Caroline Emmons. Journal of Caribbean History. Volume 52, Issue 2. 2018.
Like most new organizations, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) at the time of its founding in New York City in 1909 struggled to identify its primary mission and goals. Given the fraught racial environment of the era that inspired its creation, debates that occurred at the NAACP’s founding were vigorous and at times contentious. Perhaps the most famous founding member, scholar and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, was already well known for both his brilliance and his arrogance. His vision of the NAACP’s purpose was, at times, at odds with that of his mostly white, upper class cofounders. Partly as a result of these disagreements, the NAACP’s initial list of goals was overly ambitious. Among the most ambitious was Du Bois’ desire that the NAACP become a vehicle to support, if not lead, his programme for Pan-African unity. Despite the centrality of Africa as a focus of attention, it was rather the Caribbean, for reasons of proximity and shared history, which served as the NAACP’s most important testing ground for transnational organization during the first two decades of the Association’s history.
By 1930, the organization scaled back its initial programme to focus less on Du Bois’ lofty international goals and more on domestic challenges; this proved to be more than enough to occupy the Association’s energies and resources. However, as Du Bois predicted, the twentieth century was to be one in which the colour line was decisive and transformative, both in a domestic and international context. Immigration into the United States of America from the Caribbean changed the demographic make-up, political attitudes and culture of people of colour throughout the nation. Thus, while the NAACP leadership concluded that its energies should focus on domestic issues, the domestic was becoming more international as a result of these internal and external transformations.
This process has been comprehensively studied in regard to Marcus Garvey, one of the many Caribbean migrants who shaped the agenda of early twentieth-century political activism in the USA. However, partly as a result of the personal interest of NAACP leaders, James Weldon Johnson, himself the son of Caribbean immigrants, Du Bois (also the son of a Caribbean native), and others, such as Walter White, the Caribbean also remained a region of particular interest to Association leaders. Thus, the relationship between the Caribbean region and the NAACP was unstable but nevertheless influential.
At its founding, the Association committed to a long list of strategies by which to achieve its objectives: to publicize and organize in opposition to instances of racial discrimination against people of African descent; to highlight the contributions of those people to American society as well as globally; and to seek through the courts perhaps, in the wake of World War I, to include international courts and treaties and through legislation more equitable laws and judicial treatment for people of African descent. Within a few short years of the Association’s founding, World War I began, which thrust the NAACP into global debates about colour and colonization, an opportunity that Du Bois welcomed but other NAACP leaders approached more cautiously.
As information about the NAACP and its work spread nationally and beyond, people of colour in other parts of the world reached out to the Association to ask for its help and support. NAACP records, which are housed in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, contain multiple requests from Caribbean residents seeking financial, political and moral support for their own campaigns against discrimination and racial oppression. The NAACP did not always send a consistent message regarding its willingness or ability to support these local movements and by 1930, concluded that branch organization outside of the USA was impractical for the time being (although it continued to express a longterm goal to do so).
At the same time, NAACP leaders continued to link the struggles of African Americans for racial justice within the United States of America to similar campaigns elsewhere in the world, and the Association used its growing membership and visibility to advocate on behalf of people of colour globally. Because NAACP membership in multiple branches from Florida to New York included a growing number of Caribbean migrants, elements of Du Bois’ Pan-African vision remained present, if not always emphasized, within NAACP programmes and goals.
While Du Bois is famously associated with the revival of a Pan-African movement at the close of World War I, others in the NAACP leadership were quick to express concern about his vision. He raised the idea of a new Pan-African Conference at the September 1918 Board of Directors meeting of the NAACP. Clarence Contee says this is because Du Bois believed it was critical for the Association to “take immediate steps about the future of Africa, when it appeared certain that the Allies would win.” The opportunity presented by the realignment of global power distribution was obvious to many observers, and Du Bois was one of a number of black intellectuals both in the USA and elsewhere to advocate for an appeal to the Allied powers for more political indepen-dence for colonized nations. For Du Bois, Pan-Africanism was both a philosophy and a rallying cry for specific political demands.
