Hubert Harrison; Trailblazing Harlem Critical Thinker

As an orator Harrison was famous for his street corner lectures on a diverse array of topics and around this time was trailblazing his captivating soapbox style. His friend, the great Jamaican historian, J.A. Rogers said “crowds flocked to hear him” and “would stand hours at a time.”

[Book Review]

Dr. Jeffrey B. Perry’s book, “Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism,” brings to life one of the most important and influential –but forgotten— figures in early 20th Century Black America.

In this first of a two-volume biography; Perry skillfully rescues, from the dark shadows of time, Harrison’s rise into one of the most brilliant Black intellectuals of his era. Dr. Perry points out that Harrison was “the first to struggle against both class and racial oppression though his articulate, radical Black working class voice and a bottom-up approach.” 

This biography traces the first half of Harrison’s life from 1883 to 1918. The second part of the biography will focus on the last part of Harrison’s life, until his premature death in 1927, at age 44. The second part of this biography entitled: “Hubert Harrison: Race Consciousness and the Struggle for Democracy, 1818-1927,” will be published sometime around 2012.

Dr. Perry’s book illuminates Harrison’s impact on Black social movements like Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, UNIA, and his pioneering efforts of soapbox speaking, paving the way for latter-day radicals such as Malcolm X. It also looks at his early mass-action blueprint, elements of which were later duplicated in the historic March on Washington, whose architect, A. Philip Randolph, called Harrison “the father of Harlem Radicalism.”

Perry outlines Harrison’s involvement with many other luminaries including: W.E.B Dubois, Claude McKay, John E. Bruce, W.A. Domingo, Chandler Owen, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg and William Monroe Trotter, to name a few. He also sketches the battle between Harrison and his primary nemesis: Tuskegee’s Booker T. Washington who used his influence to get Harrison fired from his New York City postal job.

Harrison’s subsequent work with the Socialist Party, where he worked with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and “Big Bill” Haywood are also addressed.

Hubert Harrison was born, on April 27, 1883 at Estate Concordia, St. Croix, then Danish, and now U.S.—Virgin Islands. The islands were purchased in 1917, by the U.S., for $25 million.

Although, the young Harrison was the offspring of poor working-class parents, he nonetheless “spent his early years in youthful exploration and educational pursuits.” He also “grew up with a feeling of oneness with the downtrodden” and “learned important lessons about African customs, interactions and solidarity between immigrant and native working people, and the Crucian people’s rich history of direct-action mass struggle.”

For example, on July 3, 1848 Crucians rebelled against their slave masters, in a non-violent struggle, led by legendary Black liberator Moses “Budhoe” Gottlieb. The Danes relinquished and abolished slavery that very day. And, in 1878, there was the infamous “Fireburn” uprising spearheaded by three women including rebel leader “Queen” Mary Thomas.

On St. Croix, Harrison went to school with future labor leader David Hamilton Jackson, who continued the struggle of preceding leaders like Moses Gottlieb and “Queen Mary.” He also corresponded with the militant journalist of the Emancipator, St. Thomian Rothschild Francis. Harrison, as a student of history, would’ve known of Denmark Vesey’s thwarted 1822 Insurrection, after he was brought from St. Thomas to South Carolina. He was no doubt also aware of another man who had an equally profound effect on Marcus Garvey: Thomian Edward Wilmot Blyden.

Garvey once said of Blyden “you who do not know anything of your ancestry will do well to read the works of Blyden, one of our
historians and chronicles, who have done so much to retrieve the lost prestige of the race.” It was this heritage of struggle that Harrison was born into, which laid the foundation for his later radical activism in America.

After the death of his mother in 1900, the teenage Harrison moved from St. Croix to New York City to live with his older sister. It wasn’t long after that he was making waves as one of the most erudite students in the city. On April 5, 1903, a major daily in New York City, The World, ran an article entitled “Speaker’s Medal to Negro Student: The Board of Education Finds a Genius in a West Indian Pupil.” After high school, Harrison showed an interest in going to college. Unfortunately, because of financial constraints he was unable to attend college.

However, Harrison pursued self-education daily, engaging in a wide range of interests. As an autodidact—self-taught—scholar, he was versed in several disciplines including: history, sociology, science, psychology, literature, drama and languages, of which he spoke six to eight. He also explored topics such as religion and race matters. One of his first published articles was on lynching, which was non-existent in his native Virgin Islands.

