Hubert Henry Harrison (April 27, 1883 – December 17, 1927) was a West Indian-American writer, orator, educator, critic, and radical political activist based in Harlem, New York. He was described by activist A. Philip Randolph as
…the father of Harlem radicalism…
and by the historian Joel Augustus Rogers as “the foremost Afro-American intellect of his time.”
An immigrant from St. Croix at age 17, Harrison played significant roles in the largest radical class and race movements in the United States. In 1912-1914 he was the leading Black organizer in the Socialist Party of America. In 1917 he founded the Liberty League and The Voice, the first organization and the first newspaper of the race-conscious “New Negro” movement. From his Liberty League and Voice came the core leadership of individuals and race-conscious program of the Garvey (Marcus Garvey) movement.
Harrison was a seminal and influential thinker who encouraged the development of class consciousness among working people, positive race consciousness among Black people, secular humanism, social progressivism, and freethought. He was also a self-described “radical internationalist” and contributed significantly to the Caribbean radical tradition. Harrison profoundly influenced a generation of “New Negro” militants, including A. Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen, Marcus Garvey, Richard Benjamin Moore, W. A. Domingo, Williana Burroughs, and Cyril Briggs.
Hubert was born to Cecilia Elizabeth Haines, a working-class woman, on Estate Concordia, St. Croix, Danish West Indies. Harrison’s biological father, Adolphus Harrison, was born enslaved. One account from the 1920s suggested that Harrison’s father owned a substantial estate. Harrison’s biographer, however, found no such landholding and writes that “there is no indication that Adolphus, a laborer his entire life, ever owned, or even rented, land. As a youth, Harrison knew poverty but also learned of African customs and the Crucian people’s rich history of direct action mass struggles. Among his schoolmates was his life-long friend, the future Crucian labor leader and social activist, D. Hamilton Jackson.
In later life Harrison worked with many Virgin Islands-born activists, including James C. Canegata, Anselmo Jackson, Rothschild Francis, Elizabeth Hendrikson, Casper Holstein, and Frank Rudolph Crosswaith. He was especially active in Virgin Island causes after the March 1917 U.S. purchase of the Virgin Islands, and subsequent abuses under the U.S. naval occupation of the islands.
Harrison came to New York in 1900 as a seventeen-year old orphan and joined his older sister. He confronted a racial oppression unlike anything he previously knew, as only the United States had such a binary color line. In the Caribbean, social relations were more fluid. Harrison was especially “shocked” by the virulent white-supremacy typified by lynchings, which were reaching a peak in these years in the South. They were a horror that had not existed in St. Croix or other Caribbean islands. In addition, the fact that in most places blacks and people of color far outnumbered whites meant they had more social spaces in which to operate away from the oversight of whites.
In the beginning, Harrison worked low-paying service jobs while attending high school at night. For the rest of his life, Harrison continued to study as an autodidact. While still in high school, his intellectual gifts were recognized. He was described as a “genius” in The World, a New York daily newspaper. At age 20, he had an early letter published by the New York Times in 1903. He became an American citizen and lived in the United States the rest of his life.
In 1909 Harrison married Irene Louise Horton. They had four daughters and one son.
In his first decade in New York, Harrison started writing letters to the editor of the New York Times on topics such as lynching, Charles Darwin, and literary criticism. He also began lecturing on such subjects as the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Reconstruction. As part of his civic efforts, Harrison worked with St. Benedict’s Lyceum (along with bibliophile Arthur Schomburg from Puerto Rico, journalist John E. Bruce, and activist Samuel Duncan); St. Mark’s Lyceum (with bibliophile George Young, educator/activist John Dotha Jones, and actor/activist Charles Burroughs); the White Rose Home (along with educator/activist Frances Reynolds Keyser), and the Colored YMCA.
In this period, Harrison also became interested in the freethought movement, which encouraged use of scientific methods and thought free of religious dogma. He broke from Christianity and became an agnostic similar to Thomas Huxley. His new worldview placed humanity, not a god, at its center. In 1907 Harrison obtained work as a clerk with the United States Post Office.
Harrison was an early supporter of the protest philosophies of W. E. B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter. Particularly after the Brownsville Affair, he became an outspoken critic of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and of the Republican Party.
He also criticized the prominent Black leader Booker T. Washington, whose political philosophy Harrison considered subservient. In 1910 Harrison wrote two letters to the New York Sun that were critical of statements by Washington. Harrison lost his postal employment through what he said were efforts of Washington’s powerful “Tuskegee Machine”, in events that involved the prominent Black Republican Charles W. Anderson, Washington’s assistant Emmett Scott, and New York Postmaster Edward M. Morgan.
