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Jeffrey B. Perry Blog

Oscar Benson on Hubert Harrison One Week After His December 17, 1927 Death

      "Hubert Harrison: The Struggle for Equality, 1918-1927" in its "Epilogue" quotes from Oscar J. Benson's "Literary Genius of Hubert Harrison" from the December 24 New York News. Benson's piece, published a week after Harrison's December 17, 1927 death, read in part:


     There is a class of men in every generation whose knowledge is not hoarded: whose intellect is practical; and whose services are unlimited in the community in which they live, and naturally no one knows of their community without knowing of them.  To this class of preceptors Hubert Harrison belongs.

     Literary men of this class are seldom honored by posterity . . . .   Like the plain "old uncle" Socrates they go about teaching here and there, their audiences are vast, and they are always in popular demand for their subject matters are of such material as to interest most anyone. . . .  Hubert Harrison was of this type.  But he was more.  He was original.  He spoke . . . what he thought.  He was bookish, but not of the sort classed as a bookworm; yet he went through a greater quantity of books every day than most men of his time. . . .  when he grabbed a book he knew just what parts to digest, what passages to mark, what dogma to criticize and whether any book was worth a second reading.  I once asked him to give me a proximity of the number of books he read in one day and he shocked me by saying perhaps five or six. . . .


     On Harrison's contributions, Benson offered:


     [Hubert Harrison] . . . instituted a new school of social thought, packed a new forum, dignified the soap-box orator; blocked Lenox and Seventh Avenue traffic; sent humble men to libraries and book stores; sent them about to day and night schools; taught Negroes to think for themselves; taught them that in spite of all the handicaps of slavery and propaganda of anthropologists and sociologists, who said that the Negro was an imitator, that no one knew what the Negro could do until he tried.  . . . Harrison struggled to break the Negro away from other sources and think alone.


 Benson elaborated further:


     His doctrine of self-reliance, of self-respect, of confidence in yourself and in your race; his researching; bringing upon the public highway, in the lecture-room and before the Board of Education scholarly conclusions of men of mark, his reflection upon modern topics and his comments upon the modern action of world leaders, made his services of latent value in the community in which he lived; if not unparalleled with the history of the Negro.  No man ever held the attention of such large crowds upon the public highway in Harlem, nor with their addresses made such an active impression upon the minds of intelligent men.  His language was beautiful, for it was characterized with simplicity and was evidently absorbed by simple folks.  He hated verbosity, envy, jealously, prejudice, but had sympathy for ignorance.  He had no time to hate men for his life was busy and stimulating.  He was one of the few men who could "keep his head when all about were losing theirs and blaming it on him."  He kept close to the ground, his habits plain; his manner dignified without arrogance; and his tongue free from gossip. . . .


     On a more personal level, Benson wrote:


     He loved children, the poor, the common folks; those who were victims of circumstances.  He longed to see Harlem more peaceful, more serene, more intellectual.  He made great men his teachers, but not his masters.  He was always willing to help or encourage a young writer or speaker.  He saw the present condition of the Negro but anticipated a brighter future.  Like most literary men he was misunderstood, misquoted and his doctrines misused, but 'to be great is to be misunderstood."

     His biography no man can write, unless it be culled from the influence his teachings had upon the lives of others. . . .

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