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William LeVan Sherrill was a human rights activist whose black nationalist philosophy, leadership skills, and speaking abilities helped catapult him into the executive ranks of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the largest grassroots organization ever assembled by people of African descent. Sherrill was also a staunch advocate of Pan Africanist thought into the second half of the twentieth century, helping to lay a foundation for the African-American social struggle.
Sherrill was born on May 9, 1894, in either Forrest City (St. Francis County) or Altheimer (Jefferson County)—sources conflict on the matter. His father was William Sherrill Sr., a Methodist minister, but the name of his mother is unknown. The predominately black St. Francis County and Jefferson County, which both had visible black nationalist and Back-to-Africa movements in the late 1800s and early 1900s, offered an environment that likely influenced Sherrill’s intellectual and philosophical development.
Sherrill attended Philander Smith College, where he met his future wife, Alice. After marrying, the couple moved to her hometown of Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) and had a son, William III. In 1919, the family moved to Chicago, Illinois, so that Sherrill could pursue graduate studies at Northwestern University. However, when a wave of racial violence following World War I hit Chicago, the family left for Baltimore, Maryland, in 1921, where he went to work for an African-American bank.
One day in Baltimore, Sherrill saw a large crowd gathered at a theater listening to a speech being delivered by UNIA leader Marcus Garvey. Sherrill later said of this day, “I squeezed in, until I could get a good look at him: then suddenly he turned in my direction and in a voice like thunder from Heaven he said, ‘Men and women, what are you here for? To live unto yourself, until your body manures the earth or to live God’s purpose to the fullest?’…I stood here like one in a trance, every sentence ringing in my ears, and finding an echo in my heart.” Sherrill joined the local UNIA chapter and became an ardent Garvey supporter.
By 1922, Sherrill had become a force in the UNIA and was the organization’s national vice president. He later moved to New York, where he could be a more integral part of the organization’s activities. In that same year, UNIA founder and president Garvey was arrested for mail fraud and was ultimately sentenced to five years in prison. Sherrill subsequently served as interim president of the organization and represented it at official functions in the United States and internationally.
In 1925, a rift began to develop as the organization experienced financial woes, and Sherrill, along with the Harlem faction, decided to sell off certain UNIA properties to help settle debts. Many in other parts of the national body took offense at this, including Garvey. From this point forward, Garvey and Sherrill’s relationship was fractured.
By 1936, Sherrill and his family relocated to Detroit, Michigan, where he continued to espouse Pan Africanist and black nationalist philosophy while working as the associate editor of the Michigan Chronicle. After Garvey’s death in 1940, Sherrill formed a reconstituted version of the UNIA and became president. He lectured throughout the country and maintained correspondence with Garvey’s former wife, Amy Jacques Garvey. In 1956, he traveled to Kingston, Jamaica, to dedicate a memorial statue to honor Marcus Garvey. Sherrill also attended Ghana’s independence celebration in 1957 and met with legendary leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah.
Sherrill died on March 7, 1959. In addition to citing Sherrill’s important foundational work with the UNIA, scholars also credit him with providing an important linkage between the Garvey era and the burgeoning African freedom movements of the 1950s and black nationalist thought of the 1960s.
For additional information:Hill, Robert A., ed. The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers. 10 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983–2006.
Jolly, Kenneth. “By Our Own Strength”: William Sherrill, the UNIA, and the Fight for African American Self-Determination in Detroit. New York: Peter Lang, 2012.
Jimmy Cunningham Nashville, Tennessee
Last Updated 9/29/2014
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