Over the past two decades there has been an upsurge of interest in the life and work of Hubert H. Harrison. As a leading socialist and subsequent proponent of what he termed the mass-based “Race First” approach to organizing, Harrison exercised a direct, seminal influence on his contemporaries including A. Philip Randolph, W. A. Domingo, Marcus Garvey, Richard B Moore, Chandler Owen, Arturo Schomburg, Cyril Briggs, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, Hodge Kirnon, J. A. Rogers and William Monroe Trotter.
As W. A. Domingo, childhood friend of Garvey and first editor of the Negro World would later explain, “Garvey like the rest of us followed Hubert Harrison.”
Other literary figures, Harrison’s contemporaries, such as Eugene O’Neill, Henry Miller and Max Eastman, acknowledged his contributions. Radical socialists such as “Big Bill” Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn shared the podium with him at a Patterson Silk Strike activity in 1913. In 1922, when Claude McKay was commissioned by the Comintern in the Soviet Union to write an analysis of the condition of the Negro in the U.S., the Soviet leaders handed him Harrison’s books for reference. Of course, McKay was already a friend and comrade to Harrison prior to his visit to Moscow.
Interest in Harrison has been spurred in large part by the release of A Hubert Harrison Reader (Wesleyan University Press, 2001) edited by Jeffrey B. Perry and the 2-volume Perry biography, Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 (Columbia University Press 2009) and the recently released Hubert Harrison: The Struggle for Equality, 1918-1927 (Columbia University Press 2021). Perry also assisted with the Diasporic Press reprint of Harrison’s When Africa Awakes: The ‘Inside Story’ of the Stirrings and Strivings of the New Negro in the Western World first published by Porro Press in 1920. These books bring to our attention important writings and organizing efforts undertaken by Harrison at a critical juncture of national and international events between 1910 and 1927.
Perry has also traveled at his own expense around the country to give numerous free public talks on Harrison, many of which may be viewed online through his website.
In addition, Perry is the literary executor for Theodore W Allen (The Invention of The White Race, Verso, 1994, 1997) and a well-trained, independent scholar with degrees from Princeton and Columbia Universities. He has conducted his research for the Harrison volumes while living and working among the people, as an anti-white supremacist activist and labor union leader, husband, and father based in Northern New Jersey.
“A Hubert Harrison Reader”
A Hubert Harrison Reader and the two-volume biography are the product of a 40-year research project based on primary sources including Harrison’s own papers, which had been preserved by his family in Harlem apartments after his early death at 44 in 1927. The Harrison Papers have now been archived in the Columbia Rare Books and Manuscripts Library and are available to the public, with an important portion available online.
A Hubert Harrison Reader and the two-volume biography provide a window for those interested in: the struggle against white supremacism; capitalism and imperialism in the early 20th century; the rise of the New Negro Movement; the Garvey movement; early efforts to build mass-based radical Black organization; questions of leadership arising in mass-based radical organizations; and the signal importance of education and culture to the growth of social movements. Labor and Black activists, students and educators interested in such topics as Critical Race Theory and Black Marxism may find in Harrison an early, though heretofore unacknowledged, resource.
A Hubert Harrison Reader contains published and unpublished articles, book reviews, letters and diary entries organized thematically and preceded by brief contextual remarks by Perry. Harrison’s own words will readily engage the modern reader just as his talks and writings influenced a wide audience in the socialist and New Negro movements between 1911-1927.
The iconoclastic author Henry Miller, reflecting 40 years later on his days as a young socialist in Manhattan, described Hubert Harrison as his “quondam idol.” The noted historian J. A. Rogers described the program that Harrison espoused as the “sanest.” Harrison’s relationship with Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) are well documented and examined in detail in the most recently published second volume, Hubert Harrison: The Struggle for Equality, 1918-1927.
