Hubert Harrison, “The Father Of Harlem Radicalism”

April 26, 2017

Hubert Henry Harrison, April 27, 1883 – December 17, 1927, was a West Indian-American writer, orator, educator, critic, and radical socialist 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.” John G. Jackson of American Atheists described him as “The Black Socrates”.

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 1912-14 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 movement.

Harrison was a seminal and influential thinker who encouraged the development of class consciousness among working people, positive race consciousness among Black people, agnostic atheism, 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 lifelong 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’s theory of Evolution 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 the scientific method, empiricism, reason and thinking devoid of theistic dogma. He underwent a deconversion from Christianity and became an agnostic atheist similar to Thomas Huxley, one of Harrison’s influences. His new worldview placed humanity, not a god, at its center (secular humanism).

Harrison, like Huxley, developed a lifelong, determined opposition to organized religion, remarking famously that any black man who believed Biblical material needed to have their head checked, and that he wouldn’t worship a “lily white god” and “Jim Crow Jesus”. He viewed the Christian Bible as a slave masters book, citing passages in it that allegedly justify slavery (slavery in the Bible). He also said that the only Blacks in Christianity were the devil and his demons; Jesus, God, and his angels were white. For these reasons, Harrison preferred remaining black and going to hell. He criticized the phrase “Take the world but give me Jesus” as a tool for black oppression, and claimed that religion was used to wage war on the poor. Harrison regularly offered rebuttals to the bible and god’s existence in his commentary on faith. Naturally, theists condemned his remarks, and riots often broke out at his lectures as a result of his remarks. One such incident involved a religious extremist attacking him with a crowbar, whom Harrison disarmed and chased out. He was arrested by a policeman (who let the attacker escape) for assault, but later acquitted by a judge, who said Harrison had acted in self-defense and that the cop had arrested the wrong person. Harrison had been arguing (at the meeting) for birth control, and castigating churches for superstition, ignorance, and poverty. Harrison was also a firm advocate for separation of church and state as well as taxation of churches.[7] He once wrote: ” Show me a population that is deeply religious, and i will show you a servile population, content with whips and chains, contumely and the gibbet, content to eat the bread of sorrow and drink from the waters of affliction”.

On the subject of human evolution, Harrison said whites were more similar to apes than black people, having straight hair and fair skin like them. He also called for evolution to be taught in schools.

In 1907 Harrison obtained a job at 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, nonbelief, 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 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. 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. Harrison did however contribute to the UNIA’s 1920 “Declaration of the Negro Peoples of the World”. 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.

In his last lecture, Harrison told his listeners that he had appendicitis and would be getting surgery. Afterwards, he said he would be giving another lecture. Unfortunately, he died on the operating table, 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.

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