Hubert Harrison, Giant of Harlem Radicalism

Hubert Harrison, Giant of Harlem Radicalism

The Stalwart

Hubert Harrison’s radical life and times.


Hubert Harrison represents one of the clearest examples of the difficulties of being a Black intellectual and activist in the 20th century. Upon his death in 1927, Harrison was recognized in many magazines and journals for the prominent role he’d played in this country’s socialist and Black radical politics. As someone who’d organized a number of advocacy groups, as well as edited Negro World for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro

Improvement Association, Harrison was arguably at his best writing, but he was also a powerful speaker and agitator. Three decades after his death, he was still revered within the Black left. In the summer of 1963, in the midst of the decolonization movement in Africa and civil rights upheavals in the United States, an essay from a Harlem-themed issue of Freedomways put him front and center as one of the leading protagonists of the Black radical tradition. Richard B. Moore, in his article for the magazine, observed that Harrison was perhaps the greatest of the great outdoor speakers who gave Harlem’s culture its unique flair. “Above all,” Moore noted, “Hubert H. Harrison gave forth from his encyclopedic store, a wealth of knowledge of African history and culture” that presented early ideas of Black consciousness to a Harlem populace hungry for such sustenance.

Yet since the 1960s, Harrison’s genius and importance have gone somewhat into eclipse. While left intellectuals like Michael Harrington and Black socialists like A. Philip Randolph are fondly remembered, Harrison’s critical contributions to socialism and Black political thought are often unfairly passed over. Even in histories examining the Black left’s rich and important literary and activist history, Harrison’s name isn’t invoked nearly enough.

A recent two-volume biography by Jeffrey B. Perry—Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883–1918 and Hubert Harrison: The Struggle for Equality, 1918–1927—seeks to correct this oversight. Tracking Harrison’s life from his birth in the Danish West Indies to his long career as an activist and intellectual in Harlem, Perry leaves no stone unturned in understanding the man, the times in which he lived, and the ideals he championed. Harrison’s intellect was matched only by his steadfast refusal to bend on his principles—including not taking money from sources he disagreed with. A biography that is also a work of intellectual and institutional history, Perry’s two volumes offer an incisive survey of the radical upheaval at the turn of the 20th century. But above all they make a case for why Harrison is a crucial part of the American radical tradition.

Perry’s background as a working-class intellectual—not to mention his writings on race and labor in American life—make him the perfect person to help recover one of the early 20th century’s great Black intellectuals and socialists. Having written for publications like Black Agenda Report, CounterPunch, and many others, Perry has spent years arguing for the importance of understanding how race and class are bound together as categories used to stratify and divide American society. For Perry, what defined Harrison’s legacy as a radical was that he avowed a socialist and class-based politics and yet also refused to abandon the masses of Black Americans, north and south, in their struggle against racism. Instead, Harrison examined the problem of race and class and came to the inescapable conclusion that only mass politics and organizing among Black Americans could free them and, by extension, the working class from future exploitation.

Indeed, the story Perry presents revises what most curious readers know about the history of US radicalism in the early 20th century. Harrison played a key role in two important radical traditions at once: the Black freedom movement and the building of a Socialist Party in the United States. While many histories of the era treat the two as separate, Perry’s biography shows that for Harrison, socialism and Black radicalism were inextricably linked, motivated by the same insights and commitments; there was no way to privilege one over the other. As Perry argues in the first volume, Harrison was “the most class conscious of the race radicals, and the most race conscious of the class radicals.”

Harrison’s personal life provides some sense of the ways in which he was both different from and quite similar to many other Black activists in 20th-century America. Born and raised on the island of St. Croix in the Caribbean, then a colony of Denmark, Harrison grew up in a working-class home. His mother was an immigrant from the island of Barbados, and his father was once enslaved on St. Croix. Harrison’s formative years were at times difficult, Perry notes: He “worked as a servant, knew poverty, and developed an empathy with the poor.” His early experience caused Harrison to develop not only a class consciousness but also a race pride, having associated with so many others of African descent while living on the island.

In 1900, Harrison left St. Croix for New York City. “In a sense,” Perry writes, “Harrison was like many other West Indians who came to the United States at that time: young, male, and literate; thwarted by limited educational, political, and occupational opportunities at home; in search of a better life; and with a desire for more education and a propensity for self-education.” While we consider this period as one of the great ages of immigration to the United States, we usually think in terms of people coming from Southern and Eastern Europe—and perhaps the banning of immigration from China in 1882. But at the same time, many from the West Indies also came to the United States, exerting a considerable influence on Black American culture, and American culture more generally, in the 20th century.