A cursory look at the “Contents” in A Hubert Harrison Reader brings to mind William Faulkner’s oft quoted phrase; “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Some titles included are: The Duty of the Socialist Party (1911); The Negro and the Labor Unions (1917); The Liberty League’s Petition to the House of Representatives of the United States, July 4, 1917; The East St. Louis Horror (1917); The Women of Our Race (1919), Race Consciousness (1924), Lincoln and Liberty: Fact versus Fiction (1921), U-Need-A Biscuit (1920), Marcus Garvey At the Bar of United States Justice (1923), The White War and the Colored Races (1917), Wanted – A Colored International (1921), The Cracker in the Caribbean (1920); The Virgin Islands: A Colonial Problem (1923); A Cure for the Ku-Klux (1919); ”Democracy” in America (1921); and The Program and Principles of the International Colored Unity League (1927).
The biography’s two-volumes are prodigious, scholarly tomes, chronological, thoroughly documented and richly evocative of Harrison’s struggles to juggle family and personal relationships with his political commitments often in the face of dire poverty. They stand as a challenge to historians and serious students of U.S. social history who have, with few exceptions, overlooked Harrison’s seminal contributions and leading roles in both the Socialist Party and the New Negro Movement.
“The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918”
In his introduction to the first volume, Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1917, Dr. Jeffrey B. Perry describes Harrison as “the most race conscious of the class radicals and the most class conscious of the race radicals.” Given the over 1,800 pages of text and notes in the volumes under consideration here, it may take some time for students and radical activists to digest Harrison’s contributions, yet the evidence strongly supports the view that Hubert H. Harrison was one of the most influential and most radical of the radicals (in the sense of going to the root) in 20th century America.
Perry’s intriguing description of Harrison’s place in U.S. social history offers historians a window for future inquiries. Even more importantly, Harrison’s life and work offers some urgent lessons for today’s “class” and “race” radicals who wrestle with similar defining features of American society that Harrison challenged a century ago at the beginning of the “American Century”; racial oppression, capitalism, imperialism, opportunism and narrow mindedness in those who would profess to lead the people’s movements. Harrison’s experiences and reflections upon leadership, program, and organization are particularly relevant for those today asking “what is to be done?”
Harrison was a working-class immigrant from Saint Croix, a Caribbean Island under Danish control, who arrived in Manhattan in 1900 as a 17-year-old orphan with little more than the clothes on his back and a thirst for knowledge. He arrived at the height of what has been referred to as the “nadir” in U.S. race relations, a time during which many of the gains won through the Civil War and Reconstruction were being reversed and “Jim Crow” had been made the law of the land by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896. Perry contrasts the differing role that race played in St Croix vis-a-vis the U.S. and notes that Harrison and other emigrants from the Anglo-Caribbean to the U.S. at this time were shocked by the virulence of the racial hatred they encountered.
The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 captures the energy with which Harrison threw himself into his new world. Eager to learn, indignant and shocked by the virulent white supremacy he encountered in the U.S., Harrison was undaunted.
The young Harrison earned honors at evening high school while working full time in New York City. His brilliance as a student was recognized early on. He continued his self-education by making full use of the public library system and attending the lectures, discussions and debates offered by churches, lyceums, and informally organized study groups.
Perry carefully describes and documents the intellectual milieu in which Harrison developed his early views and skills. Harrison was an autodidact, (the “organic intellectual” before Gramsci coined the term) who never ceased to stress the importance of education to his readers and listeners. His 1918 article written for The Voice entitled “Read, Read, Read” expresses the importance he accorded to the cultivation of critical thinking and acquisition of broad knowledge by everyday folks. Harrison’s critical reviews in The Negro World of T. Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color against White-World Supremacy and The New World of Islam, will be of particular interest given that Stoddard was an early proponent of the “white” erasure theory advocated by white supremacists today.
Harrison led a lively social life in the growing Harlem community and at the age of 26 married Irene Louise “Lin” Horton, a Caribbean immigrant when she became pregnant with their first child.
Harrison studied with a critical eye and identified religious and ideological shibboleths that he found demeaned his race and self-worth as a free-thinking individual. He positioned himself as a Du Bois man following the 1905 Niagara conference that raised criticism of Booker T. Washington’s response to the disenfranchisement, racial violence and oppression of Black Americans.
