in 1916 and resided in Harlem.  Economic independence was another factor in the UNIA plan.  Garvey was one of the first Blacks to urge his followers to buy Black—to patronize their own businessmen, similar to Booker T. Washington’s stress on self-sufficiency.  The UNIA opened several business projects, including the Negro Factories Corporation to assist Black businesses.  Garvey founded the Black Star Steamship Line to serve as a commercial and spiritual tie among Black people everywhere.  Like Bishop Turner’s shipping attempts, the Black Star Steamship Line stocks were sold to Blacks only and Garvey promised stock buyers that they would not only be helping their race, but might also make a profit.  Garvey collected enough money between 1919 and 1925 to buy four secondhand ships and to begin trade in the Caribbean.



Early in Du Bois’s life, he was an integrationist and shared the same class as Booker T. Washington, in that they were more of the mulatto elite.  Du Bois had what he described as a little Dutch, a little French and a little Black.  Washington was the son of a white father and a slave mother.   They fought over the ideas of who had the right to lead the masses of African Americans—Du Bois wanted to build an intellectual and scholarly community, whereas Washington believed in Black Capitalism—blacks spending and buying in their own communities and circulating black dollars among African Americans.

The issue between Du Bois and Garvey was class warfare and the same issue still plagues Black America.  Du Bois spoke to his base—mainly African American from northern states, who lived in urban communities that were college-educated, professional and light skinned.[ii] Washington spoke to his base who were farmers, domestics, and trade peoples who lived in the South.  Du Bois believed that if African Americans could prove to White Americans that there were no intellectual differences between the two there would be no need for racism as a weapon against African Americans.  Washington believed that you achieve racial harmony by separating yourself from white Americans and by building separate political, economic and cultural realities based on southern values of work and uplifting the masses.  Demonstrating one’s value and equality would remove racism and open the door for inclusion in the future.  As much as this was a fight for leadership, it was also a fight for the best approach to fight racial discrimination in America.

Garvey understood Washington’s approach and wanted to replica it and built a world movement based on his economic philosophy of accommodation and separation from White America.  Garvey realized early on that what Washington was really about was to use America as a home land for the Black Diaspora.  Garvey wanted to achieve the same goal—thus the birth of the Back-to-Africa Movement which was not a new ideal in Black America.  Many others came before him including Paul Cuffe, Martin Delany, Bishop Henry McNeil Turner, and Chief Sam to mention a few.  What was unique about his movement was to use Liberia as his headquarters for reconnecting Black Americans to the African Diaspora.

Garvey was so impacted by the ideas and philosophy of B. T. Washington that he corresponded with him.  Washington invited him to Tuskegee and offered to raise funds for his programs.  He was to do in Jamaica what Washington did in the South—build educational, economic institutions to help the masses of Blacks elevate themselves from poverty.

Garvey attempted on several occasions to reach out to Du Bois. At their initial first meeting in May 1915 in Jamaica, while Du Bois was visiting, Garvey sent him a welcoming letter.  Garvey took the opportunity to explain to Du Bois his plan for uniting the African Diaspora.  It does not appear that Du Bois was impressed.  At the time Du Bois was an integrationist and believed that the way to fight racial discrimination and Jim Crowism was to prove to the White America that there were no differences between white and black intellect.  Garvey believed that because of racial discrimination and racism that Black Americans needed to create their own land and that Liberia could become his base for his Empire of Africa that would establish the United States of Africa with himself as President.

The following year Garvey moved to New York in 1916 and went to the office of NAACP headquarters to invite Du Bois to his first speaking engagement.  The meeting was a disaster.  Needless to say, Du Bois politely declined and was not available to meet with Garvey.  Garvey later mentioned his impression of the NAACP.  In his words, I was “unable to tell whether he was in a white office or that of the NAACP.”[iii]  Eventually, Garvey got his act together and developed the largest black mass back-to-Africa movement in the history of America.  Before travelling to America to learn about the black issues, he attended a religious revival  and heard Billy Sunday’s preaching and found his voice.  His vision for black Americans came after a tour of America and he concluded “what America Negroes had going for them was white racism”—which forced black America to build their own segregated institutions and to develop a racial consciousness that could in time gain respect from whites.  This was the fundamental construct of what became Garveyism.