Writing about this period from 1946, Du Bois described PanAfricanism as “the idea of one Africa to unite the thought and ideals of all native peoples of the dark continent.” This ideal was one he said belonged to the twentieth century and which “stems naturally from the West Indies and the United States”. Du Bois traced its origins to the eighteenth century but “a black West Indian barrister” (Henry SylvesterWilliams of Trinidad) called for a Pan-African Congress (first called Conference) in 1900, and thus coined the phrase, according to Du Bois. Du Bois had attended the 1900 conference and was deeply affected by it. He later wrote that he had given “body and soul to Sylvester-Williams’ ‘original idea of Pan-Africanism and broadened its perspective’.” Bishop Alexander Walters, who clashed with Du Bois on occasion but joined the NAACP in the 1910s and was an important early leader in the Association, also attended the 1900 conference. With the upheavals of World War I and the crisis of Western power relations, the moment had arrived to put this globalist philosophy into action.
In January 1919, the Crisis, the NAACP magazine, reported that Du Bois had three goals in travelling to Paris that year. First, he was at work gathering material for a planned history of African Americans’ experience in World War I; second, he planned to represent the Crisis at the Versailles meetings; and third, he hoped to “bear all pressure possible on the delegates at the peace table in the interest of the black people of the world by calling a Pan-African Congress”. Within the NAACP, concern about Du Bois’ travel plans was expressed in private correspondence between Walter White, an officer and later Executive Secretary of the organization, and John Mitchell, editor of the Richmond (Virginia) Planet. White wrote to correct a perception put forward by some that Du Bois lacked “specific authority” in attending the Congress and “it has been intimated that he has gone as a representative of the U.S. government.” White said that Du Bois was in fact representing the NAACP, which he noted was a growing organization with 172 branches and 46,000 members.
Some leaders were not prepared for the new organization to finance or serve as the major sponsor for such a movement. A number of NAACP leaders continued to address questions about Du Bois’ purpose in attending. Mary White Ovington, a wealthy white Progressive and strong early supporter of the NAACP, wrote to a colleague that she was aware of some differences of opinion about the utility and viability of the PanAfrican Congress project. “To some,” she wrote, “we have strengthened our position because we have broadened it, to others it is weakened.” Her colleague responded that he believed there was too much to do at home for such ventures and that Du Bois “should not have been sent to Europe to divert his talents and power towards ambitious plans like the holding in Paris of a Pan-African Congress”. The Association showed its ambivalence about Du Bois’ internationalist views by declining to approve Du Bois’ request for funds to visit Algeria while abroad and Haiti on his way home.
In this same section of NAACP archival materials is an unauthored and undated document from the same period, probably by Du Bois or perhaps his assistant, Jessie Fauset. The document states that
All great modern questions tend to become international as the world grows more interdependent and more closely knit together … The question of the status of Negroes in modern society is no longer a domestic problem of the United States or a parochial problem of Jamaica or a colonial problem of Africa … Let no American Negro think that his problems in this country can be finally solved as long as Negroes are enslaved in Africa, disfranchised in the West Indies, or lynched in Oklahoma.
Thus the debate within the Association is clearly documented between those who saw the NAACP’s work as inseparable from other struggles globally, and those who felt the Association needed to focus its limited resources domestically. Tony Martin, in his study of the Universal Negron Improvement Association (UNIA), is generally sceptical of NAACP interest in developing an international agenda. He asserts that the reluctance of some NAACP leaders went beyond practical concerns, arguing that the “NAACP preoccupation with Afro-America led to some imbibing of the general attitudes of nativism which characterized America at large in the post war years.”
