BY: DEREK IDE
Hubert Harrison was born in St. Croix, at that time still a territory controlled by Denmark, to a working class mother and a formerly enslaved father. Orphaned at the age of seventeen, Harrison migrated from St. Croix to the United States. While working menial jobs and largely self-taught, he quickly became one of the foremost political activists of the Harlem area. Harrison first made a name for himself acting as the leading Black organizer for the Socialist Party of America. By 1917, on the verge of the Russian Revolution, Harrison founded both the first organization and newspaper of the “New Negro” movement, a movement intended to instill dignity in the Black community and outwardly reject institutional forms of racism. As one of the foremost radical internationalists who eloquently combined class and race consciousness, Harrison was the father of Harlem radicalism. Historian Jeffrey B. Perry suggests that during the World War I era Harrison was the most class conscious of the race radicals and the most race conscious of the class radicals.
Early in his political career Harrison become an active supporter of W. E. B. Du Bois and a vocal critic of Booker T. Washington. By 1912, he campaigned heavily for Eugene V. Debs, and founded the first-ever “Colored Socialist Club.” His first theoretical essay, “The Negro and Socialism,” was published in the International Socialist Review and argued that the central responsibility of socialists ought to be challenging racism and undertaking the Black cause in the United States. Most famously, Harrison argued that politically “the Negro is the touchstone of the modern democratic idea,” meaning that real democracy was impossible without a fundamental revolution in race relations. In 1917, Harrison founded the Liberty League, a radical alternative to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which broke with other Black leaders calling for Black participation in World War I.
After becoming disillusioned with the Socialist Party’s slow action on the issue of race, Harrison resigned in 1918. Harrison continued his intellectual endeavors in a variety of different fields, including agnosticism and empiricism. He gave incendiary soap box talks on Harlem’s streets, contributing to the radical street corner culture for which Harlem became famous. Harrison quickly developed his internationalist credentials, regularly condemning imperialism across the globe. He penned essays and spoke on events occurring in what would eventually become known as the “Third World.”
By 1920, Harrison became an editor for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) newspaper. But before the end of the year was out, Harrison became critical of Garvey, accusing him of opportunism and arguing that Black Americans should focus on political and economic rights in the United States, not returning to Africa. Although he eventually distanced himself from the UNIA, Harrison continued his activism amongst a variety of labor and Communist organizations throughout the 1920s.
Unfortunately for posterity, in 1927 Harrison underwent surgery at the age of 44. He died on the operating table, and thus his political and ideological development was truncated. Despite this turn of events, Harrison’s intellectual and activist contributions reverberated for generations. Historians are currently reopening the case for Harrison’s immense influence on Black political life in Harlem and elsewhere.
Jeffrey B. Perry, Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).
Alternet, Jeffrey B. Perry, http://www.alternet.org/books/why-ideas-pioneering-african-american-radical-hubert-harrison-matter-more-ever