The Black Star Line


SOCIAL STUDIES: Learn about the difference between primary and secondary sources using the case study of the first black owned and operated steamship company the Black Star Line.

This lesson was written in conjunction with North Central Texas College History Professor Brittany Hancock and her article, “Marcus Garvey’s The Black Star Line: Hopes, Dreams, and The S.S. Yarmouth,” which appeared in the Journal of Caribbean History 52, vol. 1.

Learning Objective: 

Differentiate between primary and secondary sources and learn how to analyze primary sources using Library of Congress tools. Use evidence constructed from various formats to answer questions and discuss in groups. Scroll to the bottom to find extension activities, additional resources, and Education Standards.

Time needed for implementation: 2 class periods

Beginning Task (one class period): 

Use this lesson from the Library of Congress and two or three primary sources from the Black Star Line to teach students the difference between primary and secondary sources.

Use these teacher guides from the Library of Congress to guide your questions as you analyze primary sources with your students:

Middle Task (one class period)

Have students read the article on the history of Marcus Garvey and the Black Star Line either in class or as homework and be prepared to work in groups to answer the discussion questions based on the article and primary sources. At the end of the article you will find discussion questions and extension activities. You can download a pdf of the article and questions here.

Marcus Garvey, 1924. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Black Star Line was a steamship company completely owned, operated, and financed by people of African descent. Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), a Jamaican national and master propagandist, was the leader of this venture. He was a black nationalist and a leader of the pan-Africanism movement, which sought to unify and connect people of African descent worldwide. As the head of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), he told members in 1921, that “If you want liberty you yourselves must strike the blow. If you must be free, you must become so through your own effort … Until you produce what the white man has produced you will not be his equal.” 

At the height of his popularity, people referred to him as the “Black Moses.”  This nickname took on new meaning after October 14, 1919, when George Tyler, a disgruntled investor in one of Garvey’s ventures, walked into the UNIA offices and shot Garvey with a .38 revolver, the bullet just grazing his temple. Tyler was apprehended, but the following day he leapt to his death from a third-floor jail cell in either a failed attempt at escape or a suicide. Against doctor’s orders, Garvey left the hospital, refusing to miss an opportunity to sell stock and promote his Black Star Line in Philadelphia. With the incident receiving world-wide publication in both the white and black presses, his popularity increased along with Black Star Line stock sales. 

Scrapbook entries, Lochhead Collection, SSHSA Archives.

Garvey saw the Black Star Line as the solution to the black community’s problems–a company completely owned, operated, and financed by black people would create pride, free up economic dependency on the white community, and create a strong economic base in the only independent nation in West Africa, Liberia. Similar to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, Marcus Garvey felt that economic development for black people would allow for social and political advancement. 

The S.S. Yarmouth, renamed Frederick Douglass, was the Black Star Line’s first ship. From the R. Loren Graham Collection, SSHSA Archives.

The Black Star Line also became popular because of its intention to provide non-discriminatory travel for people of African descent. At this time, many steamship companies did not allow black people to purchase first class tickets. The BSL empowered black people across the diaspora. Colonial governments in Africa, the Caribbean, and Central America felt threatened by this symbol of freedom and power. For example, colonial governments in the Caribbean banned The Negro World, the UNIA’s newspaper. These governments feared that the rise of the Black Star Line would cause blacks to recognize their oppression and fight for economic independence and political freedom.

Crew of the S.S. Yarmouth, c1920. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

The Black Star Line also offered employment opportunities to black seamen, who often had trouble finding steady work at this time. Many times, racial discrimination prevented sailors and shipyard workers from rising to leadership positions. With an exception of a few white officers, the Black Star Line employed an all-black crew. Stevedores, or dock workers who load and unload cargo from ships, saw the company as an opportunity to receive honest wages and a chance at fair treatment in the workplace. 

Stock in the company sold for $5 per share, but the BSL also allowed for customers to pay on installment, giving those who were less well off a chance to invest in the company. Many investors felt that the BSL was important because they could simultaneously invest their money into a business and help uplift and improve conditions for members of their race.