Critics of Du Bois inside and out of the NAACP had been unhappy with Du Bois’ controversial editorial in the Crisis entitled “Close Ranks”, which urged blacks to support the US war effort. Particularly among West Indian intellectuals in New York, this seemed like a futile accommodation unlikely to result in real gains. Worse, these critics believed Du Bois was really pursuing personal gain by conciliating the power structure in order to gain a government position for himself and the evidence suggests they were right. Critics also charged that he had allowed a white man, NAACP supporter and philanthropist Joel Spingarn, to co-opt him by persuading him to appease the Federal government by urging black support for the war. Du Bois perhaps hoped his trip to Paris would distract from the controversy his position on the war had created at home.
While the first Pan-African Congress was held with the financial support of the NAACP in 1919, the Crisis included a note in its January 1921 issue making it clear the Association was not prepared to be a primary or permanent sponsor. The article announced that the Second Pan-African Congress would convene in the fall of 1921 in London and that “all Negro governments and all Negro organizations interested in the peoples of African descent will be invited to participate.” Rayford Logan later wrote that he believed the second congress to have been the most successful, involving 110 delegates from Africa, the Caribbean, Africans living in Europe, and from the United States of America. (There were thirty-five delegates from the USA and seven from the Caribbean.)
However, it was noted that although the NAACP would “underwrite the call for a second conference”, its support would end at that point. “Its official connection will thereupon cease and the Pan-African Congress will, it is hoped, become thereafter a permanent, self-supporting organization.” In a communication sent by the national office to branches, this decision was expanded on. “Because of the many and urgent demands for funds occasioned by our work here at home, the Board of Directors felt that the Pan African Congress … should not be financed from our general fund. The Board further decided that the Conference will hereafter be expected to finance itself.” Conferences were held sporadically for the next decade, and in fact, it turned out that NAACP members were well represented at those gatherings; officially, however, this support came from branches (especially in New York City) rather than the national office.
Of course the NAACP was not the only organization nor Du Bois the only leader interested in a Pan-African movement. By 1921, the Jamaican Marcus Garvey had established his own programme for racial uplift among people of African descent, and his own organization with the Universal Negro Improvement Association. While the resulting feud between the two men is well known, concerns about Garvey within the NAACP extended beyond the denunciations of Du Bois. In 1921, Executive Secretary James Weldon Johnson wrote Walter White in regard to his upcoming visit to London, and said he was glad to have heard reports of the success of the 1921 meeting. “The dogs are still barking at the Pan-African Congress,” he wrote, “and Garvey is the loudest yelping cur of the lot.”
The Crisis devoted two articles to the rise of Garvey in its December 1920 and January 1921 issues. Du Bois, who wrote both articles, offered admiration for Garvey’s skills as an organizer, but expressed grave concern about his business acumen. Du Bois’ assessment also reveals his own class bias and hints at challenges the NAACP faced in its support of racial and political reform in the Caribbean. He notes that Garvey has “with singular success capitalized and made vocal the great and long suffering grievances and spirit of protest among the West Indian peasantry”. After praising Garvey’s “dynamic force” he noted his defects of being “dictatorial, domineering, inordinately vain and very suspicious”. Of course this is a list of qualities some of Du Bois’ opponents might have lodged against him as well.
Du Bois further criticized Garvey for encouraging division within the black community, asking why he “sneered” at the “work of the powerful group of his race in the United States where he finds asylum and sympathy … ” Du Bois concluded that American leaders such as himself were not jealous of Garvey: “they are simply afraid of his failure.” Because Garvey had inspired hope among so many African Americans, Du Bois insisted that he was simply concerned about the demoralization that might follow if Garvey did not live up to his own hype.
Garvey, on the other hand, argued that the NAACP was hopelessly dependent on white patronage and white approval of its actions. He was contemptuous of the accommodationism of NAACP leaders and denounced the dominance of light-skinned and white leaders within the Association. At one point, he accused Du Bois of being prejudiced against blacks himself, and claimed he had “but the lightest of coloured people in his office, when one could hardly tell whether it was a white show or a coloured vaudeville … running at 5th Avenue [site of NAACP headquarters].” As Tony Martin has written, “Garvey also took credit for having embarrassed the NAACP … into hiring black James Weldon Johnson and William Pickens”, to diversify its majority white leadership.