Harrison’s arrival in New York City coincided with the aftermath of the August 1900 race riot, which injured more than 70 Black New Yorkers and marked a new low in the city’s race relations. The rest of the country was arguably worse: The South was host to an epidemic of lynching (though there were murders in the North as well). But New York City was also a harsh place for African Americans—according to Perry, “seventy percent of single Black males earned under $6, and ninety percent of single Black females under $5 per week.” Segregation marked a good deal of life in New York City as well, including education; in 1913, Perry points out, fewer than 200 Black students attended desegregated high schools. Harrison had hoped to find greater opportunity in the United States, only to discover that the country was at a “nadir” in terms of race relations. Despite proclaiming itself to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, the nation proved to be deeply oppressive for anyone of African descent.

Harrison moved in with his sister Mary and made the most of the rare opportunities offered him to pursue an education. Attending an evening high school that had mostly white students, Harrison worked during the day as an elevator operator. Despite excelling at his studies—the New York World published an article about him headlined “Speaker’s Medal to Negro Student: The Board of Education Finds a Genius in a West Indian Pupil”—Harrison would never attend college.

Instead, after high school, he became absorbed in politics. Like many other activists, Harrison sought a viable solution to the so-called “Negro Problem” of the early 20th century in whatever political programs he could find. At the time, there were many courses of action championed by Black intellectuals and activists as well as by white radicals and liberals. Booker T. Washington publicly advocated Black self-reliance and a retreat from political agitation; W.E.B. Du Bois insisted on full political rights and social agitation as the way forward; Marcus Garvey preached a form of Black nationalism that linked the plight of Black Americans and those of African descent around the world, while harboring a distrust of white America and a refusal to see desegregation as possible—or even desirable. There was also the liberal Black politics that emerged with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which included Mary Church Terrell, James Weldon Johnson, and numerous others who favored the creation of biracial organizations to combat the rampant racism of the day through political and moral suasion, boycotts, and legal campaigns against Jim Crow segregation in its many forms.

Harrison’s approach cobbled together much of the above, with an added emphasis on socialism. Drawn to the Socialist Party’s aggressive advocacy on behalf of immigrants’ and women’s rights in New York, he worked for the party as an organizer and writer. He also supported the Industrial Workers of the World—the Wobblies—and their leader, “Big” Bill Haywood, throughout the 1910s. For Harrison, the Socialist Party offered the chance to be a leader in the fight for greater rights for the working class, including Black workers. In Harlem, he formed a Colored Socialist Club—not, as he explained to Du Bois, to separate Black socialists from their white peers, but rather to meet Black Americans wherever they were, ideologically and literally. As Harrison wrote, “The work must be done where Negroes ‘most do congregate.’”

However, he became increasingly frustrated by the racism and anti-Black thinking that permeated parts of the Socialist Party, and he sought to persuade his fellow socialists to make race more central to the party’s clarion call to workers caught in the class struggle in the United States. This proved to be an uphill battle for Harrison and others. As Perry notes, leading socialists like Victor L. Berger—who would later become a US congressman for Wisconsin—argued in 1902 that “negroes and mulattoes constitute a lower race.” Meanwhile, even those who declared a commitment to racial equality minimized its importance when it came to organizing. Eugene Debs, in 1903, argued that “the history of the Negro in the United States is a history of crime without a parallel.” Yet in the same essay, “The Negro in the Class Struggle,” Debs finished by stating plainly, “We have nothing special to offer to the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races.” For Debs, the class struggle subsumed all other struggles in American society. For Harrison, this was at best a fallacy and at worst a critical strategic mistake. Like other Black socialists, he argued that “the ten million Negroes of America form a group that is more essentially proletarian than any other American group.” They could, if approached with sophistication and understanding, become the backbone of a larger socialist movement in the United States. But the concern of many Socialist Party leaders, including Debs, that appealing directly to Black Americans would divide the working class stopped the party from ever fully embracing this position.

For a time, Harrison continued to push the Socialist Party on the issue of anti-Black racism and to make the party an attractive alternative for African Americans in an era when both the Democrats and the Republicans expressed little interest in attracting Black voters. But in the end, his efforts were unsuccessful, and his Colored Socialist Club began to founder after it failed to receive enough support from the rest of the party in New York City.

