Black Star Line

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The Oceanic Steam Navigation Company (Black Star Line)
IndustryShipping, transportation
Founded1919 (1919)
Area served

The Black Star Line (1919−1922)[1] was a shipping line incorporated by Marcus Garvey, the organizer of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and other members of the UNIA. The shipping line was created to facilitate the transportation of goods and eventually African Americans throughout the African global economy. It derived its name from the White Star Line, a line whose success Garvey felt he could duplicate.[2] The Black Star Line became a key part of Garvey's contribution to the Back-to-Africa movement, but it was mostly unsuccessful, partially due to infiltration by federal agents. It was one among many businesses which the UNIA originated, such as the Universal Printing House, Negro Factories Corporation, and the widely distributed and highly successful Negro World weekly newspaper.

The Black Star Line and its successor, the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company, operated between 1919 and 1922. It stands today as a major symbol for Garvey followers and Pan-Africanists. It is not to be confused with the Black Star Line, the state shipping corporation of Ghana.


BSL stocks

The Black Star Line was incorporated as a Delaware corporation on June 27, 1919.[3] Having a maximum capitalization of $500,000, BSL shares were sold at UNIA conventions at five dollars each.

The first directors of the Black Star Line were Marcus Garvey, Edgar M. Grey, Richard E. Warner, George Tobias, Jeremiah Certain, Henrietta Vinton Davis, and Janie Jenkins. The officers of the corporation were President Marcus Garvey, First Vice President — Jeremiah Certain, Second Vice President Henrietta Vinton Davis, Treasurer George Tobias, Secretary Richard E. Warner, Assistant Secretary Edgar M. Grey and Assistant Treasurer Janie Jenkins. Six months after incorporation the Board of Directors voted to increase the Black Star Line market capitalization to $10 million (equivalent to $156 million in 2021).[3]

The Black Star Line surprised all its critics when, only three months after being incorporated, the first of four ships, the SS Yarmouth was purchased with the intention of it being rechristened the SS Frederick Douglass. The Yarmouth was a coal boat during the First World War, and was in poor condition when purchased by the Black Star Line. Once reconditioned, the Yarmouth proceeded to sail for three years between the U.S. and the West Indies as the first Black Star Line ship with an all-black crew and a black captain. Later Joshua Cockburn, the captain of the Yarmouth, was accused of receiving a "kick back from the purchase price".[4][5]

USS Piqua (SP-130), during its service during World War I

The SS Yarmouth was not the only ship to be purchased in poor condition and to be completely oversold. Garvey spent another $200,000 for more ships (equivalent to $2.7 million in 2021).[6] One, the SS Shady Side, sailed the "cruise to nowhere" on the Hudson River one summer and sank the next fall because of a leak.[6] Another was the steam yacht Kanawha, once owned by Henry Huttleston Rogers. Booker T. Washington had been an honored guest aboard the ship when it was owned by his friend and confidant, Rogers. However, Rogers had died in 1909, and the once well-maintained yacht had also served in the first World War. After having been renamed the SS Antonio Maceo by the Black Star Line, it blew a boiler and killed a man.[6]

Besides oversold and poorly conditioned ships, the Black Star Line was beset by mismanagement and infiltration by agents of J. Edgar Hoover's Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner to the Federal Bureau of Investigation), including the first African-American agent hired by the bureau, James Wormley Jones, who became an intimate of Garvey, and other agents who − according to historian Winston James − sabotaged it by throwing foreign matter into the fuel, damaging the engines.[7][better source needed] On its first commission, the Yarmouth brought a shipment of whiskey from the U.S. to Cuba (before Prohibition) in record time, but because it did not have docking arrangements in Havana, it lost money sitting in the docks while the longshoremen had a strike.[6] A cargo-load of coconuts rotted in the hull of a ship on another voyage because Garvey insisted on having the ships make ceremonial stops at politically important ports.[6]

In 1919, J. Edgar Hoover and the BOI charged Marcus Garvey and three other officers with mail fraud. The prosecution stated that the brochure of the Black Star Line contained a picture of a ship that the BSL did not own. The ship pictured was the Orion, which in the brochure was renamed the Phyllis Wheatley. The BSL was attempting to purchase the vessel at the time, but did not own her yet.[8] The fact that the ship was not owned yet by the BSL constituted mail fraud. "In 1922, Garvey and three other Black Star Line officials were indicted by the U.S. government for using the mails fraudulently to solicit stock for the recently defunct steamship line." On the witness stand, Garvey admitted that $600,000 ($9,713,000 in 2022) had been "blown to the wind."[9] The jury convicted only Garvey, but not the other three officers, and he was sentenced to five years in prison. In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge deported Garvey back to Jamaica.