The NAACP has long faced claims that it was elitist and did not sufficiently address itself to the concerns of lower and working-class blacks. (This is a charge some scholars have attempted to refute but one that is outside the scope of this essay.) Certainly, Du Bois’ characterization of Garvey’s supporters as “peasants” and his implication that Garvey appealed primarily to less well-educated blacks enhanced this perception by some. NAACP leaders’ use of condescending language in describing some West Indians seemed to affirm Garvey’s critique of NAACP elitism, and Garvey was not the only Caribbean native to point this out.
Garvey’s influence continued to worry NAACP supporters both within and outside the USA. In 1922, Mr Joseph Miller wrote to NAACP Branch Secretary, Robert Bagnall regarding NAACP organizational efforts in Bermuda (thus not in the Caribbean but representative of these concerns). In the letter, Miller said that upon his arrival on the island, he found that “the Garvey movement had torn things asunder”, and noted that white employers were firing black employees whom they believed to be associated with Garvey’s movement. He was cautiously optimistic about the prospects for organizing a branch but said he had to make sure people knew he was not a “Garvey man”.
While debates over organizational ideology and inter-organizational competition roiled black intellectual circles, especially in Harlem, the groundwork to establish the NAACP as a national, perhaps even international, organization continued. The Association began systematic efforts to establish a branch network beginning by the mid-1910s and found some limited success in doing so even in the American South by the late 1910s. Not surprisingly, word of the organization’s efforts spread even outside of the United States’ borders, including into the Caribbean.
Haiti presents the first direct example of NAACP work in the Caribbean. It was one of the first campaigns initiated by the NAACP outside the USA and coincided with Du Bois’ work on the Pan-African Congresses. In a broader sense, as Brenda Plummer notes, “The reaction of black Americans to the Haitian occupation is significant because it reflects the great change during this era in blacks’ self-assessment, and in their view of kindred peoples of African descent in other parts of the world.” The NAACP’s investigation of the abuses that occurred during the US occupation and the public attention it brought to the situation mark the first campaign initiated by the Association to focus on a region outside of the USA. Although the NAACP claimed (with some justification) that its efforts had an important impact, its involvement also showed some of the limitations that would impede its pursuit of an international agenda.
In 1915, the United States of America seized control of Haiti on the pretext of protecting American lives and property. Marines were deployed to the island to secure US control but they were quickly met with armed opposition from Haitian rebels (termed “bandits” in the American media). James Weldon Johnson, who became the first African American to head the NAACP in 1920, was sent to Haiti in February 1920 to investigate reports of abusive and racist behaviour by US Marines. Johnson was well qualified to undertake this investigation, having served as US Consul in Venezuela and in Nicaragua. As one scholar has noted, “While Johnson himself served as an agent of American imperialism, his attitudes toward U.S. intervention were complicated and often contradictory.” In fact, Johnson had initially expressed some reluctance to condemn the US intervention, noting corruption within the Haitian government. This put him at odds with Du Bois, who wrote in the Crisis in 1915 that the USA out to “help Haiti rid herself of thieves and not try to fasten American thieves on her.” By 1920, Johnson had come to agree with Du Bois that the behaviour of the USA in Haiti warranted scrutiny and, ultimately, condemnation.
Another NAACP founding member and officer Herbert Seligman wrote an article regarding the situation in Haiti for the Nation, documenting the behaviour of US forces and noting the extensive use of the term “Gook” to describe the Haitian people. He said the Haitians had been “met with every variety of contempt, insult and brutality”. The NAACP produced multiple press accounts and editorials criticizing US actions in addition to dispatching Johnson for a closer, first-hand investigation. While other organizations, such as the UNIA, and other African American news organizations criticized the US occupation, the NAACP led the most comprehensive investigation and lobbying effort.