Harrison’s letter to The Sun in 1910 criticized remarks made by Booker T. Washington and aroused the ire of the Tuskegee machine which had him summarily fired from the Post Office, a job that had provided him and his growing family with a modicum of economic security. The letter, reprinted in A Hubert Harrison Reader, is an early example of Harrison’s well-crafted prose, critical thinking and wide-ranging awareness of the conditions faced by African Americans in the US. Harrison writes:
“Mr Washington says that if black people will cease insisting on the ‘real and great grievances’ and acquire property and manual skill, the grievances, which are the crux of the Negro problem, will decrease and finally disappear. I will make no appeal to the philosophy of history or to anything that may even faintly savor of erudition because Mr. Washington and his satellites say that that is bad. But I will appeal to the hard facts.”
Harrison goes on to cite specific examples of how the disenfranchisement of the Negro produced wide disparities in government expenditures on Black versus white schools, protected job discrimination in favor of white over Black workers, and negatively impacted the ability of Blacks to acquire and defend their property. Harrison’s public criticism of Booker T. Washington’s remarks however led to the loss of secure employment, the consequences of which will not be lost on working class readers generally. This act of reprisal from the Tuskegee machine cast Harrison and his family into economic insecurity and thrust him into a life of activism.
The Socialist Party 1911-1914
“The most race conscious of the class radicals” From 1911-1914 Harrison was the Socialist Party’s leading Black organizer. He sought to enlist the Party to demand the enforcement of the 14th and 15th amendments passed in the wake of the Civil War, but which were not enforced after the end of Reconstruction. The defense of the Black community which he described as “a group that is more essentially proletarian than any other group,” was clearly the duty of Socialists. He hoped that the Socialists would offer a clear alternative to the Republican Party for Black voters, particularly as they migrated to Northern cities.
In 1911 Harrison began by introducing a socio-economic analysis of racial oppression that challenged the Socialist Party’s biological conception of race:
“Politically, the Negro is the touchstone of the modern democratic idea. The presence of the Negro puts our democracy to the proof and reveals the falsity of it. Take the Declaration of Independence for instance. That seemed a splendid truth. But the black man merely touched it and it became a splendid lie. And in this matter of the suffrage in the Southern States it is expedient to keep the Negro a serf politically because he is still largely an economic serf. If he should attain to political freedom he would free himself from industrial exploitation and contempt. Of course such a revolution is startling to even think of…” (New York Call, November 28, 1911) He elsewhere writes:
“…the mission of the Socialist Party is to free the working class from exploitation, and since the Negro is the most ruthlessly exploited working class group in America, the duty of the party to champion his cause is as clear as day. This is the crucial test of Socialism’s sincerity…” (International Socialist Review, July 1912)
Harrison’s series of articles for socialist publications prior to World War 1, his support for the Industrial Workers of the World, his criticism of the white labor opportunism of the American Federation of Labor, his book review of William Z. Foster’s The Great Steel Strike and Its Lessons are all included in A Hubert Harrison Reader.
The leaders of the Socialist Party rejected Harrison’s call and then went on to endorse the Chinese exclusion acts. Harrison’s writings for the New York Call in 1911, the Socialist Party’s daily paper, included such headings as “The Negro and Socialism: I – The Negro Problem Stated,” “Race Prejudice – II,” “The Duty of the Socialist Party,” and “How To Do It – And How Not.” More extensive articles published by the International Socialist Review in 1912 include: “The Black Man’s Burden [I],” “The Black Man’s Burden [II],” and “Socialism and the Negro.”
Harrison’s parting letter to The New Review in 1914 “Southern Socialists and the Ku Klux Klan,” was never printed by the journal but was reprinted in The Negro World in 1921. Harrison’s article “Race First versus Class First,” printed in The Negro World in 1920, reminded his audience of the crippling influence of white supremacism in the Socialist Party. All of these articles are reprinted in A Hubert Harrison Reader and Harrison’s struggles with the Socialist Party are recounted and meticulously documented in the first volume of the biography, Hubert Harrison: The Father of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918.