In 1911, after his postal firing, Harrison began full-time work with the Socialist Party of America and became America’s leading Black Socialist. He lectured widely against capitalism, campaigned for the party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs in 1912, and founded the Colored Socialist Club (the Socialist’s first effort at reaching African Americans). He developed two important and pioneering theoretical series on “The Negro and Socialism” for the socialist newspaper the New York Call and for the socialist monthly International Socialist Review. He maintained that it was the principal “duty” of the Socialists to “champion the cause of the African American and that the Socialists should undertake special efforts to reach African Americans as they had done with foreigners and women.” Perhaps most importantly, he emphasized that “Politically, the Negro is the touchstone of the modern democratic idea” and that true democracy and equality implies “a revolution… startling even to think of.”
Harrison moved to the left in the Socialist Party. He supported the socialistic, egalitarian, and militantly radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). He was a prominent speaker along with IWW leaders Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Carlo Tresca, and Patrick Quinlan at the historic 1913 Paterson Silk Strike of 1913. He also supported IWW advocacy of direct action and sabotage. He commended the interracial, IWW-influenced, Brotherhood of Timber Workers efforts in the Deep South.
Despite his efforts, Socialist Party practice and positions included segregated locals in the South and racist positions on Asian immigration. Harrison concluded that Socialist Party leaders, like organized labor, put the white “Race first and class after.”
In 1914-15, after withdrawing from the Socialist Party, Harrison began work with freethinkers, the freethought/anarchist-influenced Modern School Movement (started by the martyred Spanish anarchist/educator Francisco Ferrer), and his own Radical Forum. He also spoke widely on topics such as birth control, evolution, literature, and the racial aspects of World War I. His outdoor talks and free speech efforts were instrumental in developing a Harlem tradition of militant street corner oratory. He paved the way for those who followed, including A. Philip Randolph, Marcus Garvey, Richard B. Moore, and (later) Malcolm X.
In 1915-16, after a New York Age editorial by James Weldon Johnson praised his street lectures, Harrison decided to concentrate his work in Harlem’s Black community. He wrote reviews on the developing Black Theatre and the pioneering Lafayette Players of the Lafayette Theatre (Harlem). He emphasized how the “Negro Theater” helped express the psychology of the “Negro” and how it called attention to color consciousness within the African-American community.
In response to the “white first” attitude of the organized labor movement and the Socialists, Harrison provided a “race first” political perspective. He founded the “New Negro Movement,” as a race-conscious, internationalist, mass-based, radical movement for equality, justice, opportunity, and economic power. This “New Negro” movement laid the basis for the Garvey movement. It encouraged mass interest in literature and the arts, and paved the way for publication of Alain Locke’s well-known The New Negro eight years later. Harrison’s mass-based political movement was noticeably different from the more middle-class and apolitical movement associated with Locke.
In 1917, African Americans and others were asked to ‘Make the World Safe for Democracy” by fighting during World War I. In the United States, lynchings, racial segregation and discrimination, and white-supremacist ideology continued. Harrison founded the Liberty League and the Voice, as a radical alternative to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The Liberty League aimed at the Black masses beyond “The Talented Tenth”. Its program advocated internationalism, political independence, and class and race consciousness. It called for full equality, federal anti-lynching legislation, enforcement of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, labor organizing, support for socialist and anti-imperialist causes, armed self-defense, and mass-based political efforts.
In 1918 Harrison briefly served as an organizer for the American Federation of Labor (AFL). He chaired the Negro-American Liberty Congress (co-headed by William Monroe Trotter.) The latter was the major wartime protest effort of African Americans. The Liberty Congress pushed demands against discrimination and racial segregation in the United States. It submitted a petition to the U. S. Congress for federal anti-lynching legislation, which the NAACP did not demand at that time. Harrison commented on domestic and international aspects of the war, writing, “During the war the idea of democracy was widely advertised, especially in the English-speaking world, mainly as a convenient camouflage behind which competing imperialists masked their sordid aims… [however]. those who so loudly proclaimed and formulated the new democratic demands never had the slightest intention of extending the limits or the applications of ‘democracy.’”
The autonomous Liberty Congress effort was undermined by the U.S. Army’s anti-radical Military Intelligence Bureau (MIB) in a campaign that targeted NAACP leader Joel E. Spingarn, W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington’s former assistant, Emmett Scott. The Liberty Congress protest efforts in wartime can be seen as precursors to the A. Philip Randolph-led March on Washington Movement during World War II, and to the Randolph and Martin Luther King, Jr.-led March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom during the Vietnam War.
In 1919 Harrison edited the monthly New Negro magazine, which was “intended as an organ of the international consciousness of the darker races–especially of the Negro race.” Harrison’s concentration on international matters continued. Over the next several years, he wrote many powerful pieces critical of imperialism and supportive of internationalism. His writings and talks over his last decade revealed a deep understanding of developments in India, China, Africa, Asia, the Islamic world, and the Caribbean. Harrison repeatedly began his analysis of contemporary situations from an international perspective. Though a strong advocate of armed self-defense for African Americans, he also praised the mass-based non-violent efforts of Mohandas K. Gandhi.
In January 1920 Harrison became principal editor of the Negro World, the newspaper of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Over the next eight months, he developed it into the leading race-conscious, radical and literary publication of the day. By the August 1920 UNIA convention, Harrison had grown increasingly critical of Garvey. He did contribute to the UNIA’s 1920 “Declaration of the Negro Peoples of the World “.
