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Jeffrey B. Perry Blog

"St. Croix Born, Harlem Activist Hubert Harrison Revealed" by Stephanie Hanlon in St. Croix Avis August 18, 2009

    ST. CROIX - From the words of Hubert Harrison's biographer Jeffrey B. Perry, "His journey from the depths of plantation poverty to political and intellectual achievements of great influence is a powerful testament to human potential."
    In order to truly understand St. Croix-born Hubert Harrison and the great influence he had on the African American community and the nation at large, Perry's book "Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918" must be read.
    The book details the first half of Harrison's life. The second edition, "Hubert Harrison: Race Consciousness and the Struggle for Democracy 1918-1927," will be released in 2012.
    According to Perry, and many other scholars, Harrison joins the ranks of other black pioneers such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., although he was comparatively unrecognized. That is until now.
    With the discovery and preservation of Harrison's writings, as well as the publication of his biography, Perry believes Harrison will now be given the equally-deserved recognition of those who came before and after him on the fight for free thought and equal rights.
    It was based upon those writings, which Perry was given access to by Harrison's relatives, that the true depth of Harrison's intellect was revealed.
  Harrison's struggle against racial and class oppression in the early 1900s took place within the working class communities of New York City, where he lectured and helped create a "vibrant intellectual life among African Americans."
    He encouraged class and race consciousness, self-reliance and self- respect as a means to challenge white supremacy. He promoted the development of modern, scientific, critical and independent thought as the avenue to liberation.
    According to Perry, Harrison played a key role in the largest class-radical and race-radical movements of the time.
    Harrison spoke or read six languages, he was a journalist, critic, book reviewer, activist and bibliophile, and much more. He lectured for the New York City Board of Education and he helped to found the 135th Street Public Library's "Negro Literature and History" collection, which is now known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black History.
    In addition to writing his own books, Harrison was the editor of several race and class conscious publications, and contributed regularly to other mainstream publications of the time. At age 20 he began writing letters to the editor in the "New York Times." His writings also appeared in the "New York Tribune," the "New York World," "Nation," "New Republic," "Modern Quarterly" and many other publications.
    Throughout his earlier educational pursuits, Harrison lectured at the lyceums, literary and political forums that were located in churches. It is believed that at both the St. Benedict's and St. Mark's churches lyceums, Harrison formulated his developing intellect and was exposed to organized groups of people willing to challenge "white" norms, as Perry puts it.
    Harrison remained in poverty, even after obtaining postal employment and marrying his wife Irene Louise Horton Harrison in 1909 and starting a family, which eventually grew to seven members. He lost his job with the Post Office after writing two letters that criticized Booker T. Washington, who urged black people to compromise and work with whites. He would eventually isolate himself further by criticizing many other influential black leaders.
    He then joined the Socialist Party. He continued to write about class and race, to teach and lecture and was at 35 years old given the title "The Father of the Harlem Radicalism."
    He founded the "New Negro Movement," while he presided over the "Liberty League of Negro Americans" and "The Voice." He was behind and participated in many other radical publications. In all, he promoted the use of the word “Negro” and its capitalization.
    Harrison was president of the Liberty Congress, which lobbied for federal anti-lynching legislation, and led the path that A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr. would take in their historic marches through Washington. During World War I, the Liberty Congress would call on America to first offer a true democracy at home before fighting for it abroad.
    He went on to found the International Colored Unity League and "The Voice of the Negro," which called on black people to develop race consciousness and to unite, organize and respond to racial oppression.
    Harrison died at 44 years old on December 17, 1927 due to an appendicitis-related illness, and according to Perry thousands turned out to his funeral. Although Harrison was not religious and often opposed the church, after his death a church was named in his honor and his portrait was placed in the 135th Street Public Library. But, due to his poverty, he was buried in an unmarked, shared plot in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
    Perry attributed the subsequent neglect of Harrison's memory to the fact that he was poor, black, foreign born, and radical; he opposed capitalism, white supremacy and the Christian church; and he supported socialism, race consciousness, racial equality, women's equality, free thought and birth control.