Despite Garvey’s popularity, he and the other BSL officer’s had no real experience in the shipping industry or in business. Although Garvey’s intentions were good, his mishandling of funds caused problems for the company. Marcus Garvey hired Joshua Cockburn, one of the only black men living in the United States legally qualified to captain a ship. While having a black man head the ship was good for promotion and sales, Cockburn’s personal greed caused many mishaps for the company. He purchased the S.S. Yarmouth, a small, 1,452 ton-ship built in 1887 and rebuilt in 1917. Cockburn took a $1,600 bribe from the ship’s owners, who then grossly inflated the cost of the ship. 

The Yarmouth failed to turn a profit on her three voyages. Her defective boilers could no longer be repaired. Unseaworthy, the ship sold at auction in November 1921 for $1,625.00. The BSL never finished paying for the ship. The Yarmouth’s operating losses totaled $136,011.62, excluding her exorbitant sale price. The Black Star Line also purchased the Shady Side and Kanawha – both suffered similar fates. 

Although the company suffered due to mismanagement, the Black Star Line’s receptions at the ports of call demonstrate the hope and pride in the company felt throughout the diaspora. When the Yarmouth arrived in Cuba on December 2, 1919, Cockburn noted, “People are just crazy about the organization..” The local stevedores purchased $250 worth of stock–believing in the promise of an all-black corporation and the chance to battle racist white shippers in the Caribbean who provided low wages and poor hours in the hope that the BSL would offer them fair rates. Thousands also sent money in from across the globe. One BSL daily transaction report dated January 7, 1920 showed $630.81 that came in from Cuba, West Africa, and the Panama Canal Zone. 

Kanawha was rechristened as the Antonio Maceo, a name honoring a Cuban general of African descent. Image from The Golden Century: Classic Motor Yachts 1830-1930 by Ross MacTaggart, SSHSA Maritime Research Library.
Black Star Line flier, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The New York Excursion Steamer Shady Side was another Black Star Line fiasco, Photo by Evers Burtner, from the R. Loren Graham Collection, SSHSA Archives.
SS Shady Side, from the William Miller Collection, SSHSA Archives.

Despite the BSL’s promise, the Federal Government targeted Garvey. The Bureau of Investigation (BOI), a precursor to the FBI, opened a file in 1918, and surveillance on him continued until 1923. A report dated July 10, 1919, called Garvey, “the most prominent negro radical agitator in New York.” Many did their best to discredit and stop Garvey’s endeavors, including the bureau’s  J. Edgar Hoover, the Justice Department’s Edwin P. Kilroe, black integrationists like W.E.B. Du Bois of the NAACP, Secretary of the NAACP James Weldon Johnson, and A. Philip Randolph, editor of the Messenger. The BOI planted spies at UNIA rallies and in the Black Star Line office. 

The bureau was focused on trying to deport foreign radicals and tried to revoke the second-class maiing permit of the UNIA’s newspaper, the Negro World, claiming that Garvey preached race hatred and promoted conflict in Africa. This occurred during the First Red Scare, a period during the early 20th-century history of the United States marked by a widespread fear of Bolshevism and anarchism. At its height in 1919–20, concerns over the effects of radical political agitation in American society and alleged spread of communism and anarchism in the American labor movement fueled a general sense of concern.

At the same time, the bureau desegregated and a new wave of black informants tried to find evidence of crimes in order to deport Garvey. One such informant, James Wormley Jones (Agent 800), worked his way up the ranks and even chaired a committee to audit the Black Star Line books. He suggested the bureau indict Garvey under the Mann Act, an interstate law in which traveling with a woman for illicit or immoral reasons is against the law. It is the same law that heavyweight champion Jack Johnson faced in 1912 for marrying a white woman. Jones’s replacement was a Jamaican man named Herbert S. Boulin (Agent P-136). Agent P-136 became a confidante of Garvey, but also never found evidence of crimes. Other agents posed as newspaper reporters or church representatives. Searching for disgruntled customers, the BOI came up empty-handed, finding investors mostly satisfied with the BSL and did not seek any action against the company or Garvey himself.

The Black Star Line brochure for the SS Phyllis Wheatley, a central exhibit in the Mail Fraud case of 1921. The ship did not exist – this is a doctored photograph of an ex-German ship, the SS Orion, put up for sale by the United States Shipping Board. The Black Star Line had proposed to buy her, but the transaction was never completed.