During this period, St. Mark’s and St. Benedict’s Churches Lyceums, on West Fifty-Third Street, along with the area YWCA, became important places in the educational and activist-minded development of Harrison.

They were places where his voracious appetite for learning was facilitated. In this fertile environment, he honed his critical thinking, oratorical and writing skills.

Harrison married Irene Louise Horton, in 1909, who was probably an Antiguan. They would have five children together. They divorced primarily because of financial problems, which got worse after he was fired from his postal job.

By the time of his firing, Harrison was already an accomplished orator and author writing frequently in numerous publications. As an orator Harrison was famous for his street corner lectures on a diverse array of topics and around this time was trailblazing his captivating soapbox style. His friend, the great Jamaican historian, J.A. Rogers said “crowds flocked to hear him” and “would stand hours at a time.”

Many liked Harrison’s captivating style of writing and speaking. However, Harrison had his detractors, mostly, because of his candid and often devastating critiques. Three of these particular critiques, that would cost Harrison his postal job, were against America’s most powerful Black leader at the time: Booker T. Washington.

In 1910, Washington, who was touring Europe, was quoted in the London Morning Post as saying that the racial situation in the American South was “far from becoming more difficult or dangerous, becomes more and more reassuring.” This statement was made despite the fact that race riots were ongoing and lynching was prevalent.

Harrison responded with several illuminating facts that directly contradicted Washington’s claims. Harrison pointed out disparities in areas such as school funding for Blacks and whites, and the continuing imposition of segregated laws. He also highlighted how states like Texas were trying to repeal the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to disenfranchise African-Americans. Harrison stated that although Washington was a “great leader” his leadership was “by grace of white people who elect colored people’s leaders for them.” Harrison would pay for daring to criticize Washington.

Nearly a year later Washington would get revenge, with the help of Charles W. Anderson, New York City’s leading Black Republican. Anderson along with Washington’s assistant, Emmett Scott, New York City Postmaster, Edward M. Morgan and Fred R. Moore, publisher of the New York Age, met to discuss punishing Harrison.

Not long after these powerful men met Harrison would be refused a promotion, would have a salary increase reduced and would be eventually fired. After his removal from the post office Harrison found lower paying work as a speaker, writer and organizer for the Socialist Party, and earned extra money as a tutor.

From 1912 to14 Harrison worked full-time for the Socialist Party. But he became dissatisfied with the party because of the larger party’s failure to embrace more revolutionary direct action agitations tactics to uplift the lot of the working-class and their failure to adequately address the race question. Harrison had argued that Socialists had to speak out on the race question because Blacks were the “most ruthlessly exploited working class group in America.”

In 1914, Harrison would move away from the Socialists after becoming the target of internal attacks for his criticisms of the party.

Harrison then embarked on a more independent path, which would lead to his creation of the Radical Forum, The New Negro Movement, The Liberty League and The Voice newspaper. The Radical Forum held lectures throughout Harlem and New York City on a variety of topics. 1915 saw the birth of his New Negro Movement which was “a race conscious, internationalist, mass-based movement for ‘political equality, social justice, civic opportunity and economic power’” geared toward the “Negro common people” and urging defense of self, family and “race” in the face of “lynching and white supremacy.”

It was around this time that a then disenchanted Marcus Garvey, who had been planning to return to Jamaica, was taken to a Harrison lecture by Jamaican socialist W.A. Domingo. Garvey was so enthralled with Harrison’s oratory that he joined the Liberty League, although he would later leave to continue his work with the UNIA. Garvey would implement many of Harrison’s tactics and teachings in his subsequent organizations.

The final chapters of this biography discusses the further financial difficulties Harrison had funding his organizations, as well as other later conflicts he would have with other Black organizations like the NAACP and figures like W.E.B. DuBois. Dr Jeffrey B. Perry’s book on Hubert Harrison is an invaluable resource on an important figure in early 20th Century America. Five stars. It’s required reading.

Dr. Jeffrey B. Perry, who describes himself as “an independent working class scholar,” was formally educated at Princeton, Harvard, Rutgers and Columbia.

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