Harrison criticized Garvey for exaggerations, financial schemes, and desire for empire. In contrast to Garvey, Harrison emphasized that African Americans’ principal struggle was in the United States, not in Africa. Though Harrison continued to write for the Negro World into 1922, he looked to develop political alternatives to Garvey.
In the 1920s, after breaking with Garvey, Harrison continued public speaking, writing, and organizing. He lectured on politics history, science, literature, social sciences, international affairs, and the arts for the New York City Board of Education, and was one of the first to use radio to discuss topics in which he had expertise. In early July 1923, he spoke on “The Negro and The Nation” over New York station WEAF. His book and theater reviews and other writings appeared in many of the leading periodicals of the day—including the New York Times, New York Tribune, Pittsburgh Courier, Chicago Defender, Amsterdam News, New York World, Nation, New Republic, Modern Quarterly, Boston Chronicle, and Opportunity magazine. He openly criticized the Ku Klux Klan and the racist attacks of the “Tulsa Race Riot” of 1921. He worked with various groups, including the Virgin Island Congressional Council, the Democratic Party, the Farmer-Labor Party, the single tax movement, the American Friends Service Committee, the Urban League, the American Negro Labor Congress, and the Workers (Communist) Party (the name at that time of the Communist Party USA).
In 1924 Harrison founded the International Colored Unity League (ICUL), which was his most broadly unitary effort. The ICUL urged Black people to develop “race consciousness” as a defensive measure—to be aware of their racial oppression and to use that awareness to unite, organize, and respond as a group. The ICUL program sought political rights, economic power, and social justice; urged self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and cooperative efforts; and called for the founding of “a Negro state” in the U.S. (not in Africa, as Garvey advocated). In 1927 Harrison edited the ICUL’s Voice of the Negro until shortly before his death that year.
He died of appendicitis-related illness in December 1927, at the age of 44.
Harrison’s appeal was both mass and individual. His race-conscious mass appeal utilized newspapers, popular lectures, and street-corner talks. This was in contrast to the approaches of Booker T. Washington, who relied on white patrons and a Black political machine, and W. E. B. Du Bois, who focused on the “Talented Tenth of the Negro Race.” Harrison’s appeal (later identified with that of Garvey) was aimed directly at the masses. His class- and race-conscious radicalism, though neglected at some periods, laid out the contours of much subsequent debate and discussion of African-American social activists. It is being increasingly studied.
For many years after his 1927 death, Harrison was much neglected. However, recent scholarship on Harrison’s life and the Columbia University Library’s acquisition of his papers show renewed interest. acquisition of the Hubert H. Harrison Papers, and publishing the “Hubert H. Harrison Papers, 1893-1927: Finding Aid”, Columbia University plans to make Harrison’s writings available on the internet. The forthcoming Columbia University Press two-volume Harrison biography also reflects the growing interest in Harrison’s life and thought.
Biographer Jeffrey B. Perry writes that, among the African-American leaders of his era, Harrison was “the most class conscious of the race radicals and the most race conscious of the class radicals.” Perry emphasized that Harrison was a key unifying figure between two major trends of African-American struggle—the labor/civil rights trend (identified with Randolph and Owen, and later with Martin Luther King, Jr.) and the race/nationalist trend (identified with Garvey, and later with Malcolm X).
He has been described as “the most distinguished, if not the most well-known, Caribbean radical in the United States in the early twentieth century” by the historian Winston James.
As an intellectual, Harrison was an unrivaled soapbox orator, a featured lecturer for the New York City Board of Education’s prestigious “Trend of the Times” series, a prolific and influential writer, and, reportedly, the first Black person to write regularly published book reviews in history. His efforts in these areas were lauded by both black and white writers, intellectuals, and activists such as Eugene O’Neill, James Weldon Johnson, Henry Miller, Hermie Huiswoud, William Pickens, Bertha Howe, Hodge Kirnon, and Oscar Benson. Harrison aided Black writers and artists, including Charles Gilpin, Andy Razaf, J. A. Rogers, Eubie Blake, Walter Everette Hawkins, Claude McKay, Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje, Lucian B. Watkins, and Augusta Savage. He was a pioneer Black participant in the freethought and birth control movements; a bibliophile and library popularizer. He created “Poetry for the People” columns in various publications, including the New Negro magazine (1919), Garvey’s Negro World (1920), and the International Colored Unity League’s The Voice of the Negro (1927).
A sampling of his varied work and poetry appears in the edited collection A Hubert Harrison Reader (2001). His collected writings are found in the Hubert H. Harrison Papers (which also contain a detailed Finding Aid) at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University. Other writings appear in his two books The Negro and the Nation (1917) and When Africa Awakes. A two-volume biography by Jeffrey B. Perry is being published by Columbia University Press. The first volume, The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918, was published in November 2008. (An excerpt is available online).