In hindsight, Harrison’s writings, published by the New York Call and the International Socialist Review, offer one of the earliest, most pointed critiques of white racial opportunism in the U.S. socialist and labor movements. Harrison’s writings should be required reading for a new generation of socialist minded “class” radicals concerned to place the struggle against white supremacism at the center of their efforts for labor solidarity and fundamental social change. Harrison’s final assessment was that the Socialist Party leadership put the white “race first and class after.”
After leaving the Socialist Party, Harrison focused on organizing in the Black community and pioneered what became a tradition of street oratory in Harlem that continued down through Malcolm X. From 1914 to 1917 Harrison drew together a nucleus of like-minded grass roots organizers. His agitation centered on the aspirations and grievances of the African-American community locally and nationally and urged African Americans to organize and advocate for themselves, free from the controlling influence of “white” patrons, an approach he termed “Race First.”
1914-1918 Race First
“The most class conscious of the race radicals” Harrison’s frustration with the Socialist Party led him to pose the question to his fellow Black socialists: “What to do when your ‘white’ friends say no?” Harrison answered that question over the next 15 years through his efforts to unite the Black community around a program of self-defense and self-interest and in organizations free from the controlling influences of would-be friends and allies whose support came with strings attached.
The street oratory that he had pioneered as a leading speaker for Eugene Debs’ 1912 presidential campaign was now focused on street corners of Harlem. Harrison soon attracted large crowds with his message: of racial pride and demands, radical for the day; that the federal government enforce the 14th and 15th amendments; that black police officers be hired; that Black candidates unbeholden to white power brokers be elected by the Black community; that stores in Harlem hire Black workers; that Black owned businesses be supported and that they in turn support the interests of the community; and that a federal anti-lynching law be passed.
Harrison’s Race First approach took organizational form with the Liberty League, which was founded in the summer of 1917 as African Americans in East St Louis engaged in armed self-defense against white supremacist mobs and President Wilson was drawing the U.S. into the First World War to “Make the World Safe for Democracy.”
The Liberty League drew together Black socialists and a much broader section of the Black community in Harlem, which had become a center of the Black Diaspora from the U.S. South and the Caribbean. The Liberty League publication, The Voice, edited by Harrison, was the voice of a new movement, rising in tandem with movements nationally and internationally.
At the first meeting of the League, Harrison introduced Marcus Garvey, a newcomer to Harlem from Jamaica. Garvey was a follower of Booker T Washington and had come to the U.S. to raise funds for his Jamaica based Improvement Association. Garvey joined Harrison’s Liberty League.
In 1918 Harrison co-founded the Liberty Congress with Monroe Trotter that met in Washington DC as President Woodrow Wilson was pushing the U.S. into the First World War. Military Intelligence and the Justice Department as well as local police began their surveillance and efforts to contain the emergence of these Black led initiatives. Perry has poured through the archives and offers a detailed examination of these early efforts by government agencies who employed both the “carrot” and the “stick” to contain and disrupt the activities of the Liberty League and the Liberty Congress. These state interventions directed against Harrison and Black activists clearly overlapped with similar efforts against the IWW, anti-war socialists, anarchists and supporters of the Russian Revolution.
The ending of chattel bondage and the central role of Black people in the Civil War and Reconstruction was still in living memory in the early 20th century. If the huddled masses of European immigrants and their so called “white” labor and socialist leaders were blind to the role that racial disenfranchisement and Jim Crow played in supporting capitalism, the same could not be said for the U.S. ruling elite themselves whose Supreme Court had provided the legal rationale for Jim Crow. Both political parties and much of the leadership of organized labor had, in different ways, overseen, supported or cast a blind eye to the imposition of debt peonage, discrimination and the chain gang on the Black population.
Harrison had attempted to enlist the Socialist Party in the fight to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments to no avail. He understood that a mass movement was needed and if the white-led labor movement was deaf and dumb to the plight of Black America then it fell to the Black community itself, not the “talented tenth,” to lead.
