A number of Barbadians played important roles in the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and its conventions or were otherwise noteworthy in the international affairs of the movement.
Barbadian-born Clifford Bourne served as a UNIA banker, high chancellor and treasurer and head of the Guatemalan UNIA. In February 1920, Bourne established the first UNIA branch in the Central American country of Guatemala. He became the president of that branch and was elected UNIA commissioner for Guatemala and British Honduras (now Belize) by Garveyites in those countries. The UNIA branch was instrumental in launching a worker’s strike against the United Fruit Company which resulted in that company giving in to the demand of workers for higher wages.
Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford was the musical director of the UNIA. Ford, who was born on 23 April, 1877 to Edward Thomas and Elizabeth Augustine Ford, studied music theory with another Barbadian Dr, J. Edmeston Barnes of London and joined the musical corps of the British Royal Navy in 1899. He served in Europe during World War I and played with James Reese Europe and his military band while stationed in France.
Ford, a black Jew, orchestrated most of the pageantry for Garvey’s convention ceremonies and further contributed to the organisation by writing the song “Ethiopia”. This became the “Universal Ethiopian Anthem” and was required to be sung at every UNIA gathering.
Having adopted Judaism long before joining the Garvey Movement, he carried the title of Rabbi and was the head of the Beth B’nai congregation from which about 600 joined the UNIA. Not only was he responsible for the musical affairs of the organisation but he also co-wrote the handbook of rules and regulations for the African Legion and created guidelines for the Black Cross Nurses.
James Benjamin Yearwood was an assistant president general and secretary general of the UNIA. He was one of many Barbadians who was involved in the construction of the Panama Canal. After its completion he worked on a banana plantation in that country. While working on the plantation, a white man insulted him with a racial slur, which led to them having an exchange of words. Unknown to Yearwood, this man was the plantation owner. He was so impressed with Yearwood’s courage and literacy that he hired him to tutor his children. Yearwood’s courage and boldness led him to become a leader among the workers in Panama and he later formed a protective association for British Commonwealth Blacks in Central America which later became part of Garvey’s UNIA.
J.C. St. Claire Drakes was an international organiser for the UNIA. Prior to joining the UNIA Drakes was a noted civic leader in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked with civil rights leader William Monroe Trotter and accompanied him to Washington for the historic meeting between Trotter and President Woodrow Wilson which, unfortunately, ended in a shouting match. Drakes was initially unwilling to join the UNIA, however, a visit to his homeland Barbados in 1923 resulted in a change of mind. While in Barbados he became concerned about the plight of his countrymen and was impressed with their display of devotion to Garvey. From this visit he saw the connection between all black people and the relevance of Garvey’s internationalism. Drakes was made the president of the UNIA’s Liberty University, which he ran for three academic years.
Lionel Winston Greenidge was a member of the New York Division of the UNIA. He turned to Garveyism as a defence against racial slurs and as an outlet for his anger over the racial discrimination he encountered while living in New York. Greenidge later travelled to Brazil during the early 1920s to work as an electrical engineer.
Bajan Garveyites is reprinted with permission from: Connections: the Newsletter of the Barbados Genealogy Group, Vol. 3, No. 3 (September 2019).
Our guest contributor Nicholas Mayers is the Information Officer for the Barbados Genealogy Group and Editor of the group’s newsletter, Connections. He is an avid family researcher with a special interest in using online resources.