Historic UNIA headquarters making comeback from near disaster
Michael J. Rochon
Garveyism — (n) The philosophical system founded by Marcus Garvey stating that people of African descent can only establish true freedom by relying on self, not on others.
In the 1920’s, at the height of it’s prominence, the Universal Negro Improvement Association was a substantial vehicle for uplifting the self esteem of the African American community. People rallied around the “One God, One Aim, One Destiny” slogan invoked by the charismatic Black visionary, Marcus Garvey. Times were hard, but times were good.
Fast-forward to the 1990’s, a time in which many African Americans have become prosperous. Many Black people, either directly or indirectly have adopted the UNIA’s philosophy of self-reliance. Times are good for Black people in general — but the organization that is partially responsible for them had fallen on hard times, but now is slowly making a comeback from a near fatal tragedy.
The UNIA (Division) of Philadelphia, the parent body headquarters for the entire national organization, is battling back from a 1991 fire that ripped through the four story building. And through sheer dedication and grassroots hard work, the legendary headquarters is being brought back to the high level of esteem of days old.
“We are in the process of putting [the building] back online”, said Johnny Gossett, a trustee of the Thomas W. Harvey (Division of the) UNIA, the oldest continuous Black association in America. “And we will soon bring it back to life.”
The task of restoring the 46-year-old UNIA headquarters, located at 1611 Cecil B. Moore Avenue in North Philadelphia, to its former condition has been steady.
In 1991, a mysterious fire broke out on the second and third floor of the wood and concrete building. With the fire raging out of control, and the Philadelphia Fire Department somewhat slow in it’s response, the structure was battered by blazes. When authorities arrived they found the UNIA Division 121 completely engulfed in flames.
Arrows A and B indicate intense burning at point higher than
- When the smoke finally settled, the structure was almost fully incinerated. The inside was gutted. The outside bore the marking of a once proud building that had succumb to a bombardment of smoke and flames .
“It was almost destroyed,” said Gossett.
“The elders left it to us, and we let it burn on our watch.”
Many people lament that the circumstances surrounding the fire were quite peculiar. Quite a few claim it was no accidental burning, but the latest UNIA chapter headquarters to be targeted for destruction by hate-groups. Chapters in Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland were all victims of suspected arson attempts in the months prior to the Philadelphia incident.
When asked if he thought there was foul play concerning the fire, Gossett offered a stern “no comment”, but intimated that the incident “was systematically done all across the country. But we are strong. We won’t give up.”
The UNIA was founded by Marcus Garvey in 1918. They have been a key ingredient in the upliftment of African Americans, providing support for those in need and sponsored movements in battling colonization in Africa.
Members of the organization are considered “Garveyites,” believing the only way that people of African descent are going to flourish is through their own merit. They will gladly accept any offerings, but will never beg for anything.
Never. No exceptions.
“It’s all about self-reliance,” declares Gossett. “In this country, no one can help us better than we can help ourself. If you do for self, then you never owe anybody.
“You see, one ever holds a marker over you.”
There are approximately 2,000 UNIA members nationwide, and they have made the pledge to “do all in their power to conserve the rights of their noble race and to respect the rights of all mankind, believing always in the brotherhood of man and the Fatherhood of God.”
Active membership is strictly limited to persons of African ancestry, but organization officials state that “all Black people are regarded as ordinary members and are entitled to the consideration of the organization.”
The Thomas W. Harvey Division of the UNIA of Philadelphia has many projects on its calendar, but the first and most important task at hand is reconstructing the fire-damaged building. From the charred floorboards, to the once non-existent rooftop, everything has been or is in the process of being repaired.
UNIA members and local volunteers alike have ben spending all of their spare time trying to restore the four-story structure. Working year round, they collected wooden boards and planks from concerned Black men and women. The fire-damaged pipes have been replaced with those from the defunct Ortlieb’s Beer factory.
- A meeting room on the first floor has been fully restored, and is open to the community for rallies and planning sessions.
“No matter your religious denomination, political affiliation,” declares Gossett, “we are working hard to have another meeting hall on-line to better service the community.”
Residents of the North Philadelphia neighborhood seem to realize and appreciate the contributions of the historic organization. The people know it’s time to give back to the place that has given so much.
“It’s a shame what happened over there,” said a 43-year-old local woman who refused to give her name. “What everybody ought to be doing is pitching in, helping bring that place back.
Renovations to the severely damaged structure have been steady since the flames were doused in 1991. But Gossett, knowing that it could take years to fully repair the headquarters, has a total understanding of where his organization is going, and where it has been.
“The struggle still goes on,” he explained. “It won’t be over no time soon, but we stay in it.
“We stay in it.”
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