While in Haiti, Johnson met a number of Haitian leaders and collected information, later to become part of a damning report of US intervention that attracted attention from President Warren Harding, members of Congress and others. He also spent time urging Haitians to form an organization to demand political equality. Johnson wrote in his autobiography that he provided several leaders with an “explanation of the central idea of the working methods of the NAACP, and urged upon them a similar organization be established in Haiti”. But in another example of the elitist language for which the NAACP was criticized, Johnson observed after travelling outside of the cities, “The Haitian peasants were kind-hearted, hospitable and polite. They were naturally ignorant of a great many things… ” Such characterizations were not unusual in field reports from the American South either, and fuelled the charges lobbed by critics, especially Marcus Garvey, that the NAACP was an elitist organization.
Johnson had extensive contact with Haitian intellectuals as well, including Jean Price-Mars, himself a major contributor to the philosophy of black pride and Pan-Africanism for a Francophone audience. Johnson wrote Price-Mars in a 1920 letter assuring him that the NAACP was seeking a Congressional investigation. He also recommended more advocacy by Haitians themselves, including establishing an NAACP branch. When President Harding moved to withdraw the marines, Johnson said “Haiti freed” owed a great deal to the NAACP. President Harding seized on the NAACP report as a way to challenge the Democratic administration’s mishandling of the situation and this led to a Senate investigation in 1921 and 1922. Although marines remained in Haiti until 1934, the NAACP had brought to light, with the authority of a Senate investigation, some of the worst abuses of the occupation.
In the United States of America, the NAACP gave extensive publicity to its investigation in Haiti and to its lobbying efforts in Congress to try to restore Haitian self-rule. NAACP archival records show numerous press releases and clippings documenting the NAACP campaign. Although an NAACP branch does not appear to have ever been established in Haiti (there is no charter in the NAACP files on Haiti), in September 1927, Director of Branches, Robert Bagnall wrote branch secretaries informing them of a new group — the Haiti–Santo Domingo Independence Society — whose officers included Johnson, Moorfield Storey, Mary White Ovington, Arthur Spingarn, Seligman and other founding, mostly white NAACP leaders. Storey, Ovington, and Spingarn were all white New Yorkers active in Progressive circles who served as NAACP founders and early members of the NAACP Board of Directors. Seligman was a white journalist. In yet another example of the competition between the NAACP and UNIA, Marcus Garvey “scramble[d] to establish more branches of the UNIA in Haiti” during this period, an effort he saw as part of his own global organizing strategy. His long-range goals were more ambitious in their global sweep than the NAACP’s but in the short term, both groups faced similar organizational challenges at the local level.
The NAACP was interested in other parts of the Caribbean as well. After the USA acquired the Virgin Islands in 1917, the Association explored the possibility of establishing a branch there. St Croix resident Reverend Elisha Robinson received information in 1925 from the NAACP on how to organize branches but no response is available in the NAACP records. Robert Bagnall persisted with a couple of additional letters and finally Rev. Robinson wrote in September to say that he was trying to overcome some “barriers” in getting a branch established.
Earlier that summer, Johnson wrote NAACP Board President Moorfield Storey to say that the NAACP was interested in the status of Afro-Caribbeans living in the Virgin Islands but, he said, it was having trouble making the same impact there as in Haiti. Interestingly, Johnson speculated that this was because the Virgin Islands belonged to the United States of America, while Haiti was a foreign nation. He seemed to be implying that US occupation of Haiti, including its mistreatment of Haitians, was easier to agitate against than discriminatory policies in a territory held by the USA (policies which, after all, were not so different than in many parts of the United States of America itself). The NAACP archives do not include any confirmation that a branch was successfully established. Very often, individuals who heard of the work of the Association would write seeking more information about how to establish a branch but in many cases, both in the American South and in the Caribbean, such correspondence often tapered off into silence.
