A 19th-century ship that once sailed between Yarmouth and Boston played a little-known part in international Black history.
The S.S. Yarmouth was the first vessel acquired by the Black Star Line, the first Black-owned shipping line in North America.
Built in 1887, it was well past its prime when the charismatic leader of the New York City-based United Negro Improvement Association, Marcus Mosiah Garvey Sr., purchased it in 1919 for his new company.
Garvey was a political activist and a leader in the pan-African movement, dedicated to African independence and unity.
The aim of the Black Star Line was to provide discrimination-free transportation to the Caribbean, South and Central America and Africa.
But a mere three years later, Garvey was charged with mail fraud and later convicted in connection with selling shares in the company.
Symbol of Black achievement
Born in Jamaica, Garvey had moved to the United States in 1916 and founded the company in the hopes that it would become a symbol of Black achievement and empowerment.
But scholars believe his lack of experience in running a shipping line and the trust he placed in others may have doomed the Black Star Line from the start.
Unable to raise enough capital to purchase the vessel from its Nova Scotia owners outright, Garvey’s company chartered the vessel for a journey to the West Indies, unofficially renamed it the SS Frederick Douglas, and entered into a purchase agreement.
According to a 1922 report from the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the Federal Bureau of Investigation), Garvey wound up paying far more than the vessel was worth because he was so determined to have a ship to fulfil promises he had made and to “enhance the stock selling possibilities.”
“They entered into the various agreements with Harriss, Magill & Co. to purchase for $168,000, in addition to the price of the charter, this thirty year old ship in dilapidated condition, and this at at time when many and good ships could have been obtained at ridiculously low prices,” the report stated.
With its mainly Black crew, the ship was supposed to help raise awareness about the company and drum up interest in buying $5 shares in it.
The Black Star Line later bought two other ships, but neither of them were as popular or as well-travelled as the S.S. Yarmouth.
According to Rupert Lewis, a professor emeritus at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica and author of a book about Garvey, the ship had tremendous “propaganda” and mobilization value for the Garvey movement.
The ship generated great excitement among the local Black populations when it made stops at ports in Jamaica, Costa Rica, Cuba and Panama.
“Thousands of people came out to observe the Garvey ships in different parts of the Caribbean, and the word spread,” Lewis said.
“People bought shares. People joined the UNIA. People travelled on these boats and therefore it was of tremendous symbolic importance, but also practical significance because it actually happened.”
In late 1920, while anchored in New York City, the S.S. Yarmouth was damaged in a collision and required extensive repairs. The ship was sold by public auction for $1,625 the following year and was subsequently scrapped, ending its long and storied existence.
Charges racially motivated, professor says
In January 1922, Garvey was charged with mail fraud. After a trial, he was found guilty in June 1923. He was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $1,000.
Garvey appealed the decision but his appeal was rejected and he was sent to a federal prison in 1925 to serve his sentence.
Justin Hansford, a professor and director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Centre at Howard University in Washington, D.C., said Garvey’s prosecution was largely motivated by race.
“The argument was nobody, no Black man, no Black person, could operate his own shipping line,” Hansford said.
“So by definition, a Black person saying that he was going to operate his own shipping company had to be a fraud because that’s a preposterous proposal in the first place.”
Hansford said there was no evidence that Garvey gained financially from the Black Star Line, including from the sale of shares in the company.
Deportation to Jamaica
Submitting to public pressure – particularly pressure from African Americans – President Calvin Coolidge commuted Garvey’s sentence in November 1927.
Garvey was deported to Jamaica where he got involved in politics. He later moved to England and died there in 1940 at age 52.
Today, 100 years after he was charged, efforts are still being made in the United States by members of Garvey’s family, Hansford and others to have him pardoned and his role in Black history more widely recognized.
But in his native Jamaica, Garvey was declared the country’s first national hero in 1969. His body was removed from England and reinterred in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1964.
Meanwhile, Lewis said the Black Star Line’s five-pointed black star, which once flew above the S.S. Yarmouth, inspired the Black Star of Africa that today adorns Ghana’s national flag.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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