icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Jeffrey B. Perry Blog

On Writing Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 (Columbia University Press, 2008)

             During the 1960s, like millions of other people, I was deeply affected by the movements for social change in the United States inspired by the civil rights struggle. As a student (at both Princeton and Harvard) in that period, I was afforded opportunity to study, to research, and to interact with scholars. My ancestral roots, as far back as identifiable, are entirely among working people. These factors, and many related experiences, have led me toward a life in which I have tried to mix worker- and community-based organizing (I worked in the trade union movement for over thirty years) with historical research and writing. My major preoccupation has been with the successes and failures of efforts at social change in the United States. In that context, I have focused on the role of white supremacy in undermining efforts at social change and on the importance of struggle against white supremacy to social change.

I was influenced toward serious study of matters of race and class in America through personal experiences and through the insightful and seminal work of an independent scholar and close personal friend, the late Theodore William Allen (author of the two-volume work The Invention of the White Race). Allen’s writings on the role of white supremacy in U.S. history and on the centrality of the struggle against white supremacy to efforts at social change have attracted increased, and well deserved, attention. Familiarity with Allen’s life and work disposed me to be receptive to the life and work of Harrison, another independent, anti-white-supremacist, working-class intellectual.


It was in this context, in the early 1980s, while working on a proposed Columbia University doctoral dissertation (under Professor Nathan I. Huggins and Hollis R. Lynch) on approaches to the struggle against white supremacy, that I first encountered the work of Hubert Harrison. When I first read microfilm copies of Harrison’s two published books I was arrested by the clarity of his writing and the perceptiveness of his analysis. I knew that I had encountered a writer of great importance, and, within a short while, I decided to change my dissertation topic to a biography of Harrison. I searched for what I could find on him and was several hundred pages into his biography when, through the help of two Virgin Islanders—G. James Fleming, professor emeritus of Morgan State University in Baltimore, and June A. V. Lindqvist, librarian at the Enid M. Baa Library and Archives in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas (and a relative of Harrison’s wife)—I was put in contact with Harrison’s daughter, Aida Harrison Richardson, and son, William Harrison.

I met Aida and William for the first time in 1983. Aida was a former school teacher and principal, William was a former attorney, and both were very bright, socially aware, race-conscious individuals who knew the value of their father’s work. They, along with their mother, the late Irene Louise Horton Harrison, had preserved the remains of Hubert Harrison’s once vast collection of papers and books in a series of Harlem apartments. After several meetings and discussions of their father’s work, they very generously (before William’s death in 1984) granted me access to some of their father’s materials, which were in a room in William’s Harlem apartment. At subsequent periods over the years I was provided access to additional materials (including Harrison’s diary), by Aida and then (after she passed in 2001) by her son Charles Richardson. I proceeded to preserve and inventory the Hubert H. Harrison Papers (many of which were in fragile condition) and, when the family requested, I worked with them to place the papers with the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University. I then worked with the Columbia staff to develop a finding aid.

From very early in this process I realized that Harrison was a major figure whose life and work merited a two-volume biography. I continued to work on Harrison and over the years I have published a number of articles and edited one book (A Hubert Harrison Reader, Wesleyan University Press, 2001) on him prior to the publication of Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 (Columbia University Press, 2008).

 Read More 
Post a comment

Who Was Hubert Harrison?

             Hubert Harrison (1883-1927) is one of the truly important figures of early twentieth-century America. A brilliant writer, orator, educator, critic, and political activist, he was described by the historian Joel A. Rogers, in World’s Great Men of Color as “the foremost Afro-American intellect of his time” and “one of America’s greatest minds.” Rogers adds that “No one worked more seriously and indefatigably to enlighten” others and “none of the Afro-American leaders of his time [the era of Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey] had a saner and more effective program.” As Harlem grew into the “international Negro Mecca” and the “center of radical Black thought,” A. Philip Randolph emphasized that Hubert Harrison was “the father of Harlem radicalism.”