The NAACP did establish a branch in the Panama Canal Zone although records show the Association struggled to maintain it. In March 1919, a branch charter application was submitted with twenty-eight names, listed as an “Isthmusian” branch, and in July, a membership roster listed eleven names. James Weldon Johnson wrote to urge C. Alfred Harris to bring the branch membership up to the required fifty.35 The minimum membership of fifty for a chartered branch proved to be an ongoing source of tension between the national office and many of its branches, as local organizers frequently asserted this number was simply too large to sustain.
The NAACP faced competition once again from the UNIA and supporters of Garvey, which was not surprising given the fact that so many workers in the Panama Canal Zone were Jamaican and Barbadian. As one scholar has argued, “Since West Indians hailed from different islands, were dispersed throughout the Greater Caribbean, and moved regularly, the UNIA helped link the disparate elements of the diaspora.” The NAACP lacked the regional political knowledge and the organizational strength to offer a realistic alternative. In addition, as Garvey had argued, the Association also struggled to understand the issues facing the working class, especially in areas outside of the USA Garvey faced his own challenges as US officials refused to permit him to enter the Canal Zone in 1919, fearful that his presence would incite labour disturbances. Although the NAACP was not able to attract the same level of support, it did persist in efforts to maintain a branch there into the 1930s.
Bagnall indicated discouragement over NAACP organizing efforts in the region in a letter to G.R. Annisette of Trinidad from 1926. Annisette had written the New York office from Port of Spain to say that he had read of the work of the NAACP in the Crisis and wanted information about organizing a branch. Bagnall wrote back, “It is questioned, however, whether a branch of the Association in Trinidad would be found effective. We have several branches in Canada but conditions there as in your country are quite different from what they are in the States.” He added that while the Association would be primarily a national organization for the time being, “I am of the impression, however, that eventually” it would become more international.
A.L. Jordan of Bluefields, Nicaragua wrote Bagnall in 1927 inquiring as to whether NAACP branches could be formed outside of the United States of America. Bagnall wrote back with the extraordinary observation that “We have several foreign branches which usually have existed for awhile and then fallen into a state of innocuous desuetude.” Bagnall added that the “work of the Association is steadily becoming more largely international especially in the matter of the education of public opinion”. But he recommended that “interested people” in foreign nations consider working as “NAACP authorized committees”, rather than trying to maintain status as a chartered branch. This correspondence reveals a lack of clear policy on the part of the NAACP: it was not unwilling to support international branches but was discouraged by the difficulty in establishing and maintaining them (just as in the southern USA).
In Cuba, the NAACP made several efforts to establish a branch. Jose Garcia Ynerarity wrote Bagnall in 1930 noting,
it is very necessary to have branch [sic] of NAACP in Havana Cuba because that will be the beginning of the understanding of the American Colored people and the Latin colored people and that also will open the eyes of the Negro that there are others countries [sic] where Negroes have many opportunity for all kinds of business.
Mr Ynerarity was particularly interested in business and economic opportunities that might open as a result of these organizational efforts, and wrote multiple letters to Bagnall hoping to establish a Havana branch. However, no branch charter can be found in the Association files.
NAACP field organizer, William Pickens wrote Ynerarity to say that a Havana branch could be helpful with “American Negroes in Havana” but “would also be very useful to the colored people of Cuba by bringing them into helpful cooperation with the colored people of the United States”. Pickens also reported an NAACP resolution by the NAACP board “in the interest of freedom of the colored people of Cuba.” Bagnall suggested that if finding fifty people ready to pay the $1 membership fee proved too difficult, then an NAACP committee could be formed. He also urged Ynerarity to recruit outside of Havana as well. As in so many cases, within the USA and abroad, correspondence from the NAACP office eventually went unanswered.