He recruited members during the war years, but was not successful because the economy was in good condition.  However, with World War I (WWI) ending, the race riots of 1919 swayed many African American ex-soldiers to join his organization.  Garvey was able to increase his numbers through his brilliant analysis of the world situation and of Blacks in relation to the new economic and political trends.  For instance, WWI, in Garvey’s view, “had been a fratricidal war among Europeans for control over colonies in Africa and throughout the nonwhite world.”  He reasoned that in the future Africans in the Western Hemisphere would find themselves in rapidly declining circumstances.  The unskilled poor Blacks would become obsolete in the work force with advancing technology.  The Black intelligentsia would face frustration in societies that reserved the privilege of advancement for whites.  If left unchanged, Garvey’s world would consume the populations of Africa as the industrialized nations competed over its mineral wealth.  As with Bishop Henry McNeil Turner, central to Garvey’s philosophy was the need to unite all Black people and to give them a racial self-confidence that would enable them to throw off white oppression.


For Garvey, the only path to economic independence and Black pride was the redemption of “Africa for the Africans.”  According to Garvey, the Black man must organize the world over and build up for the race a mighty nation of their own in Africa.  In August, 1920, the Garvey movement was at its peak.  In New York City, 25,000 African Americans attended a month-long convention.  Black Nationalism and an African homeland was the focal point.  Garvey was designated the “Provisional President of the African Republic.” He now had the mandate but not the home base.

Liberia was an economic basket case because of corruption and mismanagement since its founding.  Liberia revenues were nonexistent because the monies went into the pockets of the President and his cronies.  Compound interest on foreign indebtedness amounted to a death sentence to Liberia’s sovereignty.

Garvey was aware that most of Africa was still under colonial rule.  He also felt that Africans would need to be brought into the 20th century.  Using Liberia as a base, Garvey proposed sending a limited number of African Americans (20,000 to 30,000 families at first) with skills, professions and capital to settle in Liberia.  Liberia was the only independent Republic in West Africa at the time and was experiencing a financial crisis and needed funds to pay off a national debt.   Garvey realized this was an opportunity to purchase land in Liberia.  Garvey offered the money in exchange for settlement of his people in Liberia.  Land was to be included in five areas near the Cavella River, Maryland County, Sinoe, Grand Bassa, and Capt Mount.[iv] Garvey offered the Liberian Government a Construction Loan, inaugurated in October 1920, and had raised $2 million dollar down payment to the Government of Liberia to buy land for the resettlement of a small number of skilled Blacks. [v] After 1920, several teams of his representatives visited Liberia to lay the groundwork for his plan.  The UNIA agreed to provide the Liberian government with a $2 million load.[vi]  Immediately Garvey began raising money to cancel Liberia’s $5 million dollar international debt. President C. D. B. King was already in Washington trying to get a 5 million loan from the U.S. Government. King and Barclay were salivating  over this opportunity of unseen funds coming into their coffers. Garvey sent an UNIA delegation of Robert Lincoln, Robert Poston, Henrietta Vinton Davis, and Milton Van Lowe, of UNIA officials to complete the arrangements. 

In the meantime, according to a document signed May 2, 1924 by UNIA representative James J. Dossen, while President King was in Washington D.C. negotiating for 5 million dollar loan, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois of the National Association for the Advancement of “Colored” People got himself appointed as Ambassador Extra-ordinary of the United States to attend the second inaugural in Liberia of the “Black” President King.  He goes on to say that Du Bois was the guest of other parties. “What transpired then against the interest of the Universal Negro can be imagined because on the arrival of the experts and engineers of the UNIA in Liberia to carry out the work of preparing for the colonist, they were immediately seized by the instruction of President King and deported.”[vii]

The truth of the matter is that Du Bois was working very closely with the U.S. State Department to destroy the UNIA movement in Liberia and had taken steps to hamper the UNIA and worked to undermine Garvey’s Liberian construction and resettlement plan.[viii]  The United States sent Du Bois to counter Garvey’s settlement plan with an offer from Firestone. The records of the State Department showed that Du Bois was designated on 26 December 1924 Special Representative of the President with rank of envoy extraordinary.[ix]  It was believed that Du Bois played a crucial role in the Liberian government’s refusal to receive the UNIA delegation. Du Bois made the UNIA seem like a threat to the Americo-Liberian ruling group.  He convinced them that Garvey had a secret plan to take over the country, a plan which he did in fact hold. Even though, he was representing the U.S. Government Uncle Sam made him pay his own way.

I was a graduate student at UCLA working for the Marcus Garvey Project on US documents relating to the Marcus Garvey movement, I found documents released through the Information Act.  One was a diplomatic dispatch from Great Britain addressed to the President of the United States asking the U.S. Government to intervene and prevent Garvey from gaining a foothold in Africa. They believed that he wanted to liberate Africa from colonial control and they feared that his movement could disrupt their colonies in Africa.  The British Government believed this because Garvey requested land in Liberia on the borders with neighboring African countries under Colonial rule.