The Black Star Line ceased sailing in February 1922. The Shady Side was abandoned on mudflats at Fort Lee, New Jersey.[10] The company's losses were estimated to be between $630,000 and $1.25 million. ($20,236,000 in 2022)

Liberty Hall, a.k.a. Black Star Line Building in Limón, Costa Rica. The original building was erected in 1922,[11] and then used as UNIA and Black Star Line offices in Costa Rica.[12] It was damaged beyond repair by the Limon earthquake on April 22, 1991; and subsequently reconstructed based on the original plans. On April 29, 2016, a fire destroyed the building completely.[13] After the fire it was confirmed that the building will be rebuilt with aid from organizations and civilian donations.[14]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Reggae singer Fred Locks re-introduced the Black Star Line to a Jamaican audience with his 1976 hit "Black Star Liners" (which has been called one of "the most important songs in reggae music of the 1970s"), portraying Garvey as a Moses-like prophet:[15][16] "Seven miles of Black Star Liners coming in the harbor [...] I can hear the elders saying. These are the days for which we've been praying ... Marcus Garvey told us that the Black Star Liners are coming one day for us".[17]
  • The 1977 reggae album by Culture, Two Sevens Clash, featured a song called "Black Starliner Must Come".[18]
  • A 1978 reggae song named "Black Star Liner" by The Regulars (later renamed to Reggae Regular) appears to still be a popular song on YouTube.[19] Also Black Slate on their album Amigo recorded a song called "Freedom Time (Black Star Liner)",[20] with references to Marcus Garvey and "seven miles of Black Star Liner".
  • The Black Star Line was also commemorated by blues singers such as Hazel Meyers and Rosa Henderson;[21] by the musical group Brand Nubian (on their 1993 album In God We Trust);[22] and by Ranking Dread with "Black Starlina" on his Kunta Kinte Roots album.[23]
  • "Train to Zion" by Linval Thompson (writer) and U Brown featured the lines: "Train to Zion is coming / Don't want no one to miss it / It's the Black Star Liner / It's going to Zion..."[24]
  • Black Star Liner was the name of a British electronic group, who won a Mercury Music Prize nomination in 1999 for their album Bengali Batam Youth Foundation.[25]
  • "Marcus Senior" by Burning Spear on their Marcus' Children album, contained lyrics about the struggle Marcus Garvey endured.[26]
  • Spanish singer-songwriter Javier Ruibal sings about the North American slaves' dream of going back to their plundered and subdued Africa, in his song "Black Star Line". Ruibal sings along with Chico Cesar and the song was released on his 2018 album "Paraisos Mejores".[27]
  • Black Star was a rap group formed in 1997 by Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Their 1998 album Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, was a reference to Garvey and the Black Star Line.[28]


The flag of Ghana adopted a black star as an homage to their own shipping line, The Black Star Line, which was the national shipping corporation of Ghana.[29][30]



  1. ^ "American Experience | Marcus Garvey | People & Events". Retrieved 2020-02-29.
  2. ^ Grant 2009, p. 187
  3. ^ a b "The Black Star Line was incorporated 96 years ago today". Keyamsha the awakening. 27 June 2015. Retrieved 28 June 2015.
  4. ^ "Joshua Cockburn: First Captain of The Black Star Line | The Essential Writing of Thomas Quirk". 21 February 2013. Retrieved 2015-12-24.
  5. ^ "Captain Joshua Cockburn: The Black Star Line, The Whiskey Cruise and The Origin of Rum Row | The Essential Writing of Thomas Quirk". 5 August 2014. Retrieved 2015-12-24.
  6. ^ a b c d e "American Experience | Marcus Garvey | People & Events". 1919-06-23. Archived from the original on 2001-02-18. Retrieved 2015-12-24.
  7. ^ Transcript of "Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind", American Experience
  8. ^ Garvey 1995, p. 238
  9. ^ The Broad Ax 1922, p. 1
  10. ^ Murdock 1939
  11. ^ Murillo-Chaverri 1999, p. 197
  12. ^ "Black Star Line (Limón)". Retrieved 2016-02-11.
  13. ^ "Se quema famoso "Black Star Line" en Limón /". / Periodico Digital / Costa Rica Noticias 24/7 (in European Spanish). Retrieved 2016-04-30.
  14. ^ "Black Star Line se reconstruirá con donativos de los ciudadanos". La Nación, Grupo Nación (in Spanish). Retrieved 2017-12-05.
  15. ^ [1] Archived March 4, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ "Article : Fred Locks". Retrieved 2015-12-24.
  17. ^ "Fred Locks - Black Star Liners Lyrics". Jah Lyrics. Retrieved 2015-12-24.
  18. ^ "Culture - Two Sevens Clash (Vinyl, LP, Album)". 2014-07-10. Retrieved 2015-12-24.
  19. ^ "Reggae Regular - The Black Star Liner". YouTube. 2009-09-15. Archived from the original on 2021-12-22. Retrieved 2015-12-24.
  20. ^ "Black Slate - Amigo (Vinyl, LP, Album)". 2013-12-11. Retrieved 2015-12-24.
  21. ^ Springer 2006, p. 198
  22. ^ Kellman, Andy (1993-02-02). "In God We Trust - Brand Nubian | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 2015-12-24.
  23. ^ "Ranking Dread - Kunta Kinte Roots (Vinyl, LP)". Retrieved 2015-12-24.
  24. ^ Song Review by Jo-Ann Greene. "Train to Zion - U-Brown | Song Info". AllMusic. Retrieved 2015-12-24.
  25. ^ "Mercury Music Prize 2008 shortlist announced". 22 July 2008.
  26. ^ "Burning Spear - Social Living - 05 - Marcus Senior". YouTube. 2012-05-27. Archived from the original on 2021-12-22. Retrieved 2018-08-22.
  27. ^ "Javier Ruibal lanza "Paraísos mejores"". Retrieved 2018-11-21.
  28. ^ Kaufman, Jason (1998-08-26). "Black Star - Black Star,Talib Kweli,Mos Def | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 2015-12-24.
  29. ^ "Ghana Flag". Retrieved 2015-12-24.
  30. ^ "Ghana". Retrieved 2015-12-24.


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