Marcus Garvey and Nova Scotia

Birth of a Movement, Birth of a Religion, Birth of a Church

Shunpiking Magazine
Black History & African Heritage Supplement
February/March, 2000, Volume 5, Number 32

Marcus Garvey One year before the onset of the Second World War and two years before his death in 1940, Marcus Garvey, Founder and President-General of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), visited Nova Scotia for the first time, and delivered a series of speeches in Cape Breton and Halifax. Jamaican-born Garvey, by this time, was leader of one of the largest mass movements of Black people in American history. Many historians trace the Black Nationalist and the Black Muslim movement of the 1960s back to Garvey. Garvey was also involved, though the details are unclear, in the formation of the African Orthodox Church, of which the only one in Canada today is located in Sydney's Whitney Pier neighbourhood.

Garvey was asked to speak in Sydney by members of the local UNIA, which then had their own musical band, community hall, and were shareholders in the Black Star shipping line. The texts of Garvey's speeches in Sydney and Halifax were published in The Black Man, A Monthly Magazine of Negro Thought and Opinion, edited by Marcus Garvey himself. These are on file at the Beaton Institute at the University College of Cape Breton.

What Garvey said in this series of speeches reveals a great deal not only about Garvey the man, but also about the state of racial attitudes from an insider looking in, and as an orator speaking out. Garvey didn't come to Nova Scotia to lay blame on white people for the Black person's lot in life, or to fan flames of hate and retribution. Garvey told his audience the problem lay inward and must be solved by the Black people themselves:

We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind, because man is related to man under all circumstances for good or ill.

Garvey's interest in Nova Scotia began in the early 1920s. Born in the West Indies in 1887, Garvey came to the United States at an early age introduced Black Americans to the ideology of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, an outspoken proponent of Black emigration during the period between the civil war and WW1. Turner's desire for Black Americans to reclaim Africa seemed to have died with him in 1915. According to author J.H. Clarke (Marcus Garvey and the Vision of Africa, Vintage Books 1974) Garvey came to the US, "at a time of great disenchantment among Afro-Americans, who had pursued the American dream until they had to concede that the dream was not dreamed for them."

During the war years Blacks had suffered many kinds of humiliation, slander and violence at the hands of the white population. A resurgence of deranged KKK dogma and activity only served to split the nation further. According to Clarke not only were blacks searching for an American identity, they were also looking for an international identity. Black people wanted a human history, a pre- and post-slavery, that commanded respect. Garvey's philosophy arrived at just the right time in Black America's history.

Elizabeth Beaton, in her research on Black history in Sydney, aptly describes Garvey's life mission, through the auspices of the UNIA to, "foster political, economic, and religious independence for Blacks in America, the West Indies and Africa." Fundamental to this assumption was the notion of "Africa for Africans." Speaking in Sydney, Garvey said:

We are working for Africa, like the Irishman, he is working for Ireland, and the Canadian is working for a grand and noble Canada.

During the early years of the UNIA, Garvey invited Reverend George Alexander McGuire to become chaplain of the organization. McGuire's acceptance, according to Beaton, probably laid the foundation for the African Orthodox Church (AOC). In September of 1921 Reverend McGuire was consecrated first Bishop of the AOC by Bishop Vilatte of the American Catholic Church.

Three months before this, Jamaican-born W.E. Robertson arrived in Sydney on the behalf of McGuire to start the work of the, not yet constituted, AOC in Cape Breton. Robertson himself was not ordained until September 1921. According to Elizabeth Beaton, Blacks at this time were allowed to attend St. Alban's Church in Whitney Pier, but had to stand, "because all the pews were already rented by congregation members of Anglo-Saxon background." This led to dissatisfaction and possibly resulted in the formation of the AOC in Whitney Pier.

What remains unclear in the historical record is how the Blacks of Whitney Pier became aware of Reverend McGuire and his nascent church. Was it through Marcus Garvey, either in his writings or by word of mouth, or was it through correspondence between West Indian immigrants (which comprised most of the early Black residents of Sydney) and their friends and relatives back home? According to Clarke, "The early part they (West Indians) played in the progress of the Afro-American in his long march from slavery to freedom has always been an important factor." These people "saw their plight and the plight of the Afro-American as being one and the same."

In Sydney, the actual physical church was originally the property of the Dominion Iron and Steel Company and was probably built somewhere between 1900 and 1915. It was used as a storage shed for either cement or fertilizer before being sold, for a token dollar, to interests of the AOC sometime after 1915, but the actual dates remain unknown. The steel company transported the building on a flat car to Lingan Road, it was then moved on rollers to Hankard St., where it is located today. After extensive volunteer work by local residents St. Phillip's African Orthodox Church was formally opened in 1928. By the time Garvey made his trip to Sydney in 1938, St Phillip's had already seen four different pastors and was well established as one of the main ethnic churches in Sydney's Whitney Pier neighbourhood.

The relationship between the Back-to-Africa movement and the rise of the AOC in Sydney blurs with the passage of time, and efforts of local historians over the years have failed to make a definitive connection. What can be said for certain is, it wasn't very difficult to attract pastors of West Indian origin to serve at St Phillip's, Garvey was interested enough in Sydney to make it his first stop on his first Nova Scotia tour, and when he spoke in Sydney he was introduced by Reverend Ford, the then pastor of St. Phillips's Church.

