Hubert Harrison: Black Griot of the Harlem Renaissance

Hubert Henry Harrison. Photo: African Americans for Humanism.
Hubert Henry Harrison. Photo: African Americans for Humanism.

The historical restoration of Hubert Henry Harrison (1883–1927) calls for a rethinking of the Black radical tradition in the early twentieth century. As a journalist, educator, and community organizer, this “Black Socrates” influenced a whole generation of Afro-diasporic intellectual and political innovation. Thanks to the decades-long and groundbreaking efforts of independent scholar Jeffrey B. Perry, a growing interest has emerged regarding the life and legacy of Harrison, who A. Phillip Randolph called the “father of Harlem radicalism.” Because he remains such an under-appreciated figure, his recovery requires us to expand and reframe multiple histories—including that of the socialist left, the New Negro movement, Garveyism, and the “Harlem Renaissance”—that have marginalized him. Harrison had a critical impact on all of these social movements, and exploring his angle of vision illuminates previously invisible connections between them.

Hubert Henry Harrison was born in 1883 to plantation workers of African descent on the Caribbean island of St. Croix. He obtained a grade school education as well as some religious training in the Anglican Church. Orphaned as a teenager, Harrison managed to relocate to New York City in 1900 thanks to his sister Mary.

At the turn of the century, lynching, segregation, and disfranchisement reigned supreme in the south, while anti-Black pogroms and other mechanisms of white supremacist racial cleansing gave rise to an epidemic of all-white “sundown towns” beyond the traditional south. Though Black life in the Caribbean emerged from a similar history of enslavement, Hubert Harrison’s native St. Croix (like most Caribbean islands) did not have the historical pattern of lynching and Ku Klux Klan-style terrorism that characterized the United States.1 For that reason, the encounter of Caribbean migrants like Harrison with the new regime of violent white supremacy in the United States became a major factor in their political activation.2

"Hubert Henry Harrison." Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Hubert Henry Harrison. Photo: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Upon his arrival in Manhattan, Harrison initially worked menial jobs (elevator operator, bellhop, messenger) to eke out a living. In 1907, he moved to Harlem, which became one of the largest and most concentrated Black neighborhoods in the country between 1900 and 1930.

Due to the migration of African Americans from the south and Afro-Caribbeans from the Antilles, Harlem became a global hub of Black economic, intercultural, and ideational exchange. Numerous neighborhood associations, churches, and fraternal orders combined to form a rich tapestry of social and community institutions. By attending Black church lyceums with mentors like John E. Bruce and Arturo Schomburg, Harrison received a rigorous training in intellectual debate and critical thinking, eventually breaking with religion on the grounds that Christianity “Still Enslaves the Minds of Those Whose Bodies It Has Long Held Bound.”

In 1910, following a pair of New York Sun op-ed pieces he wrote criticizing the subservience of Booker T. Washington, Washington’s powerful “Tuskegee machine” caused Harrison to be fired from his job at the postal service. Far from silencing him, the termination fueled Harrison’s radicalization, leading him to join the Socialist Party of America (SP) as a full-time speaker and organizer.

In that capacity, Harrison became one of the first Black party leaders to systematically articulate a historical materialist approach to the so-called “Negro question.” He also organized the first official Black-led multiracial party formation, the Colored Socialist Club. Failing to appreciate his unique contributions to socialist theory and practice, the moderate, white, and largely middle-class party leadership reacted to Harrison’s anti-racism, left-wing positions, and humble racial and class status by driving him out of the party.

Following Harrison’s break with the SP, he devoted his formidable energies to agitation in Black communities. His efforts bore fruit in the form of a New Negro movement for self-empowerment, giving domestic expression to the international political awakening detonated by the First World War.

In June 1917, Harrison founded the Liberty League of Negro-Americans and The Voice, which were the first grassroots organization and newspaper of the New Negro movement in the Black “Mecca” of Harlem. The Liberty League called for an end to segregation and disfranchisement, armed self-defense and federal legislation against lynching, and international solidarity with the liberation struggles taking place in Ireland, Russia, India, and among “our brethren in Africa.” Unlike the “old crowd” Tuskegee model of industrial education or W.E.B. Du Bois’s focus on the “talented tenth,” Harrison’s Liberty League advanced a grassroots “Africa first” mass-movement orientation to address the various problems facing Black people.

Harrison’s greatest contribution to Black intellectual culture came from his prodigious work establishing the “Outdoor University,” as some community residents called the street corner oratorical method of popular education he established. Speaking from “the Campus” on the corner of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, his intellectual range covered a vast array of topics, including anthropology, English literature, evolutionary biology, Black culture, economics, theological criticism, African civilizations, sexuality, and global geopolitics. His oratory was so popular that ordinary people regularly turned out to hear him in numbers large enough to block traffic. As one observer put it after witnessing Harrison in action, “the Age of Pericles and Socrates in ancient Athens had nothing on the present age of Harlem in New York.”