    The first chapter of Perry's book "Crucian Roots," is particularly relevant for Virgin Islanders to read, as it begins with the human inhabitation of the island of St. Croix in 300 to 400 BC. Perry goes on to outline a very detailed history of the human inhabitants on St. Croix and the colonization of the island by several European nations. Perry recounts the many revolts and struggles that the island's slaves and oppressed peoples had to overcome. He builds this history in order to build upon the framework of Harrison's thinking before emigrating to New York.
    Harrison was born in Estate Concordia on April 27, 1883. His mother, Cecilia Elizabeth Haines, was a laboring class immigrant originally from Barbados and his father is believed to be Adolphus Harrison, a Crucian and former slave, who was not married to Harrison's mother. Harrison and his mother were both servants at the Concordia sugar plantation.
    "Overall, Hubert Harrison's Crucian and Bajan family history was deeply rooted in slavery, contract labor, servitude, plantation work, and poverty," states Perry.
    After learning of Harrison's passion for enlightening and uplifting working class people and his childhood roots, it is no surprise to learn that local labor leader and icon David Hamilton Jackson was Harrison's school mate on St. Croix. And, almost simultaneously they fought for and led the working-class people of St. Croix and New York into a world of greater independence through knowledge and free thought.
    It is also believed that Jackson's father Wilford taught Harrison along with his son. Harrison references Wilford years later in one of his writings as "the most prominent teacher, white or black, in three [Danish West Indies] islands.
    At a time when segregation and lynchings were common place in the continental United States, Harrison, although poor, was able to enjoy educational pursuits and youthful exploration as a child on St. Croix. Harrison was given the opportunity to gain an understanding of his African roots and the rich Crucian history.
    "Overall, it was a period in which, despite obstacles, he had a loving family life and he was able to cultivate a love of learning, nurture his dreams, and grow with the belief that he was the equal of any other," states Perry.
    Perry looks at Harrison's early years on St. Croix as very significant to the molding of the independent free thinking radical activist that Harrison was to become when arriving in New York.
    Harrison emigrated to the U.S. in 1900, when he was 17 years old. His mother had died the year before in 1899.
    "He arrived in New York with the clothes on his back, his Crucian roots, and an extraordinarily fertile and inquiring mind," states Perry.
    However, what Harrison encountered in New York was very different from life on St. Croix.
  According to Perry, Harrison was part of a larger movement of people from St. Croix in search of work, which led to a 30 percent decrease in the island's population over the previous 65 years.
    Many educated West Indians migrated to the United States and were confronted with a new type of discrimination and class oppression, as well as an anti foreigner sentiment.
    "Yet, Harrison, typical of most West Indians and other immigrants, was unfamiliar with the organized racial oppression of the United States, and he, like many other Black West Indians, would soon defiantly challenge assumptions of Black racial inferiority," states Perry.
    But Harrison was able to channel his rebellious feelings into a powerful intellectual enlightenment that he spread throughout the African American community in New York and beyond.
    The first edition of Harrison's biography ends with Harrison being recognized as a major national protest figure and founder of the growing New Negro Movement.
    "The life story of this freethinking, black, Caribbean-born, race and class-conscious, working-class intellectual activist is a story that needs to be told," Perry states in the introduction of the book. "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."
    Perry's interest in class struggle, social change and anti-white supremacy led to his discovery of Harrison and his writings. It was when he was doing research for a doctoral dissertation for Columbia University that he stumbled upon 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," states Perry in the preface of the book. "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.
    Perry was assisted by several Virgin Islanders along the way, including G. James Flemming, June A.V. Lindqvist and George F. Tyson. Lindqvist, who was a librarian at the Enid M. Baa Library on St. Thomas was a relative of Harrison's wife. She put Perry in touch with Harrison's children Aida Harrison Richardson, a school teacher and principal, and William Harrison, a lawyer. Along with their mother Irene Louise Horton Harrison Perry was given permission to access Harrison's papers and books and eventually permission to have them placed in the Rare Book and Manuscripts Library at Columbia University.
    Copies of the first volume can be purchased on St. Croix at Undercover Books and the Freudian Slip, and on St. Thomas at the Dockside Bookshop and Treasure Attic Book Shop. For more information on Perry, or the book, go to www.jeffreybperry.net.
    "I think anyone who is interested in African American history, particularly of the Virgin Islands and their contribution, must read this book because they will be blown away, not only by the book itself but by Hubert Harrison," said George Tyson, director of the St. Croix African Roots Project.

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