William LeVan Sherrill, a human rights activist from Arkansas, is credited with leading and linking the Black nationalist movement of the 1920s, the 1950s and 1960s.
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The Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was an organization aimed at promoting the racial, economic, and educational uplift of members of the African diaspora. Though initially founded in Kingston, Jamaica, by Marcus Garvey in 1914, the UNIA struggled until Garvey moved to New York in 1916, making Harlem the organization’s new headquarters.
By 1918, the UNIA began to grow quickly as Garvey took advantage of the racial discontent of African American veterans who had anticipated being treated more kindly by a white American society after serving in World War I, but instead faced increased racial violence. During this time, Garvey changed his aim and message from Booker T. Washington’s message of self-help to his own message of Black nationalist pride and racial solidarity. He advocated racial pride, cultural awareness, black economic development, and emigration to the country of Liberia. His focus distinguished the UNIA from other civil rights organizations at the time, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) whose aim was to integrate blacks into the American mainstream.
As a result of this new stance, Garvey became very popular with African Americans living in urban ghettos and in rural Southern states like Arkansas, where the effects of racism and segregation were sometimes most deeply evident. Even though many believed that the UNIA chapters were mainly concentrated in the North, the UNIA newspaper the Negro World was popular throughout Arkansas as early as 1919. The organization’s popularity was so widespread that it is estimated to have had between 2-4 million members, making it the largest mass organization of African people in history.
In 1921, William LeVan Sherrill, born in Altheimer, Arkansas, saw Garvey give a speech in Baltimore, Maryland. Sherrill, who was from the predominantly black Jefferson County, which was active during the Back-to-Africa movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s, was so entranced by Garvey’s speech that he joined the UNIA and became one of Gravey’s most fervent supporters. Sherrill moved up the ranks of the UNIA quickly, becoming the national vice president in 1922.
Later that year, Garvey was convicted of mail fraud and sentenced to five years in prison, a charge which has long been disputed by scholars and researchers aware of Herbert Hoover’s penchant for targeting outspoken African American leaders. Sherrill became the UNIA’s interim president to help guide the organization in this turbulent time. During his trial many of the UNIA’s Arkansas divisions sent hundreds of dollars in donations to New York for Garvey’s legal defense. By 1924, when Garvey called for contributions for the colonization through the African Redemption Fund, he received fifteen-dollar donations from each UNIA divisions in Arkansas
In 1925, the UNIA began to struggle financially, so Sherrill decided to sell some of the UNIA’s property in Harlem to settle their debts. Garvey and the rest of the UNIA organization were displeased with this decision, and in 1926 Sherrill was voted out of office. By 1936, Sherrill and his family had relocated to Detroit, Michigan, where he served as associate editor for the Michigan Chronicle, never relenting in his Black nationalist ideals. Ironically, after Garvey’s death in 1940, Sherrill reformed the UNIA and again became its president. Using his platform, he continued advocating in speeches and writings for African nations to rise up against European colonialism and for African freedom movements worldwide to be linked to those of African Americans. In 1956, he traveled to Kingston, Jamaica, to unveil a memorial statue in honor of Marcus Garvey. Sherrill died on March 7, 1959. Ultimately, he is credited as a vital link between Black nationalism of the 1920s and its transformation in the 1950s and 1960s.
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard