Biography of Hubert Harrison, one of America’s greatest minds

Book Review

“Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918”

By Jeffrey B. Perry

Columbia University Press, 2009

Paperback, 2010

Jeffrey Perry’s biography, the finest I’ve ever read, tears away the curtain of obscurity that has kept several generations of Americans from learning about-and learning from-the scholar-poet-essayist-orator-journalist-civil rights pioneer-trade union activist and champion of socialism Hubert Harrison.

Born in 1883 on the Caribbean island of St. Croix (then a Danish possession but soon to be absorbed by the United States), Harrison benefited from a finer colonial educational system in his elementary school than was available to most U.S. children of any background. Teachers noticed his great intelligence and strong drive to learn and supported his initial efforts to master history, philosophy, French, Latin and literature.

By the time Harrison moved to Harlem in 1900, he was able both to take advantage and to lead a variety of formal and informal study groups that African American workers and progressives organized in Harlem’s YWCA, YMCA, postal workers clubs and similar groups.

He realized early on the significance of the split between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois and strongly backed the latter’s efforts to combat segregation, second-class schooling, discrimination, disenfranchisement and lynching.

Denouncing those he labeled as “handkerchief-head” figureheads that the American establishment selected as Black leaders, Harrison said Blacks who continued to sell their votes to the Republican Party were “intellectual pimps.” Perry writes that when President Theodore Roosevelt wooed white racists’ votes by saying “the cause of lynching was Black men assaulting white women,” Harrison’s voice was one of the loudest to accuse Roosevelt and his party of abandoning African Americans.

When Roosevelt supported the 1906 courts-martial, without trial, of 167 Black troops in Brownsville, Texas, after only a dozen or so had raided in retaliation for white vigilante violence, William Monroe Trotter and DuBois were among those who joined Harrison in depriving the GOP from ever again receiving automatic “party-of-Lincoln” Black votes.

Harrison’s private life forced him to curtail some of his activities. He and his wife had five children, but suffered a loveless marriage nonetheless. Harrison moved away from his family but continued to send as much of his meager earnings home as  he could. He lost a good job in the Post Office after Booker T. Washington and his henchmen used pressure to get him fired. He then worked for the Socialist Party as an organizer, orator and journalist.

Soon thousands of Harlemites thronged Harrison’s public lectures on street corners and in meeting halls. He also earned money by giving classes in history, religion, sex education, philosophy and politics. But the Socialist Party’s increasing unwillingness to confront white racism in its ranks or in the ranks of labor convinced Harrison that Blacks needed to organize independently. Harrison argued the point this way:

“It is up to the white unions and the American Federation of Labor and the great railroad brotherhoods themselves and not up to the Negro leaders to change this deep seated aversion which American Negroes have for white American labor.”

Harrison urged African Americans to follow the methods of militant, independent political and self-defense and cultural organizations that had benefited Russian serfs and Jews and the Irish and Indians fighting British imperialism. He appealed to his fellow Blacks to arm themselves and fight back against vigilante mobs, lynchers and others who used violence against citizens.

Young leaders-to-be like A. Philip Randolph, Chandler Owens, Marcus Garvey, James Weldon Johnson rallied around Harrison. All cited Harrison as among the most effective, far-sighted and inspirational figures they’d ever met, though Harrison later became highly critical of some of their principles and methods.

One of the most fascinating sections of Perry’s scrupulously researched book (following his footnotes and his skillful use of Harrison’s diaries and contemporary writings about Harrison will provide a reader with fine grasp of American politics from 1900 to 1920), is his tracing of Harrison’s organization of the Liberty League and its newspaper, The Voice.

Acknowledged by his fellow leaders and the grassroots people of Harlem as the most outstanding thinker, orator and fighter for the rights of Black Americans, Harrison aimed a double-barreled blast at Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats during World War I. The national forerunners of the FBI and military police intelligence agencies tried to blackmail, bribe or intimidate those who opposed the war. As with Martin Luther King Jr. and the Vietnam war, the unwritten assumption was that Blacks would prove their patriotism by backing the war or at least not publicly opposing it. Harrison was not one to stoop:

“It is the same economic motive that has been back of every modern war since the merchant and trading classed secured control of the powers of the modern state,” Harrison wrote in an essay that concluded, “It is hypocritical and absurd to pretend that the capitalist nations can ever intend to abolish wars.”

Harrison’s fired his second blast at the Wilson administration at its continued refusal to enact a federal law against lynching that would permit the prosecution and punishment of racist mobs if their own states continued to let them burn out Black families and businesses and lynch Blacks without a court trial.

“Until the white men of this country can put patriotism ahead of race, I shall not,” Harrison wrote in 1918. “So long as they will treat us as ‘n—–s’ rather than as fellow citizens will those of us who respect themselves keep from fighting for a damned ‘Jim Crow’ democracy whose tangled threads of hypocrisy, cant and cruelty will weave a dangerous web across the nation’s path to self-respect.”

Harrison, Trotter and other progressive Blacks organized a Liberty Congress to be held in Washington, D.C., in June 1918. They knew they would draw national and worldwide attention on a president who purported to be fighting to “make the world safe for democracy” while refusing to outlaw lynching, grant Blacks full voting rights and end legal segregation.

The Wilson administration countered by recruiting NAACP chairman Joel Spingarn, friend of DuBois, to prevail upon DuBois and other hand-picked Blacks to head off the Liberty Congress by holding an elite Editor’s Conference the week before. The planners agreed that the grouping would not call for a federal anti-lynching bill so as not to harm the morale of U.S. troops and the home front.  Meanwhile, a Boston-based military intelligence officer tried to get Trotter to back out of Harrison’s conference.

It didn’t work. Harrison, Trotter and a much broader and more militant group of African Americans held the Liberty Congress anyway, and over six days they revealed to the world the hypocrisy behind the U.S. government’s refusal to outlaw lynching in the “land of the free.” Harrison learned that DuBois had agreed to support Spingarn in return, DuBois believed, for a commission as a captain in the U.S. Army. The Army disappointed that hope.

In his analysis later of how the NAACP had stooped to such servility, Harrison wrote in his 1920 call for Black unity in an essay, “Close Ranks”: “Should the leading of our group in any sense be the product of our group’s consciousness or of a consciousness originating from outside that group? … The time has long passed when white people, however benevolent, could safely and successfully limit the range and determined the scope and pattern of the Negro people’s aspirations.”

Judging from his criticism of DuBois, his former ally’s re-radicalization during a long and productive life would have surprised and pleased Harrison. But unfortunately Harrison died in his 44th year. Nevertheless, in his brief but productive life, Harrison became a mighty influence in Black civil rights, trade union, political and cultural movements, as well as in the nation’s peace and anti-imperialist movements. As the historian J.S. Rogers wrote in the World’s Greatest Men of Color:

That individuals of genuine worth and immense potentialities who dedicate their lives to the advancement of their fellow men, are permitted to pass, unrecognized and unrewarded from the scene, while others, inferior to them in ability and altruism, receive acclaim, wealth and distinction is common-yet it never ceases to shock all but the confirmed cynic. … Hubert Harrison is the case in point. Harrison was not only the foremost Afro-American intellect of his time, but one of America’s greatest minds.

Rogers closed his appraisal of Harrison by lamenting that “even today but a very small proportion…has ever heard of him.” Thanks to Jeffrey B. Perry, the obscurity surrounding Hubert Harrison is lifting. I hope Perry produces a second book that will complete the story of this great American hero.



John Woodford
John Woodford

Former Copy Editor, Nat'l desk at "The New York Times," former Editor in Chief, "Muhammad Speaks" newspaper.