Reverend Ford described Garvey as a "Captain at the helm," and asked the audience to "answer whether this race is ready for true leadership." Garvey spoke at the Menelik Hall, a hall according to Beaton, built to honour the Ethiopian hero, Haile Selassie and serve the West Indian traditions of the community. He started off by congratulating the crowd for building the recently constructed hall then told them, "You should stick together in forwarding your own race."

According to Garvey, minorities should unite because, "The temper of the majority cannot always be guaranteed." He said, "Your conduct must be of such as to leave no loophole to constitute you an annoyance to the majority." Garvey went on to outline his plan for turning Africa into a homeland for displaced Black people everywhere. Garvey considered Africa as the "one Principal home" for all Blacks.

In the text of his speeches it is evident Garvey felt Black people lacked a true homeland and had to overcome their own problems before moving on. "The Negro went to sleep for a long while, resting from his labours, but he slept too long, so everybody stole a march on him and therefore he is the only man without a country." At a speech in Halifax, Garvey said

The masses are more concerned with their stomachs, and you will find the average man thinking of spending more on his meat and sugar than even intelligently budgeting every ten cents for the improvement of his intelligence out of a dollar -- I cannot do anything for you in Halifax until you have made up your minds to do something for yourself. No man is completely helped from without, he is helped from within. The thing must be from within.

After reading Garvey's two published speeches one perceives the consistent theme of a man searching for an inner self, a self willing to drag itself out of its problems and start anew. A man representing an entire people, searching for the truth. According to Garvey, "It is your mind that rules the body. You cannot go further than that mind to seek truth and to know truth and to re-act to truth." Garvey's speeches ring with the voice of a man well versed in politics, science and history, delivered with the oratorical style of a preacher.

Garvey accused his audience of failing God by becoming a "cringing, crawling creature" that has failed to live up to the potential God has endowed everyone with. Garvey's speeches are full of references to the power and "universal intelligence" of God and the fact that man is simply an agent of God. In Halifax Garvey said, "And when any man in the image of God goes below the level he is not only reducing the God in him, he is humiliating the God in him." Evidently strong words delivered with strong intent.

Garvey closed his speech in Sydney by conveying an inspirational message that could be delivered to any group of people, any time, anywhere.

Do not be here as serfs and slaves because God never made you anything else but men. Whatever that has happened to the man it is his own mind that puts him there. He has abused the force of power of that mind. Men can create the environment to suit himself. When you do not use your intelligence you fall and will be submerged. It is because we do not live up to the state of our intelligence why we suffer so much. Before I close I want to appeal to you to use your intelligence to work out the real things of life. You have to apply that intelligence to the management of your own individual and collective racial affairs. Every race has to look after its own affairs.

Following two bouts of pneumonia in early 1940 while staying in England, Marcus Garvey suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on the right side. According to his private secretary Daisy Whyte (writing in Clarke), Garvey spoke of the effect Hitler would have on African people as the war raged closer to England. He also felt that in the near future, "People will be glad to lay claim to the African blood in their veins."

In May of that year a London newspaper sent out a report that Garvey had died. Newspapers worldwide covered the story without checking their facts. He was in fact still alive. The shocking dearth of letters, clippings, and cables he received reporting his death was two much for the ailing Garvey. Daisy Whyte writes, "After the second day of this pile of correspondence, he collapsed in his chair and could not be understood after that." Garvey died on June 10, 1940.

Sixty years later in the year 2000, Menelik Hall, where Garvey gave his message of black self identity and his plan for the future, still stands. Just a few hundred metres from this is St Phillip's African Orthodox Church. With just a handful of people for a congregation, pastor Bishop Vincent Waterman wonders what will happen when he is gone. Bishop Waterman, who was born and raised in the Barbados, and came to St Phillips in 1983, is now in his seventies. He has no replacement for himself.

Marcus Garvey and his legacy have stood the test of time, and he is considered one of the influential leaders in the long struggle for the rights and freedom of Black people worldwide. That fact that he visited Nova Scotia to deliver his message to the communities of Sydney, Glace Bay, New Waterford and Halifax demonstrates the need for a resurrection of the Black identity this province had so many years ago.

Sydney's Whitney Pier was a vibrant, multi-national neighbourhood where people were concerned about their place in society. The need for a place to belong is seen in the formation of the African Orthodox Church, as well as the other Ethnic Churches in the Pier, including Ukraine, Polish, Italian, and Jewish houses of worship. An incredible number of successful people, of all creeds and colours, have emerged from this area and this history can be traced back to the turn of the century. Marcus Garvey, the West Indian immigrants, and the leaders and members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and the African Orthodox Church show, that in a little corner of a small city in a small province, history was, is, and will continue to be made.

oPaul MacDougall is a freelance writer and instructor in the Environmental Health Programme at the University College of Cape Breton.

Photo captions
Africa for the Africans, 1921

garvey 1

March for Africa, 1921. Banner in background proclaims, "Africa for the Africans." This march along Whitney Street in Whitney Pier, Sydney, takes place one year after Marcus Garvey's first visit to Nova Scotia. A demonstration (left) against European imperial domination of Africa, reflecting the rising political consciousness of Cape Breton.

St Phillips Church, ext 1920s

The laying of the cornerstone of the St Phillip's African Orthodox Church, 1929. In 1945, the church was raised and a basement put in. Father Francis was pastor from 1940 to 1982. Bishop Vincent Waterman formally took the reins after moving from New York in 1983.

Photo: Narcus Garvey Park, NYC

Garvey Park in Harlem, New York

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