In 1918, Harrison came together with William Monroe Trotter and Adam Clayton Powell Sr. to organize the Liberty Congress of Negro-Americans in Washington, D.C. Consisting of delegates from 33 states, the Liberty Congress elected Harrison as its chairman. More importantly, it took advantage of Woodrow Wilson’s war to “make the world for democracy” by presenting a petition to the U.S. Congress against lynching, disfranchisement, and the segregation of African Americans. In other words, to make the U.S. itself ‘safe for democracy.’ This position stood in sharp contrast to the behavior of W.E.B. Du Bois, who called on African Americans to “forget our special grievances” and “close our ranks” behind the war effort. Publicly exposing the hidden backstory behind the “descent of Dr. Du Bois,” Harrison maintained unwavering resistance to racial oppression throughout the duration of what he called the “white world war.”

Members of the UNIA in Harlem in 1920. Photo: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division.

The most spectacular example of Harrison’s contribution to Black history is his decisive impact on Marcus Garvey and the Garvey movement. Garvey and his future first wife Amy Ashwood founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914 with the goal of establishing a Tuskegee-style industrial institute in Jamaica. However, after speaking at the inauguration of Harrison’s Liberty League and joining it in 1917, Garvey subsequently transformed the UNIA’s orientation.

In particular, following a dispute over who would edit The Voice, Garvey’s dissenting faction within the Liberty League broke away and formed the Harlem chapter of the UNIA, which became the Garvey movement’s official headquarters. Thanks to Garvey’s skills as a publicist and organizer, and his adoption of Harrison’s Liberty League orientation on pan-African grassroots movement building (rather than industrial education), the UNIA grew into one of the largest transnational organizations of Black people in history.

Inevitably, engagement with Harrison’s legacy raises the questions of how and why he came to be so nearly forgotten in history. Some of the contributing factors undoubtedly include his humility and aversion to lavish praise, his economic poverty and lack of university degrees, the hostility of various prominent organizations, institutions, and individuals he criticized, the general lack of interest in Black radicalism among mainstream academic historians, and the failure of Harrison-conscious individual scholars and Harlem community members to overcome all of the preceding factors.3

A more complex reason for Harrison’s historical erasure concerns the political genealogy of the so-called “Harlem Renaissance.” Many of Harrison’s achievements could be described, like they were at the time of his passing, as contributions to the “New Negro movement.” However, Alain Locke’s 1925 New Negro anthology effectively appropriated and rewrote the meaning of the “New Negro movement” in terms of a “Negro Renaissance” (later rebranded the “Harlem Renaissance”) of Black artistic production.

White liberal publishers like Paul Kellogg and Albert Boni contracted, financed, and ideologically vetted Locke’s work. Locke and his sponsors deliberately removed Harrison and various other Black Marxist, Garveyist, and Black feminist voices from their “Negro Renaissance” narrative in order to market a narrow and commercialized portrayal of “the Negro” to white audiences. The “renaissance” peddlers thereby converted the common conception of the “New Negro” from a race-radical, internationalist, working-class movement into a nonthreatening, patriotic, middle-class cultural fad. Harrison’s explicit and categorical rejection of the “renaissance” trope—combined with his deliberate exclusion by its architects—raises fundamental questions about the nature and meaning of the “Harlem Renaissance.”

Restoring Harrison to history demonstrates his unique role as a spearhead of various political and intellectual transformations during the Black awakening of his age. That writers and scholars could nearly assassinate from memory someone so important speaks to the role historical erasure plays in modern processes of epistemicide. Anyone seeking to better understand the emergence of Black Marxist, pan-African, Black (inter)nationalist, and Afro-diasporic radicalism in the twentieth century would do well to study the life and writings of Hubert Henry Harrison, whose insights largely remain relevant today.

  1. In the United States, the poor and working-class white majority formed a social control buffer between Black labor and white capital. In the Anglophone Caribbean, by contrast, a middle-class Black or Brown social layer performed this function. There, whites were a tiny minority and therefore relied upon the socio-economic promotion of non-whites into positions of social management and administrative control. For this reason, the construction and function of race operated somewhat differently, even while ultimately remaining based on white domination in both cases. For more on this, see Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race Vol. 2 (London: Verso, 2012).
  2. For more on Caribbean migration and the racial aspect of the politicization of Caribbean migrants in this period, see Winston James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century America, 1900–1932 (London: Verso, 1997).
  3. Here I give respect to various individuals who have worked to preserve Harrison’s memory, including Rev. Ethelred Brown, J.A. Rogers, Richard B. Moore, Harold Cruse, Philip Foner, Wilfred D. Samuels, Portia James, John G. Jackson, Jeff Perry, Ernie Allen Jr., Irma Watkins-Owens, John Henrik Clarke, Winston James, Joyce Moore Turner, and Thabiti Asukile.
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Brian Kwoba

Brian Kwoba is an assistant professor of history at the University of Memphis whose research centers on political and social movements among people of African descent in the United States and across the globe. He is currently working on a book manuscript about Hubert Harrison and the New Negro Movement. Follow him on Twitter @BrianKwoba.

Comments on “Hubert Harrison: Black Griot of the Harlem Renaissance

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    Thank you for this important information on Hubert Henry Harrison. Indeed, the history of Harrison has been short, but perhaps now the full story can become public, and a new respect can be given to the ‘street scholars’ in our community.

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    How can I stay updated about your research and book-writing?

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      Thanks for your interest. Checking my twitter feed is the best way to stay updated on my work. But I’ll also be sure to write something here again when the book is closer to publication.

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