Du Bois finally convinced President King that Garvey really wanted to overthrow his Government.  A private assessment of Liberia by James Dossen of the UNIA was releases to President King.  “The ruling group of the country is related by blood.  When one brother is out of the Presidency, a son-in-law takes it, or nephew or cousin and so the group constitutes itself the reigning power of the country.”[x] Du Bois saw this as an opportune time for Liberia to issue a public statement in The Crisis magazine and for President King to put forth his position of Garvey.  The June 1921 issue of The Crisis featured President King’s declaration “under no circumstances will [Liberia] allow her territory to be made a center of aggression or conspiracy against other sovereign states.”

Clearly, the Black elite were jealous of his rise to power and tried to undermine his leadership.  The full editorial battle would not began until 1923, three years after Garvey’s Liberian project fell apart.   The Black Press referred to by Garvey as the group of mulatoes began their editorial attacks that seemed to center on the man‘s black skin color. Bagnall’s savage and tasteless description of Garvey’s physical features appeared  in the March 1923 issue  of The Messenger titled “The Madness of Marcus Garvey described his physical features as a “Jamaican Negro of unmixed stock, squat, stocky, fat and sleek with protruding jaws, and heavy jowls, small bright pig-like eyes and rather bull-dog like face.  Boastful, egotistical, tyrannical, intolerant, cunning shifty, smooth and suave, avaricious and devoid of intellectual argument. ”[xi] Bagnall, the field secretary of the NAACP, then called for Garvey deportation to Jamaica.

Many of the affluent African American leadership opposed Garvey and the UNIA.  The Black elite—businessmen and intellectuals—resented Garvey in the same way Bishop Turner was resented.  A. Philip Randolph of The Messenger, a social journal, thought Garvey’s Africa would be a reactionary dictatorship, not a democracy.  Robert Abbott, of the influential Chicago Defender, arranged to have Garvey harassed for selling stock in Illinois without a license.  African Americans Churchmen resented his establishment of an African Orthodox Church, which threatened to win members from their Churches. W.E.B. Du Bois, editor of the NAACP magazine, The Crisis, accused Garvey of being the worst enemy of the Black race.

Du Bois would show his own color prejudices in the February 1923 issue of Century magazine presented Garvey as a character in Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones. He described him as “A little, fat black man, ugly, but with intelligent eyes and a big head, … seated on a plank platform beside a ‘throne,’ dressed in a military uniform of the gayest mid-Victorian type.  Amid the epaulettes, plumage, and swirling capes, and in the presence of a thousand or more applauding dark spectators,” the elite of the UNIA ‘were duly ‘knighted’ and raised to the ‘peerage’ as knight-commanders and dukes of the Uganda and the Niger…“[xii]

Garvey could give as good as he could receive.  In an editorial published in The Negro World on February 17 he said that Du Bois was an “unfortunate mulatto who bewails every day the drop of Negro blood in his veins.”  Garvey charged that Du Bois arrogated the privilege of condemning and criticizing other people, but held himself up as the social unapproachable and the great I am of the Negro race.  He would go on to that Du Bois was a self-hating Negro founder of the NAACP who preferred the company of white people. He goes on to characterize Du Bois as a light skinned mulatto who hates black people and “that he likes to dance with white people and dine with them and sometimes sleep with them” because of his way of seeing all that is black as ugly and all that is white as beautiful.  Garvey concluded that the enemies of colonization of Africa were led by “very light-skinned Negroes” under the leadership of Du Bois because “the black leadership and politicians, and those of the white race who wanted to discredit and imprison me to please their Negro political wards and foreign power tried to make the plan unpopular and unsuccessful.



Garvey and Du Bois had a natural dislike for each other based on class, caste and color. The notion of a homogenous African American group united by a common African ethnicity and culture is a myth. Many scholars fail to recognize the diversity in language, culture, class and color among African Americans, and how those differences provided one group of African Americans with extraordinary opportunities for higher educational and trade skills  when compared to the overall Black population.  Historically, there has always been great tension between the “mulatto” and Black classes because of the association of “yellow” skin with high status and class within the Black social apex. 

Garvey recognized that there was a color and stratification in America between light and dark skin blacks and that he was going to save black America from itself by relocating the “true” sons and daughters of Africa back to Africa their true homeland to establish an United States of Africa.  This was his vision of the future for Black America.  But the legacy of colorism—discrimination by blacks against other Blacks would destroy his movement.  He underestimated  the power of a tradition of discrimination based on color.