The NAACP faced similar challenges in both the American South and the Caribbean during the early twentieth century; that is, maintaining a sufficient number of activist-minded individuals, willing to take on the risks of membership in a controversial (some would say radical) organization and who had sufficient income to pay the necessary dues of $1. This is not, perhaps, what Du Bois meant when he sought to articulate a vision of Pan-Africanism, but one could argue that Du Bois was never sufficiently concerned with what grassroot organization would entail at the local level. These challenges also document the ways in which organizations seeking racial equality faced organizational challenges that transcended national borders. Thus the argument for an international organization seemed stronger, given these commonalities, while the logistical challenges in building one became ever clearer for those working “on the ground”.
Another major aspect of this story is the impact of Caribbean migrants entering the United States of America during the early twentieth century. Their reasons for migrating were many, although most often economic, but what many shared in common was a sense of disappointment, if not outrage, at the binary of race in the USA, far less nuanced and flexible than that of many Caribbean societies. As the number of West Indian migrants increased into the United States of America, many emerged as important voices in the burgeoning and diverse communities of black people that consolidated during this time, from southern Florida to New York City to Los Angeles.
The influence of Marcus Garvey in the USA during this period is well documented, and Winston James and others have provided careful studies of other West Indian intellectuals. While James’ work focuses on socialists and others defined as “radicals”, West Indian influence was pervasive throughout New York. “By 1930, 65 percent of all black immigrants [in the United States of America] resided in New York City”, a group which numbered approximately 54,750. The vast majority of them were from the Caribbean. Langston Hughes, upon his arrival in Harlem, observed that African American migrants from the South lived alongside West Indian migrants and although these communities became less thoroughly integrated as time went on, they lived in close proximity during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly, many of the migrants sought out organizations dedicated to fighting racial discrimination, including the UNIA but also the NAACP (and occasionally both).
Within the United States of America, Caribbean migrants regularly became active NAACP members, at times proving to be more activistminded than others in the organization. Bahamian migrants established the first NAACP branch in Florida in 1915 in Key West (and Bahamians were credited with establishing the Key West UNIA chapter as well).44 During the 1910s and ’20s, the UNIA was once again competing there for the support of African Americans. NAACP members in the local branch wrote Bagnall to complain that local Garvey supporters called the NAACP “a white man’s organization”, had been effective in undermining the appeal of the Association, and worse, had at times won hard-earned membership dues over the appeals of the NAACP.
In Los Angeles in the 1920s, the NAACP and UNIA also competed for and, on rare occasions, shared members. One UNIA supporter stated that when the NAACP was first established, “it only had mulatto Negroes in it for a long time.” Emory Tolbert argues that the NAACP in Los Angeles during this period attracted elite blacks who had achieved some economic success despite the racist political and economic structures of the day. The UNIA, on the other hand, attracted those who had not been able to achieve economic stability and were sceptical of racial accommodation. Over time, Tolbert says, some NAACP leaders defected to the UNIA, often due to reversals in their economic status. While Tolbert does not identify the subjects of his study as being of Caribbean origin, his analysis is consistent with the critique offered by several West Indians, especially, but not only, Garvey, who opposed racial accommodation as a strategy for advancement. After 1924, the UNIA platform prohibited membership in both organizations, which required those seeking to join an activist organization to choose which one better suited their own philosophy.
Hubert Harrison, a political organizer, writer, and race theorist, was born in St Croix but moved to Harlem as a young man in 1900. He also rejected the NAACP approach for a number of reasons, perhaps most significant of them was his conviction that the NAACP reliance on moral suasion and publicity was unlikely to prove effective with white audiences and, most importantly, legislators. Harrison quipped that the NAACP stood for the “National Association for the Advancement of Color Proscription”, indicating his impatience with and scepticism of NAACP strategies. But Harrison was an astute observer of Harlem politics, even when he felt alienated from opportunities to emerge as a leader himself. He observed in 1927,
almost every important development in Negro Harlem — from the Negro Manhood Movement to political representation in public office … from collecting Negro books to speaking on the streets, from demanding Federal control over lynching to agitation for Negroes on the police force — every one of these has either been fathered by West Indians or can count them among its originators.