Wilson pushed the country into a war to “defend democracy” in 1917, Harrison’ wrote The Descent of Du Bois, criticizing an editorial in the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine, entitled “Close Ranks,” in which W.E.B. Du Bois advised the African American community to “Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close ranks, shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow-citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy.”
On July 4th, 1917 Harrison wrote in the Liberty League’s publication, The Voice:
“This nation is now at war to make the world ‘safe for democracy,’ but the Negro’s contention in the court of public opinion is that until this nation is made safe for twelve million of its subjects the Negro, at least, will refuse to believe in the democratic assertions of the country.”
He described the world war as a power struggle between the European colonial powers over the division of Africa and Asia and Wilson’s “Democracy” rhetoric as “dust in the eyes of white workers.”
Harrison aimed to build a movement unencumbered by the need to follow the lead of white politicians or patrons. He had come to value independence not so much as a goal in and of itself, but as the basis for true self-determination. “Race First” was Harrison’s pragmatic response to the record of efforts to control and subordinate the struggle against white supremacy and for full equality. It addressed the fundamental need of Black Americans to replace the sense of inferiority and self-loathing induced by white supremacism with self-reliance, political independence, self-defense, cultural affirmations, and self-expression in all fields of human endeavor.
“The Struggle for Equality, 1918-1927”
The most recently published second volume, Hubert Harrison: The Struggle for Equality, 1918-1927, covers the last 10 years of Harrison’s life during which he continued as a leading voice in the New Negro Movement based in Harlem and reached national and international audiences through speaking tours and publications that he either founded or edited. These include The Voice, The New Negro magazine, The Negro World, and The Voice of the Negro.
Perry devotes more than half of the second volume to a very detailed, well documented examination of Harrison’s relationship with Marcus Garvey, The Universal Negro Improvement Association, Black socialists, communists and the disputes, alignments and realignments that have framed the modern race/class conundrum in the U.S. since the First World War.
If A Hubert Harrison Reader and the first volume, The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 grew out of Perry’s first encounter with Harrison’s writings in the 1980s, his determination to produce a two-volume biography came after Aida Harrison Richardson, Hubert and Irene’s third daughter, gave Perry her father’s diaries, now archived at Columbia University.
To summarize the 800 pages of the second volume is clearly impossible but suffice it to say that the disputes among Harlem radicals that emerged between 1918-1927 may help to explain why Harrison’s leading role in the New Negro Movement was largely excised from academic accounts. Harrison was in the middle of these controversies. His criticisms of Booker T Washington incurred the wrath of the Tuskegee machine.
After his criticism of W. E. B. Du Bois’ “Close Ranks” article, Du Bois never mentioned Harrison by name again, opting instead to refer only to that certain “Negro writer.” Harrison had refused to join the chorus of Black socialists, who opposed Garvey from the start. While managing editor of The Negro World Harrison refused to be the Communist Party’s stalking horse against Garvey even though in his diary he was very critical of Garvey following the 1920 UNIA convention. Given that debates over strategy and tactics within the Black and radical communities continue today, Harrison’s views on the centrality of race in the U.S. and on leadership in the struggle for equality between 1918-1927 seem prescient in hindsight.
In the first volume, Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918, Marcus Garvey was a newcomer to Harlem when Harrison first introduced him to a Liberty League gathering on June 12, 1917 at Harlem’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Disputes soon arose in the Liberty League and The Voice over whether to accept “white” financial support or to rely exclusively on support from the Black community. Harrison, like Garvey, favored Black money over “white” money, but Harrison at the same time refused to accept advertisements from skin lightening creams or hair straightening products that typically helped to support other Black periodicals. Additionally, Harrison maintained editorial control over the Liberty League publication, The Voice. Perry notes also that Harrison apparently did not manage money well and was having some health issues.
Without a secure personal income or institutional supports, Harrison, Irene and their children often found themselves in dire financial straits. In addition to financial troubles there was the marital stress that resulted from Harrison’s infidelities. Irene “Lin” Harrison does not appear to have left any written record of her own, but Perry recounts some conflicts recorded by Harrison in his diary and personal papers.