Even as he grew distant from the Socialist Party, Harrison never completely abandoned socialism, but he began to look beyond its institutions and clubs when it came to matters of politics. He crossed paths with Washington, Du Bois, and Randolph, at once befriending and establishing rivalries with them as he vied for the attention of the people of Harlem. Harrison envisioned a movement for the Black masses instead of what most of his contemporaries offered, such as the “Talented Tenth” proposed by Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk or other attempts to create a small cadre of Black radicals to lead the movement. Harrison argued that the potential members of the Talented Tenth were “the left-handed progeny of the white masters” and could not function without white patronage. He also argued that Washington’s notion of building up Black capital through hard work and vocational education was wrongheaded, asserting that Washington wanted the political and social relations of Black people to be “one of submission and acquiescence in political servitude.” At the same time, Harrison felt that the newly created NAACP was a good start—but that the organization was still too concerned with the opinions and goals of white liberals.

During this period, Harrison began to develop a view of Black liberation that was worldwide in scope and not merely focused on the United States. Even as other Black leaders, most notably Du Bois, asked African Americans to “close ranks” and get behind the US entry into World War I, Harrison made no secret of his contempt for those who did. For Harrison, it was more important for Black Americans to arm themselves for the battle at home—and in this case, his words were not meant to be taken metaphorically. In the aftermath of the East St. Louis riots of July 1917, Harrison urged Black people to embrace armed self-defense as a proper and necessary strategy in the face of rampant oppression. The New York Times quoted him as saying, “We intend to fight if we must…for the things dearest to us, our hearth and our homes.”

Harrison’s squabbles with Du Bois over the war may have pushed him to the margins of mainstream Black thought, but by the end of the war Harrison was moving toward the center of the “New Negro” movement. With the rise of this movement and the Harlem Renaissance, Harrison’s socialism, Black radicalism, internationalism, and modernism all found new audiences among Black Americans. Cochairing the Liberty Congress in 1918, he had a front-row seat to observe the growing radicalism of a younger group of Black Americans that formed the heart and soul of both of these movements. The New Negro movement, in particular, embraced what Harrison referred to as “the Race Consciousness of the Negro people.” His earlier call for Black people to arm themselves after the East St. Louis riots also became a hallmark of the New Negro movement—an acceptance of the idea of armed self-defense and other militant tools in the greater struggle for human rights. Until then, Harrison had remained committed to a politics that had not created a mass movement. Now, leading the effort to resurrect the Harlem Voice newspaper in 1918, he found himself at the center of a new political and intellectual ferment, hatching a plan for organizing that would anticipate efforts by the Southern Negro Youth Congress, the Black Panthers, and a variety of other groups devoted, in one form or another, to organizing the Black working class in the United States.

The focus of Harrison’s ambitions was the South. He had grown tired of what he saw as the play-it-safe tactics of groups like the NAACP (which some of his radical peers derided as the “National Association for the Acceptance of Colored Proscription”) in the region. Part of this frustration stemmed from political setbacks, but it also came from his growing belief that very few white liberal activists could be trusted, even if they had the money and cultural and political prestige to lend legitimacy to a project. For Harrison, Black people could not trust others to do the work of emancipating Black America; they would have to do it themselves. This commitment to Black agency and self-help led him to Marcus Garvey, who had arrived in New York City from Jamaica in 1916, bringing with him his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which had already been active on the island. Harrison and Garvey met in the revolutionary year of 1917, and, according to Perry, Harrison’s views on Black independence heavily influenced Garvey during the latter’s time in New York. Garvey attended meetings of Harrison’s Liberty League, and Harrison encouraged the league’s members to also attend Garvey’s events.

Harrison would eventually join the UNIA and serve as the editor of its newspaper, Negro World, which he elevated to a new level of sophisticated political engagement with the wider Black diaspora. Beginning his tenure during the “Red Summer” of 1919, against the backdrop of heightened labor strife in the United States and nationwide campaigns against the lives and livelihoods of African Americans, Harrison sought to use his editorial position to rally Black America and lauded those who embraced his calls to action, hailing the resistance against the Red Summer attacks as one of the “brilliant events in the history of the Negro race in America.”

Harrison also became increasingly vocal about his internationalism during this time. In a dazzling variety of ways, he used his powerful perch at Negro World to promote ideas of Black diasporic solidarity and to highlight the weaknesses he perceived in liberal attempts to fight segregation in the United States. For Harrison, Black Americans, West Indians, and other elements of the broader Black diaspora had far more in common than they recognized: All of them were subjugated by the forces of capitalism, colonialism, and European assumptions of superiority. In addition, Harrison argued that Black Americans had much to learn from their brothers and sisters in Africa. “Africa was primarily a teacher,” he insisted, “not a primitive unschooled child in need of ‘civilization’ and instruction.” In every issue of Negro World, Harrison included sections on news from Africa and on “the status and welfare of the darker races and of subject peoples everywhere.”

