Harrison, Hubert Henry
Harrison, Hubert Henry
April 27, 1883
December 17, 1927
Hubert Harrison, a self-educated working-class intellectual, writer, orator, editor, and political activist, played signal roles in what became the largest class-radical movement (socialism) and the largest race-radical movement (the "New Negro"/Garvey movement) in U.S. history. He profoundly influenced a generation of class and race activists including A. Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen, Cyril Briggs, Richard B. Moore, and Marcus Garvey and was described by Randolph as the father of Harlem radicalism. Considered by historian J. A. Rogers to be "perhaps the foremost Afro American intellect of his time" (Rogers, 1972, p. 432), Harrison also edited and reshaped Garvey's Negro World into a powerful international political and cultural force that fostered a mass interest in literature and the arts. In addition, he was the nation's first regular black book reviewer (1920–1922) and an important cofounder and developer (with Arthur Schomburg and others) of the Department of Negro Literature and History of the 135th Street Public Library (1925–1927), which subsequently grew into the internationally famous Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Harrison was born in Concordia, St. Croix, Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands) and immigrated to New York in 1900 as a seventeen-year-old orphan. He worked low-paying jobs, attended high school, and participated in black intellectual circles before becoming a postal worker in 1907. During his first decade in New York, the critical thinking Harrison became an agnostic and humanist, studied history, science, freethought, languages, and social and literary criticism, was attracted to the protest philosophy of W. E. B. Du Bois and socialism, and had letters on numerous historical, cultural, and literary subjects published in the New York Times. In 1909 he married Irene Louise Horton, and in 1911, after he wrote several letters critical of Booker T. Washington in the New York Sun, he was fired by the post office and hired by the Socialist Party.
From 1911 to 1914 Harrison served as the leading black orator, organizer, writer, campaigner, and theoretician in the Socialist Party. His oratory was famous from Wall St. to Madison Square to Harlem, where he developed the soapbox tradition later continued by Owen, Randolph, Garvey, Moore, and Malcolm X. In 1911 he served as an editor of The Masses, which subsequently grew into America's foremost left-literary publication. In his theoretical series on "The Negro and Socialism" (New York Call, 1911) and on "Socialism and the Negro" (International Socialist Review, 1912) he advocated that Socialists champion the cause of the Negro as a revolutionary doctrine, develop a special appeal to Negroes, and affirm the duty of Socialists to oppose race prejudice. He initiated the Colored Socialist Club, a pioneering effort at organizing African Americans, but soon concluded that Socialist Party leaders, like the leaders of organized labor, put the white "race first and class after." Harrison increasingly supported the more egalitarian, direct action-oriented Industrial Workers of the World and spoke at the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike. After Socialist leaders moved to restrict his speaking, he left the Socialist Party, became active in the free speech movement, and developed his own Radical Lecture Forum with talks on subjects as diverse as evolution, birth control, comparative religion, and the racial implications of the Great War. Then, prompted in part by his analysis of how the developing black theater revealed "the social mind of the Negro," he began to concentrate his work in Harlem.
In 1917 Harrison founded the The Voice and the Liberty League, the first newspaper and first organization of the militant "New Negro" movement. The Voice called for a "race first" approach, full equality and enforcement of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, federal anti-lynching legislation, labor organizing, support of socialist and anti-imperialist causes, and armed self-defense in the face of racist attacks. The Voice was soon followed by other New Negro publications including Randolph and Owens's Messenger (1917), Garvey's Negro World (1918), and Briggs's Crusader. The Liberty League's program was aimed at the "common people" and emphasized internationalism, political independence, and class and race consciousness. The league developed the core features (race radicalism, self-reliance, tricolor flag, outdoor and indoor lectures, a newspaper, and protests in terms of democracy) and the core leadership individuals Marcus Garvey used in his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Harrison later claimed that from the Liberty League, "Garvey appropriated every feature that was worthwhile in his movement."
After The Voice failed in November 1917, Harrison organized for the American Federation of Labor, rejoined and then left the Socialist Party, and then cochaired the 1918 Colored National Liberty Congress with William Monroe Trotter. The Liberty Congress was the major black protest effort during World War I, and it petitioned both houses of the U.S. Congress for federal anti-lynching legislation at a time when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) did not advocate such legislation and when Du Bois advocated forgetting "special grievances" and closing ranks behind the government's war effort. Following the failure of a resurrected Voice in 1919, Harrison became editor of the New Negro, "an organ of the international consciousness of the darker races."
In January 1920 Harrison became principal editor of the Negro World, the organ of Garvey's UNIA. He reshaped that paper with the "Poetry for the People," book review, and "West Indian News Notes" sections that he initiated and with the numerous reviews, editorials, and articles he wrote pertaining to Africa, peoples of African descent, and international affairs. Selections from his writings through the summer of 1920 appear in his two books, The Negro and the Nation (1917) and When Africa Awakes (1920). By the UNIA's August 1920 convention Harrison was highly critical of Garvey and, though he continued to write for the Negro World into 1922, he worked against Garvey while attempting to build a Liberty Party to run black candidates for political office.
Harrison became a U.S. citizen in 1922, and from 1922 to 1926 he was a featured lecturer for the New York City Board of Education's "Trends of the Times" and "Literary Lights of Yesterday and Today" series. He was also active in anticensorship and anti–Ku Klux Klan efforts, worked with the American Negro Labor Congress and the Urban League, wrote widely for the black press and many of the nation's leading periodicals, and promoted the efforts of a number of poets and artists including Claude McKay, Charles Gilpin, Eubie Blake, and Augusta Savage. In 1924 he founded the International Colored Unity League, which stressed the need for black people to develop "race-consciousness," called for broader-based unity of action and cooperative efforts, and advocated a separate state for African Americans. His 1927 effort to develop a new publication, The Voice of the Negro, lasted several months. Harrison died in New York City after an appendicitis attack, leaving his wife and five young children virtually penniless.
During the 1910s and 1920s when Harlem became an international center of radical black thought and literary influence, Hubert Harrison was the most class conscious of the race radicals and the most race conscious of the class radicals and an intellectual of seminal influence. The militant "New Negro" movement he founded marked a major shift from the white-patron-based leadership approach of Booker T. Washington and the "Talented Tenth" orientation of W. E. B. Du Bois, it prepared the ground for the Garvey movement, and it was qualitatively different from the more middle-class, more arts-based literary movement associated with the 1925 publication of Alain Locke's New Negro. Harrison's emphasis on education of "the common people" was much appreciated in his day, and thousands attended his Harlem funeral.
Harrison, Hubert Henry. When Africa Awakes: The "Inside Story" of the Stirrings and Strivings of the New Negro in the Western World. Baltimore: Black Classics Press, 1997.
James, Portia. "Hubert H. Harrison and the New Negro Movement," The Western Journal of Black Studies 13 (1989): 82–91.
James, Winston. Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century America. New York: Verso, 1998.
Perry, Jeffrey B., ed. A Hubert Harrison Reader. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.
Rogers, J. A. "Hubert Harrison: Intellectual Giant and Free-Lance Educator (1883–1927)." In J. A. Rogers. World's Great Men of Color, vol. 2, edited by John Henrik Clarke, pp. 432–443. New York: Collier, 1972.
jeffrey b. perry (1996)
Updated by author 2005