For a couple of weeks now, we have been on the journalistic beat, and we have one more beat this week with discussion of Robert T. Lincoln Poston, a prominent editor and reporter who, among other endeavors, was connected to Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).
One of the longest and most informed profiles of Poston appeared in Literary Garveyism—Garvey, Black Arts, and the Harlem Renaissance by Tony Martin. Poston was born February 25, 1891, in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and came of age in a household infused with journalism and literary prowess.
Ephraim, his father, was a teacher, poet, and graduate of Rogers University in Nashville. Among his publications are Manual on Parliamentary Proceedings (1905) and Pastoral Poems (1906). Poston’s mother, Mollie Cox, was from Oak Grove, Kentucky, and later produced six children with her husband—Fred Douglass, Ulysses Grant, Ephraim Jr., Roberta, Lillian, and Theodore Roosevelt Poston.
Poston’s formative years were imbued with teachings from his parents that more than prepared him for the schoolroom. He attended Nashville’s Walden University and Howard University. There was a brief stint in the military before he returned to Hopkinsville and established his first newspaper, the Hopkinsville Contender. It is not clear when or why he later began his journalist career with the founding of the Detroit Contender in Detroit.
Poston launched the Contender with his brother Ulysses and within “eight months, the new paper had surpassed all its local rivals in circulation,” according to Martin. When Garvey arrived in Detroit and delivered his power lecture, the Poston brothers were swept into his political and international orbit. “They joined the Detroit UNIA,” Martin wrote, and in 1921, Poston attended Garvey’s Second International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World in New York.
At the convention, Poston attracted Garvey’s attention. He was, as Martin described him, “a New Negro, young and fearless, well-educated and articulate, he was the kind of person that Garvey could not allow to slip by. Garvey nominated him for the post of second assistant secretary general of the UNIA. Poston was elected. Thereafter his rise in the association was rapid. He immediately became a regular contributor to, and editorial writer for the Negro World,” the UNIA organ. In 1922, he became secretary general of the UNIA and later that year, received the UNIA decoration of Knight Commander of the Order of the Nile.
A year later, Poston embarked on a trip to Liberia for meetings with high-level officials of the government. “This was to be his last service to the UNIA,” Martin said, “because he died tragically on the way back. The cause of death was pneumonia and it happened at sea on March 16, 1924. Just twenty-four hours [before reaching] New York.” This was a tremendous setback for the organization, and Garvey himself cited the significance of the loss and the incomparable contributions Poston had made.
In a front page eulogy in the Negro World, Garvey said, “We say farewell to Robert Lincoln Poston, but not goodbye, for he is with us still. We see him every minute; his picture cannot escape us. We see the man still serving us. We see his spirit moving. We know that Poston’s soul is so fixed that he is omnipresent in the cause of the UNIA…Let us pray for the repose of his soul, yea, pray that that soul will have immediate entry into heaven and there forever rest in peace.”
Garvey paid tribute to a man who defended him—Poston even challenged the views and opinions of W.E.B. Du Bois when Du Bois assailed Garvey. “To the credit of Dr. Du Bois, [he was] not responsible for his position,” Poston wrote in a passage quoted by Theodore Vincent in his book Black Power and the Garvey Movement. “As a literary man, as a lover and maker of books, he is great. I often look upon it as a tragedy and crime that this man should be trotted from the holy sanctum of books out into the wild rush of the mob, to assume any leadership. Dr. Du Bois is not rugged enough for the task. His very soul rebels against the thought.
“I firmly believe,” Poston continued, “he has accepted leadership because some few misguided people have thrust it upon him and will not take it off him…But this has been done, and the genial Doctor sometimes feels called upon to justify himself before the public which expects it of him, by attacking Marcus Garvey, when to do this is to rebel against his own conscience.”
Garvey elevated his loyal servant to the rank of a prince and had his body lie in state overnight at Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the UNIA. Afterward, his body was put on a train and taken back to Hopkinsville, escorted by a UNIA entourage.
As Martin noted, Poston’s death was just the first part of a tragic setback for his widow, the artist and sculptor Augusta Savage. She had retired to her home in Florida to await the birth of her child, who died several months after Poston’s death. Martin closed his discussion of Poston by citing one of his poems that was published in the Negro World. It was entitled “When You Meet a Member of the Ku Klux Klan,” and the closing lines said, “Head him off before he gets ten paces from your door/Take a bat of sturdy oak and knock down once more/This time you may leave him where he wallows in the sand/A spent and humble member of the Ku Klux Klan.”