This identity associated with color, class and status ran so deep in the Black community that even after slavery yellow or light brown skin was believed to represent the elite of the Black community. The history of Black slave owners is important for understanding the legacy of colorism in the United States.  As in the West Indians, what the white power class did was to use the color line as a bridge between themselves and enslaved communities, which had separate identities that were based on color, status and occupation.  Freedom and emancipation broke down those barriers, but the legacy of slavery continued as African Americans fought to maintain those color distinctions because of what it translated into in the larger societies: opportunities for jobs, education and the selection of mates for marriages.

The real tragedy of this struggle  between Du Bois and Garvey was that both  were Pan Africanists and Du Bois as well as other black leaders worked with the U.S. Government to destroyed the Pan African Movement as envisioned by Garvey because he was not one of them.  I understand the power of color within the Black community.  I was once at a family reunion in Louisiana and was told by a family “that I was too dark to be one of them, and that I was just a member of the family.” In Garvey’s case, he was too black to be a member of Du Bois’s caste and because he was a foreigner he was not even a member of the family.

Later in life Du Bois realized what he had done.  Sometimes in life when you have made a great error you never revisit it against in your life.  In Du Bois memoir and biography, he never mentioned or discussed the Garvey affair.  Toward the end of his life he would emigrate to Ghana the first Pan African State in Africa.  A State that was shaped not by his Pan African ideas, but rather than of Marcus Garvey.  Kwame Nkrumah adopted Garvey’s flag, Black Star Steamship Line and much of his ideas and slogans such as “Africa for Africans,”  “One nation one people.”

The collision in Liberia of Marcus Garvey’s and W. E. B. Du Bois visions of Pan Africanism clashed not over substance but style.  In other words, the issues had nothing to do with ideas or philosophy, but was undermined by notions of superiority or inferiority based on black or light skin and the caste and status associated with color.

[i] Conceptually, Diasporic scholars do not confine the concept of a Diaspora exclusively to people of any one ancestry, because the concept is borrowed from Jewish history, and initially referred to the scattering of the Jews after their Babylonian captivity.  The Jewish Diaspora has ancient roots going back 2,000 years and serves as a model for understanding Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement.  A useful working definition within this framework is the dispersal of a group of people, who share a common cultural or ethnic, religious identity with a homeland.  It can exist in Du Bois’ view metaphorically, linguistically or symbolically, but for Garvey Liberia was a place in Africa yearning for its loss “brothers and sisters” to come home.

Garvey was aware that the concept of Israel was a metaphor, linguistically united by language, religion and culture as a symbol of a homeland for thousands of years, which existed in the minds of Jews, until it materialized into a creation of a Jewish homeland in 1949,  Garvey was the “Moses” of his people and like the historic Moses would lead his people to the promise land in Liberia.


[ii] David Levering Lewis.  W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century 1919-1963


[iii] Ibid. p. 51.


[iv] “Liberian Foreign Affairs: A Bibliographical Essay” by Joseph E. Holloway in The International History Review Simon Fraser University Volume VII Number 3 August 1985, p.430.


[v] The proposed plan for colonization work in Liberia were published in a full page advertisement which appeared in the New York World Wednesday, June 25, 1924.




1.         Court House and Post Office.

2.         Town Hall

a. Public safety

1.         Police Station

2.         Fire Protection

3.         Hospital


Community Interest and Entertainment

1.         National Theatre

2.         Churches (2)

3.         Large Public Hall

4.         Public Parks


Public Education

1.         Public Library

2.         Public Schools (2)

3.         Public High School (1)

4.         Colleges of Arts and Sciences

5.         Trade School and Engineering Works


Public Utilities

1.         Electric Light and Power Plant

2.         Water filtration Pant

3.         Sewerage system and Sewage Disposal Plant

a.         Transportation Facilities

1.         Roads, Streets and Pavements

2.         Wharf and dock and Water Front Improvement

3.         Railroad, 4-15 miles

b.         Commissaries (2)

c.         Dormitories (2)


[vi] Amy Jacques-Garvey, Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Carvey or Africa for the Africans.  Published by Universal publishing House: New York City, 1925.


[vii] Ibid., p.379


[viii] Op. Cit., David Levering Lewis, p. 74


[ix] Op. Cit., “International History Review,” p. 430.


[x] Opacity., Amy Garvey, p.380.


[xi] Opacity, David Levering Lewis, p. 80.

[xii] Ibid., p. 82.