April 27th is the 139th Anniversary of the Birth of Hubert Harrison: "Father of Harlem Radicalism," Founder of the First Organization and First Newspaper of the Militant "New Negro Movement," and Radical Internationalist
by Jeffrey B. Perry
Hubert H. Harrison (April 27, 1883-December 17, 1927) was a brilliant writer, orator, educator, critic, and radical political activist. His views on race and class profoundly influenced a generation of "New Negro" militants including A. Philip Randolph and Marcus Garvey. Considered more race conscious than Randolph and more class conscious than Garvey, Harrison is a crucial link to two trends of the Black Liberation Movement – the labor and civil rights trend associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the race and nationalist movement associated with Malcolm X.
Harrison was born on Estate Concordia, St. Croix, Danish West Indies, on April 27, 1883. His mother was an immigrant worker from Barbados and his father, who had been born enslaved in St. Croix, was a plantation worker.
In St. Croix. Harrison received the equivalent of a ninth-grade education, learned customs rooted in African communal traditions, interacted with immigrant and native-born working people, and grew with an affinity for the poor and with the belief that he was equal to any other. He also learned of the Crucian people's rich history of direct-action mass struggles including the successful 1848 enslaved-led emancipation victory; the 1878 island-wide "Great Fireburn" rebellion (in which women such as "Queen Mary" Thomas played prominent roles); and the general strike of October 1879.
After the death of his mother, Harrison traveled to New York as a seventeen-year-old orphan in 1900. In his early years in New York, he attracted attention as a brilliant high school student. He authored over a dozen letters that were published in the New York Times, he was involved in important African American and Afro-Caribbean working-class intellectual circles, and he became a freethinker.
In the United States, Harrison made his mark by struggling against class and racial oppression. He helped to create a vibrant intellectual life among African Americans, and worked for the enlightened development of the lives of "the common people."
A self-described "radical internationalist," Harrison was well-versed in history and events in Africa, the Caribbean, 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 into coherent political radicalism. Harrison opposed capitalism and imperialism and maintained that white supremacy was central to capitalist rule in the United States.
He was active with a wide variety of movements and organizations and played signal roles in the development of what was, up to that time, the most significant class radical movement (socialism) and the largest race radical movement (the "New Negro"/Garvey movement) in U.S. history. Harrison served as the foremost Black organizer, agitator, and theoretician in the Socialist Party of New York. During its 1912 heyday, he spoke at Broad and Wall Streets in front of the New York Stock Exchange on socialism, and he was the only Black speaker at the historic Paterson silk workers strike of 1913.
In 1917 Harrison founded the Liberty League and "The Voice," the first organization and the first newspaper of the militant, race-conscious, World War I-era "New Negro" movement.
In January 1920 Harrison assumed the managing editor position at the "Negro World" (the paper of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association). He not only transformed the paper through his editing efforts; he also did so with his own editorials and articles. Throughout the period leading up to the August 1920 UNIA Convention he sought to develop race consciousness among the "Negro" masses and to point the way forward with a militant, "Negro"-led, direction in the struggle for liberty and equality. The themes he treated and subjects he covered -- the leadership question, international and domestic issues, education, poetry, and book and theatre reviews were wide-ranging. His voluminous writings in this short period were remarkable and offer an important look at the radical, race-conscious message that he offered.
In 1924 Harrison founded the International Colored Unity League (ICUL), which emphasized "Negro" solidarity and self-support, advocated "race first" politics, and sought to enfranchise "Negroes" in the South. The ICUL attempted "to do for the Negro the things which the Negro needs to have done without depending upon or waiting for the co-operative action of white people." It urged that "Negroes" develop "race consciousness" as a defensive measure, be aware of their racial oppression, and use that awareness to unite, organize, and respond as a group. Its economic program advocated cooperative farms, stores, and housing, and its social program included scholarships for youth, opposition to restrictive laws, and a "Negro" state or states in the U.S.
In 1927 Harrison edited the International Colored Unity League's "Embryo of the Voice of The Negro" and then "The Voice of the Negro" until shortly before his unexpected December 17 death at Bellevue Hospital in New York from an appendicitis-related condition.
His funeral was attended by thousands and preceded his burial in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, and gifts of his portrait were made available for placement on the main floor of the 135th Street Public Library and for the (ironic) establishment of The Hubert Harrison Memorial Church in Harlem named in his honor.
Hubert Harrison lived and died in poverty. In 2015, after eighty-seven years, a beautiful tombstone was placed on his shared and previously unmarked gravesite. His gravesite marker includes his image and words drawn from Andy Razaf, outstanding poet of "New Negro Movement" – speaker, editor, and sage . . . "What a change thy work hath wrought!"
That commemorative marker, as well as the notable increase in books, articles, videos, audios, and discussions on his life and work reflect a growing recognition of his importance and indicate that interest in this giant of Black history will continue to grow in the twenty-first century and that Hubert Harrison has much to offer people today.