While a member of the Liberty League, Garvey honed his oratory, adopted much of the Race First program that Harrison had promulgated and offered what appeared to be a solution to the funding quandary.
Garvey was able to raise large sums of money from the Harlem community through his sale of stock and bonds to launch what he promoted as Black owned enterprises, most notably, The Black Star Line.
In the process Garvey won some of Harrison’s close associates over to his own Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Edgar Grey, former officer in the Liberty League, became the General Secretary of the UNIA. W. A. Domingo, another Liberty Leaguer, became the first editor of The Negro World.
Garvey’s sale of bonds initially for a restaurant and grocery store and later the Black Star Line came under scrutiny in 1918 following allegations of fraud by investors. An audit committee, whose members were selected by Garvey, claimed mismanagement of the funds raised for both the UNIA and The Black Star Line and that the money had been raised under false pretenses. By 1919 Grey, General Secretary of the UNIA, Richard Warner, Executive Secretary of the UNIA and Secretary of the Black Star Line, and W. A. Domingo, Editor of The Negro World, had all resigned their positions. Lawsuits and counter suits ensued and the New York City Assistant District Attorney ordered Garvey to stop selling bonds. Garvey for his part continued to raise large sums of money from trips outside of New York for support for the Black Star Line.
Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had combined much of the “Race First” program of the Liberty League with what appeared initially to be a bold vision of economic independence for a Black led, mass-based organization. Garvey assumed a leading role in Harlem despite increasing public criticism, lawsuits from investors and resignations of former Liberty League members. In the face of growing challenges to his credibility, Garvey turned to Harrison and offered him work as essentially the effective Managing Editor of The Negro World in early 1920.
Harrison’s acceptance of Garvey’s offer came at a point when the Liberty League and The Voice had ceased to exist. Harrison had no job or means of support for his growing family and Garvey offered him a decent salary and editorial freedom to carry on what he had started with the Liberty League and The Voice. Harrison’s acceptance added credibility to Garvey’s efforts, but gave rise to a vituperative public war of words with his former socialist and Liberty League comrades who had emerged as sharp critics of Garvey. Harrison defended himself for taking the job as Managing Editor of The Negro World, and his decision to join with a mass movement that the Liberty League and The Voice had essentially paved the way for. He refused to join in the public criticism of Garvey and he in turn publicly derided Garvey’s critics as “Just Crabs.” He contrasted the mass movement based on the Africa First approach which had been adopted by Garvey, with the meager support garnered by the socialists.
Under Harrison’s editorial control, The Negro World achieved international circulation and self-sufficiency with over 50,000 paid subscribers. He was however under no illusions regarding Garvey’s shortcomings as a leader. Following the 1920 UNIA convention Harrison began efforts to seek out ways to restart The Voice and organize a Liberty Party, efforts which however came to naught. At this time Harrison published When Africa Awakes: The ‘Inside Story’ on the Stirrings and Strivings of the New Negro in the Western World, which was used as a training manual for the Universal Negro Improvement Association and was sold in Harlem barbershops.
Harrison noted in his diary that Garvey promoted fanatical devotion and was given to self-aggrandizing and bombastic statements. Harrison, nevertheless, went about the job of turning The Negro World into a self-supporting publication with a worldwide readership.
Garvey’s fundraising schemes however increasingly were revealed to be fraudulent and he was embroiled in numerous lawsuits. Harrison distanced himself from Garvey. His position at The Negro World went from Managing to Contributing Editor to contributing writer and ended in 1922.
As criticism from within the Black community and criminal investigations grew, Garvey and some of his more fanatical supporters employed increasingly repressive measures to intimidate critics and block prosecution. W. A. Domingo was assaulted by Garveyites. A tent revival meeting sponsored by the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr. was broken up by a few hundred Garvey supporters. W. E. B. Du Bois received threatening letters after criticizing Garvey. In September 1922 a human hand cut off below the wrist was mailed from New Orleans to A. Philip Randolph with a letter allegedly from the Ku Klux Klan ordering Randolph to join the UNIA. This occurred three months after Garvey had met with the KKK in New Orleans and expressed his support for racial segregation. Four months later The Reverend James Hood Eason, a prominent leader in the UNIA who broke with Garvey and was the leading witness for Garvey’s prosecution was murdered in New Orleans by Garvey supporters shortly before he was to testify in early 1923.
