Black Star Line

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Photo of Yarmouth, first ship in the Black Star Liner Fleet

The Black Star Line was a shipping line incorporated by Marcus Garvey organizer of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and members of the UNIA. The shipping line was supposed 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.[1] Black Star Line became a key part of his contribution to the Back-to-Africa movement. 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 African Americans in search of a way to get back to their homeland. It is not to be confused with the Black Star Line, the state shipping corporation of Ghana.


The Black Star Line was incorporated as a Delaware corporation on June 27, 1919.[2] Having a maximum capitalization of $500,000, BSL stocks 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 $10,000,000.[2]

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".[3][4]

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.[5] One, the SS Shadyside, sailed the "cruise to nowhere" on the Hudson River one summer and sank the next fall because of a leak.[5] Another was a steam yacht 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, and was known as the Kanawha. 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.[5]

Besides oversold, poorly conditioned ships, 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), who – according to historian Winston James – sabotaged it by throwing foreign matter into the fuel, damaging the engines.[6][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.[5] 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.[5]

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, and at the time was going to be bought by the BSL, but which they did not yet own.[7] The fact that the ship was not owned yet by the BSL warranted 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."[8] The Jury only convicted Garvey, not the other three officers, and he was sentenced to five years in prison. In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge deported Garvey back to Jamaica.[8]

The Black Star Line ceased sailing in February 1922. The company's losses were estimated to be between $630,000 and $1.25 million. It is regarded as a considerable accomplishment for African Americans of the time, despite mismanagement, engineers who overcharged, and the Bureau of Investigation's acts of infiltration and sabotage.

Black Star Line Building in Limón, Costa Rica

References in popular music[edit]

Reggae singer Fred Locks, an adherent of the Rastafari faith, 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:[9][10] Seven miles of Black Star Liners coming in the harbour / [...] 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.

Another reggae song "Black Star Liner" is by The Regulars (later renamed to Reggae Regular), Greensleeves GRD2 (1978), which appears to still be a popular song on YouTube. Also Black Slate on their album Amigo have a song called "Freedom time (Black Star Liner)" 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;[11] by the musical group Brand Nubian (on their 1993 album In God We Trust); and by Ranking Dread with "Black Starlina" on his Kunta Kinte Roots album. In addition, the title for the 1998 album Black Star, by the American emcees Mos Def and Talib Kweli, was a reference to The Black Star Line.

"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...

The 1977 reggae album by Culture, Two Sevens Clash, featured a song called "Black Starliner Must Come".

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.

Thomas Dolby's song "Urges" (from his 1982 album The Golden Age of Wireless) refers to "seven inches of a Black Star Liner".

In the song 'Carnal Mind' from Damian Marley's 2005 Welcome To Jamrock album, he references the Black Star Line, saying "Just read about the news in Revelations:9, and tell me how you feel about the Black Star Line"


The flag of Ghana adopted a black star as an homage to this line.[12]


  1. ^ Colin Grant, Negro With a Hat (2008), Vintage, 2009, p. 187.
  2. ^ a b "The Black Star Line was incorporated 96 years ago today". Keyamsha the awakening. Retrieved 28 June 2015. 
  3. ^ "Joshua Cockburn: First Captain of The Black Star Line", The Essential Writing of Thomas Quirk, 2013.
  4. ^ "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.
  5. ^ a b c d e Black Star Line, American Experience | Marcus Garvey | People & Events.
  6. ^ Transcript of "Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind", American Experience
  7. ^ Garvey, Marcus (1995), The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, Vol. IX: Africa for the Africans June 1921-December 1922, University of California Press, p. 238, ISBN 0520916824 
  8. ^ a b Mugleston, William. "Marcus Garvey". American National Biography Online. Retrieved 13 December 2013. 
  9. ^ Reggae Head
  10. ^ Interview with Fred Locks
  11. ^ Springer, Robert (2006). Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come from: Lyrics and History (1st ed.). Jackson, Mississippi: The University Press of Mississippi. p. 198. ISBN 1-57806-797-9. 
  12. ^ Flag of Ghana, GhanaWeb.

External links[edit]