Criticizing Black socialists like Randolph for continuing their class-first pronouncements, Harrison argued for a “race first” approach that, he insisted, did not abandon socialism. At times, he challenged Randolph and other Black socialists for what he considered to be their political naivete in navigating the complicated waters of city politics. In 1918, for example, Randolph ran for the 19th Assembly District and, in Harrison’s eyes, prevented the potential victory of a Black Republican, Edward A. Johnson. Harrison reasoned, as Perry writes, that it was more important “to break the white monopoly on holding office” than it was to support a Black socialist for the mere sake of supporting one. Harrison’s tactical and intellectual arguments with Randolph and other Black socialists continued throughout the Great War period and into the 1920s. What was paramount for Harrison was the adoption by Black Americans of a race-centric strategy that would also allow room for a strong class politics. In 1920, his debates with Randolph and Chandler Owen, both editors of The Emancipator, were partly born out of Harrison’s need to defend what he called “the principles of the New Negro Manhood Movement” from attacks by the two. However, even the editors of The Emancipator—which was created by the merger of the better-known The Messenger (edited by Randolph and Owen) and The Crusader (formerly edited by the activist and intellectual Cyril Briggs)—were far from united on the question of putting class ahead of race. Whereas Harrison criticized Randolph for continuing in his class-first analysis, Randolph retorted that Harrison’s work with Garvey had tainted him with the larger problems that many Black activists—socialist or liberal—had experienced with Garveyism and the UNIA. (Nonetheless, when Harrison died, in 1927, Randolph paid him tribute as “our comrade and co-fighter for race justice.”)

In fact, Harrison’s continued commitment to class politics also separated him from Garvey, as did the latter’s grandiose style. Harrison grew exasperated with Garvey’s ostentatious uniforms and grand public pronouncements and eventually left his position as editor of Negro World. The final straw was Garvey’s misuse of funds, which to Harrison was especially egregious considering the working-class background of the vast majority of UNIA members.

Careening from one organization to another often left Harrison without a steady job. He also refused to be supported by wealthy benefactors, and he and his family experienced bouts of poverty. These periods, however, only further fueled his intellectual fire and radicalism.

How this working-class immigrant sustained himself as an activist-intellectual is an important part of the story that Perry seeks to tell. Harrison was an organic intellectual—someone who, through his own determination and genius, shaped for generations the debates about class and race in Black America. Shut out by the racist system of higher education, Harrison taught himself, hungry for knowledge and eager to read everything he could that would help him better understand his and Black America’s history, culture, and politics. In this way, Harrison was not just the intellectual forefather of activists like Malcolm X or Kwame Ture. He was also an inspiration to historians like John Henrik Clarke and J.A. Rogers, both of whom pursued unorthodox routes of rigorous self-study to become two of the best-known historians of the Black experience in the United States. While Clarke did not receive his doctorate until late in life, and Rogers never received formal training as a historian, like Harrison both men were part of the autodidact tradition of Black American letters. Harrison has been called the “father of Harlem Radicalism,” and in his day many referred to him as “Dr. Harrison,” assuming that one as erudite and brilliant as he must have received a doctoral degree.

Yet he also struggled considerably—because of both his poverty and his commitments. He had difficulty taking care of his family because of his inability to find steady work. By December 1927, Harrison had already dealt with a serious illness the previous year, and he found himself back in the hospital after an appendicitis attack, only to die following a routine surgery. His premature death at the age of 44 came as a shock, and it robbed the world of an incredible intellect and radical agitator. One wonders what Harrison’s role would have been in the 1930s, as the Communist Party took up the cause of Black freedom in the North and the South. Would he have renewed his friendship with Du Bois as the latter became more radical? Or would he have just said “I told you so”? What might have come of his commitment to both Black and working-class freedom? Harrison maintained a pride in being Black, but he was also convinced that to embrace Blackness meant pursuing a global program of solidarity to combat racism and militarism across the world.

Upon the news of his death, The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the prominent Black newspapers of the 20th century, wrote that “The Race loses a stalwart champion in Dr. Harrison.” Humanity did too. When one reads Perry’s two-volume biography, it is nearly impossible to avoid letting one’s mind run away with ideas of what could have been—for the fight for Black freedom in America and for the struggle against class oppression. In the present day, with the arguments about class- or race-first remedies for Black oppression still not settled, Harrison would want us all to sharpen our analysis, for the sake of a continuing battle for the future that he never lived to see.

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