The life story of this Black, Caribbean-born, race- and class-conscious, freethinking, working-class intellectual-activist is a story that needs to be told. It offers a missing vision and voice that fill major gaps in the historical record and enable us to significantly reshape our understanding and interpretation of the first three decades of the twentieth century. Most important, perhaps, his life story offers profound insights for thinking about race, class, religion, immigration, war, democracy, and social change in America.

Born in St. Croix, Danish West Indies, in 1883, Harrison arrived in New York as a seventeen-year-old orphan in 1900. He made his mark in the United States by struggling against class and racial oppression, by helping to create a remarkably rich and vibrant intellectual life among African Americans, and by working for the enlightened development of the lives of “the common people.” He consistently emphasized the need for working class people to develop class consciousness; for “Negroes” to develop race consciousness, self-reliance, and self-respect; and for all those he reached to challenge white supremacy and develop modern, scientific, critical, and independent thought as a means toward liberation.

A self-described “radical internationalist,” Harrison was extremely well-versed in history and events in Africa, Asia, the Mideast, the Americas, and Europe. More than any other political leader of his era, he combined class consciousness and anti-white supremacist race consciousness in a coherent political radicalism. He opposed capitalism and maintained that white supremacy was central to capitalist rule in the United States. He emphasized that “politically, the Negro is the touchstone of the modern democratic idea”; that “as long as the Color Line exists, all the perfumed protestations of Democracy on the part of the white race” were “downright lying”; that “the cant of ‘Democracy’” was “intended as dust in the eyes of white voters”; and that true democracy and equality for “Negroes” implied “a revolution . . . startling even to think of.”

Working from this theoretical framework, he was active with a wide variety of movements and organizations and played unique, signal roles in the development of what were, up to that time, the largest class radical movement (socialism) and the largest race radical movement (the “New Negro”/Garvey movement) in U.S. history. His ideas on the centrality of the struggle against white supremacy anticipated the profound transformative power of the Civil Rights/Black Liberation struggles of the 1960s and his thoughts on “democracy in America” offer penetrating insights on the limitations and potential of America in the twenty-first century.

Harrison served as the foremost Black organizer, agitator, and theoretician in the Socialist Party of New York during its 1912 heyday; he founded the first organization (the Liberty League) and the first newspaper (The Voice) of the militant, World War I-era “New Negro” movement; and he served as the editor of the Negro World and principal radical influence on the Garvey movement during its radical high point in 1920.

His views on race and class profoundly influenced a generation of “New Negro” militants including the class radical A. Philip Randolph and the race radical Marcus Garvey. Considered more race conscious than Randolph and more class conscious than Garvey, Harrison is the key link in the ideological unity of the two great trends of the Black Liberation Movement—the labor and civil rights trend associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the race and nationalist trend associated with Malcolm X. (Randolph and Garvey were, respectively, the direct links to King marching on Washington, with Randolph at his side, and to Malcolm, whose parents were involved with the Garvey movement, speaking militantly and proudly on street corners in Harlem.)

Harrison was not only a political radical, however. Rogers described him as an “Intellectual Giant and Free-Lance Educator,” whose contributions were wide-ranging, innovative, and influential. He was an immensely skilled and popular orator and educator who spoke and/or read six languages; a prolific and highly praised journalist, critic, and book reviewer (reportedly the first regular Black book reviewer in history); a pioneer Black activist in the freethought and birth control movements; a bibliophile and library builder and popularizer who helped develop the 135th Street Public Library into an international center for research in Black culture, and a promoter and aid to Black writers and artists. In his later years he was the leading Black lecturer for the New York City Board of Education and one of its foremost orators. Though he was a trailblazing literary critic in Harlem during the period known as the Harlem Renaissance, he questioned the “Renaissance” concept on grounds of its willingness to take “standards of value ready-made from white society” and on its claim to being a significant new re-birth. (He maintained that “there had been an uninterrupted,” though ignored, “stream of literary and artistic products” flowing “from Negro writers from 1850” into the 1920s.)
 Read More 
Post a comment