While he may not have numbered Johnson or Du Bois on this list, he could have, as both were first-generation removed from West Indian ancestry.
William Pickens, who served as a field organizer for the NAACP during this period, became frustrated by what he felt to be his mistreatment by the Association, resulting in inadequate pay and discrimination against him because of his dark skin. He flirted with the idea of essentially defecting to the UNIA, with Garvey’s encouragement, but eventually he agreed to remain with the NAACP after receiving a pay increase. Whether this was his ultimate goal all along is unclear, but the incident reveals the ongoing competition and tensions that occupied significant amounts of time and attention for both organizations.
Winston James has written that Caribbean migrants to the USA in the early twentieth century became involved in activist politics because of “the midnight darkness of the moment in which these migrants from the islands entered the country”. James says the contrast between “the United States and the Caribbean on the question of race must have been one of the sharpest and most disturbing for an islander in America”. Conversely, James describes the experience of African American visitors to the Caribbean as resulting in positive reports about relatively better race relations, although NAACP correspondence might raise some questions about this.
Much of the literature on the political attitudes of West Indian migrants to the United States of America, especially to New York City, has emphasized the degree to which these migrants embraced more radical political solutions to racial problems than those espoused by groups like the NAACP. Well-known figures such as Harrison and Garvey support this analysis. However, the political strategies of these Caribbean activists were not uniform and even their more “radical” proposals and analysis of American racial attitudes could be found within the NAACP as well.
Such an example is provided by James Weldon Johnson, whose mother was Bahamian and had spent part of her youth in New York before moving back to Nassau. Johnson wrote that his mother had a difficult transition when the family moved to Jacksonville, Florida. Although his father was born in the USA, he had lived in Nassau for a period of time and also struggled with adapting to the American South. Their disdain for the South made a deep impression on him; Johnson said about his mother that “racially she [was] a nonconformist and a rebel.” He credits his parents’ refusal to accept segregation as having been, in part, what led to his joining the NAACP.
Another of these migrants was Arturo Schomburg, later best known as an extraordinary collector of memorabilia documenting the culture of African and Afro-American peoples. Schomburg arrived in New York from Puerto Rico in 1891 and by the early twentieth century, aspired to join the intellectual black elite in the city. However, to his frustration, he found that better-established intellectual leaders such as Du Bois disdained his contributions, particularly because of Schomburg’s lack of facility in English. Schomburg later wrote, “To American Negroes interested in the cultural development of their race, a trip to Cuba would be an inspiration and a revelation that would astound them.” But he remained largely excluded from Du Bois’ circle, and Du Bois’ lack of engagement with West Indian intellectuals revealed limitations on his own vision of Pan-African unity.
The NAACP emerged by the late 1920s as the most important civil rights organization in the United States of America, yet it was beset by a multitude of programmatic differences within and without its membership. Some of its most vocal critics, especially in New York, were Caribbean migrants impatient with an accommodationist approach. Its membership in the South was at times fearful (and rightly so) of violent backlash against its very existence there, which served as an obvious and understandable impediment to actual organizational work. Despite these domestic challenges, a number of NAACP supporters in the Caribbean continued to feel that such an organization could be useful in the islands as well as in the USA. By 1930, the NAACP leadership had largely concluded that it would step back, at least for the present, from pursuing a more internationalist organizing effort. Thus Du Bois’ call for a Pan-African movement that sought to transcend national borders to bring people of African descent together still resonated through black communities both in the United States of America and the Caribbean.
Unfortunately, day-to-day organizational challenges, growing demands on the NAACP’s limited resources, disagreements over strategy, and the continuing pressure of racist and intransigent political structures made that vision a difficult one to achieve in practice.