The Federal Government finally arrested Garvey on January 15, 1922 for sending a circular about a ship the company had not yet purchased. The only evidence put forth was the envelope that may or may not have contained the circular in question. Although the BSL was in negotiation for a ship and had deposited $22,500.00 for the SS Orion, the Federal Government still indicted him. Despite Garvey’s mishandling of funds, the bureau did not follow through with those specific charges and his co-defendants were acquitted–proving that the FBI had only one target, Garvey himself. He was convicted on charges of mail fraud in 1923. The Attorney General, John Sargent, received a petition with 70,000 signatures urging Garvey’s release. Sargent warned President Calvin Coolidge that African-Americans were regarding Garvey’s imprisonment not as a form of justice against a man who had swindled them but as “an act of oppression of the race in their efforts in the direction of race progress.” Eventually, Coolidge agreed to commute the sentence so that it would expire immediately, on November 18, 1927. Garvey was deported straight after his release.

Questions for Further Thought:

  1. Explain the historical context of the time and why the BOI feared Marcus Garvey. Do you think it was all about race?
  2. Why was the Black Star Line exciting for African Americans? Did people of African descent in the diaspora feel the same way? If so, why?  
  3. Explain some of the issues that plagued the company other than the FBI investigation. Why do you think these problems occurred?

Re-examine the primary sources:

After reading the article, have students look at the primary sources again and see how their analysis fits within the greater historical context. Were their assumptions right? What did they miss and why?


Extension Activities:

  1. Read the Additional Resources W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Black Star Line,” and Robert W. Bagnall, “The Madness of Marcus Garvey.” Discuss why these other important civil rights leaders were not impressed with Marcus Garvey. Explain the difference between Pan-Africanism and integration. 
  2. Learn about the Black Star Line in popular culture. Read the Additional Resource Singing a Song of Garveyism. Listen to Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. Some key lyrics were derived from a speech given by Garvey entitled “The Work That Has Been Done.” In 2004, Rolling Stone placed the song at #66 among “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. In 2010, the New Statesman listed it as one of the Top 20 Political Songs. In 1999, Mos Def (now Yassin Bey) and Talib Kweli formed a rap duo called Black Star–drawing their name from Garvey’s Black Star Line. Discuss why you think Garveyism had such a profound effect on people of African descent and why do you think it continues into modern pop culture?

Additional Resources:

The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers Project: A Research Project of the James S. Coleman African Studies Center, UCLA

FBI Records on Marcus Garvey

Milton H. Watson, “Black Star Line,” Steamboat Bill (Number 192, Winter 1989)

“Explanation of the Objects of the Universal Negro Improvement Association” is a studio recording made by African-American leader Marcus Garvey in New York in July 1921, and adapted from his longer speech “A Membership Appeal from Marcus Garvey to the Negro Citizens of New York”. It is one of two recordings of him speaking, the other being “Hon. Marcus Garvey on his return to the USA”, which is on the opposite side of the 78 rpm record as “Explanation of the Objects of the Universal Negro Improvement Association”.

Singing a Song of Garveyism

“The Collapse of the Only Thing in the Garvey Movement Which Was Original or Promising”: Du Bois on Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Black Star Line,” Crisis, September 1922, 210–214

“Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World”: The Principles of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, UNIA Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World, New York, August 13, 1920. Reprinted in Robert Hill, ed., The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Papers, vol. 2 (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1983), 571–580

Robert Bagnall, a minister and civil rights advocate who worked for the NAACP for many years, on “The Madness of Marcus Garvey”: Robert W. Bagnall, “The Madness of Marcus Garvey,” Messenger, March 1923, 638–648


Education Standards

Common Core Standards: (6-8)

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.2 – Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.7 – Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.9 – Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.10 – By the end of grade 8, read and comprehend history/social studies texts in the grades 6-8 text complexity band independently and proficiently.

Common Core Standards: (9-10)

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.1 – Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.2 – Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.4 – Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.6 – Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.9 – Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.10 – By the end of grade 10, read and comprehend history/social studies texts in the grades 9-10 text complexity band independently and proficiently.

Common Core Standards: (11-12)

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.1 – Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.2 – Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.3 – Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.7 – Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.