By 1923 Garvey had been found guilty of fraudulent use of the mails and was deported shortly thereafter. Harrison’s account of the trial in “Marcus Garvey at the Bar of United States Justice” (Associated Negro Press, July 1923) is reprinted in A Hubert Harrison Reader in which he described Garvey’s trial as “fair.” In his diary Harrison wrote that Garvey could have been prosecuted for far more serious crimes than mail fraud.
International Colored Unity League
Between 1924-1927 Harrison worked to establish the International Colored Unity League (ICUL). It’s program is included in A Hubert Harrison Reader and it contains a demand for a Negro state (four years before the Communist Party would adopt its Black Belt Nation thesis). He went on a speaking tour in Massachusetts for the ICUL and wrote a regular column, “Trend of the Times” for the Boston Chronicle.
Harrison’s article on the Lafayette Theater strike, “How Harrison Sees It,” was published by the Amsterdam News (10/6/1926) and a lengthy quote appears in the second volume of the Harrison biography. The Lafayette Theatre strike divided Harlem radicals and was a central issue for Harold Cruise in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. As Harrison saw it “…unlike Abraham Lincoln, my prime object was not to save the union but to free the slave.”
He edited The Voice of The Negro, was a lecturer for the NYC Board of Education and collaborated with Arturo Schomburg on the establishment of what would later become the Schomburg Library. Harrison also published widely including The Real Negro Problem for The Modern Quarterly in which he considered “the conditions under which the relations between the black and white races were established in America.” Over the summer of 1926 The Institute for Social Study hosted a 10-lecture series in Harlem offered by Harrison entitled “World Problems of Race.”
In the “Epilogue” to Hubert Harrison: The Struggle for Equality, 1918-1927, Perry reviews the comments, obituaries and memorials that followed Harrison’s premature death in 1927 at the age of 44 from complications following an appendectomy. Over 1,000 people attended the funeral. Among the pallbearers were Arturo Schomburg and Richard B. Moore (who would lead the international defense of the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s).
The heroic aspect to the biographies and A Hubert Harrison Reader that highlight his remarkable talents and achievements are balanced by Harrison’s own diary entries in which we get a glimpse of the stresses and strains that activism, poverty and male privilege imposed on the growing Harrison family. Irene “Lin” Harrison worked during this time as a seamstress while caring for the children. Harrison’s activities took him far afield from the day-to-day responsibilities of raising a family and into a series of affairs with other women. In addition, he was not physically immune to the wear and tear of leadership and poverty.
Harrison and his family were part of the Harlem community from which emerged a new movement that aimed to stop and reverse the erosion of the gains of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The movement promoted self-reliance, self-respect and was internationalist in so far as it viewed itself as linked with the anti-colonial movements emerging in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia.
“Tell me whose bread you eat and I will tell you whose song you sing.” The enduring significance of Harrison’s contributions for activists today may be his vision and tireless efforts to base organization of the overwhelmingly working-class Black community on the people themselves.
The old aphorism, “Tell me whose bread you eat and I will tell you whose song you sing,” was frequently referenced by Harrison and underlay his frank assessment of contemporaries who in his view had strayed from the path. His critical remarks were sometimes heated but in the main not mean spirited or motivated by jealously or spite. A controversial figure, Harrison’s frank assessments earned the respect of most contemporaries and the smoldering resentment of others whose pet projects and visions his remarks disturbed.
Today, as “McMovements,” NGO’s, non-profits, and the near complete corporatization of mainstream media and academia work to subsume and manage authentic expressions of popular discontent, Harrison’s radicalism is a refreshing and important reminder that, then as now, it is the people’s struggle that shapes history.
Photo: Hubert Harrison, courtesy New York Public Library.