Failed pan-Africanism

In ch. 26 of his book Amerikas Schicksalsstunde (1935) Ross discusses the so-called pan-Africanist—or back-to-Africa—plans, the aim of which were to make African Americans return to the continent they had been taken from. But as most people of African descent considered themselves American rather than African these plans largely failed, the popularity of some of their initiators notwithstanding.

A serious consideration among America’s founding fathers, the separation and relocation of African Americans was given organizational shape in the African Colonization Society (ACS) of 1816, enthusiastically backed by President James Monroe. Despite its longevity—its activities effectively spanned a century, although it was only officially dissolved in 1964—it led a largely tenuous existence, facing abolitionist opposition and tight finances. The ACS left a numerically unimpressive record: during its operative years it managed to attract c. 12,000 returnees.1 Most of these were shipped to the ACS-founded town of Monrovia and other settlements that later became the Republic of Liberia.2 The country’s independence, in 1847, added to ACS’s problems, as it severely limited its options for resettlement.

In the 20th century, one of the most popular and charismatic pan-Africanist leaders was Jamaica-born Marcus Garvey. After arriving in New York, in 1916, where he campaigned to win over West Indians to his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), he quickly hitched his cause to the ethnic nationalism spawned by World War I. It transformed his mission into a protest-cum-African settlement movement, the Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL). Allegedly, this organization drew one million members; certifiably exaggerated is Garvey’s estimate of “fifty million Negroes in the United States” that he mentions in the audio record of the referenced speech.

In this speech Garvey dismisses the notion of racial coexistence and pleads for uniting “Negroes” worldwide to “build up cities, nations, governments, industries of our own in Africa”.3 The speech partook of the racial notions ubiquitous at the time, identifying race, territory, and nationality  (with such slogans as “Ireland for the Irish” or “France for the Frenchmen”). And, of course, his dismissal of racial coexistence flew in the face of America’s reality, notwithstanding the many inequalities African Americans were suffering. The fact, finally, that only a minority of African Americans was prepared to turn its back on the US confirmed the high-flown bubble Garvey lived in.

At the time of this speech, when Garvey was at the height of his popularity, investigations were already underway that led to his prison sentence in 1923. After being released, he was deported back to Jamaica in 1927.

Nico de Klerk

Marcus Garvey. If you believe the Negro has a soul [audio record]; 1921,

Topic: Race
Case: American journeys

See also


1 Between the era of the American Revolution and the Civil War various white and black initiatives managed to return 20,000 African Americans to Africa or the Caribbean while the African American, largely enslaved population during that period increased by 3.5 million; see: David S. Reynolds. Our ruinous betrayal of Indians and black Americans. New York Review of Books: 2016 December 22; LXIII (20); 90 [review article].

2 For a brief overview of the organization’s activities, see also: Aristide R. Zolberg. A nation by design: immigration policy in the fashioning of America. New York – Cambridge, MA - London: Russell Sage Foundation – Harvard University Press; 2006; 120-124.

Ross, who mentions Garvey in passing, commented on the futility of these plans, referring not just to African Americans’ lack of enthusiasm to repatriate, but also to the refusal of such free black states as Liberia and Abyssinia to allow them in. Colin Ross. Afrikas Erbe und Amerikas Zukunft. In: Amerikas Schicksalsstunde. Die Vereinigten Staaten zwischen Demokratie und Diktatur. 12th edn. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1942 [1935]; 137-138. See Library.



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