Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918
Unsung history
By Jonathan Gramling

Part 2 of 2

      When one thinks of the Harlem Renaissance — also
referred to as the New Negro Movement — that refers roughly
to the period between 1917 and the mid 1930s, one thinks of
Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Robeson, James
Weldon Johnson and Marcus Garvey. But author Jeffrey Perry
would argue vociferously that contributions of one intellectual
giant of the Harlem Renaissance have been purposely
excluded from mainstream history. That man is Hubert
Harrison.
      Perry was already 200-300 pages into his Ph.D.
dissertation at Columbia University under Dr. Nathan Huggins,
an expert on the Harlem Renaissance when he discovered
Harrison at the Schaumberg Center at the New York Public
Library. “I set out researching and looking at how left
organizations, in particular, have dealt with what is
variously called ‘the race question’ starting from the turn of the 20th century,” Perry said during an interview with The Hues. “I came
across Harrison’s two books ‘The Negro and the Nation’ written in 1917 and ‘When Africa Awakes’ written in 1920. They were both on
microfilm. I was arrested by the clarity of his thought and writing. I had read all of his contemporaries and in my opinion, he was head and
shoulders above his contemporaries.”
      This research set Perry on a long intellectual journey that would culminate on his first of two planned books on Harrison, “Hubert
Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism 1883-1918.” Perry may have been attracted to Harrison because like Perry, Harrison was a
postal worker and working class intellectual. Harrison worked by day and studied and wrote by night.
      “Harrison and Schaumberg met at St. Benedict de Moor Church on 53rd Street,” Perry said. “They had lyceums and debates and
discussions. It was a place where African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans could come together. There was tension at first with an
immigrant group. And in these debates there are people like Charles Burrows and George Young. George Young is a Pullman Porter who
out of a store on 135 Street, has the biggest collection of books for sale in Black History and Literature, 8,000-12,000 books. Charles
Burrows, a postal worker with Harrison, came back with several other postal workers at 3 a.m. and had study circles. Burrows did one –
man renditions of Shakespeare at the Historically Black Colleges when he got his vacation time. His generation of intellectuals passed it
on to their children. Charles Burrows’ son and daughter-in-law Dr. Margaret Burrows were the co-founders of the Du Sable Museum in
Chicago, the largest museum of African American history in the country. So in these forums, Harrison said a couple of things. First, he
said it was the germ of Black racial consciousness in New York. But two, he said it was also a place where they had free-wheeling
debate and discussion and learned how to speak their minds openly and critically and not beat the devil around the stump.”
      Harrison was a child prodigy and first-rate intellectual. “When he first comes to New York, he’s working five days a week,” Perry
said. “He got citywide honors in three subjects. One of the New York daily’s headlines ran ‘Genius Found in West Indian Pupil.’ He
speaks or reads six languages. He is an auto-dyadic. He is self-educated. He speaks or reads six languages including Arabic, which he
is teaching himself in his last years and reading the Koran not because he is religious, but because it is the religion of so many people of
African descent.”
      Harrison was a prolific writer. In addition to his two books, Harrison wrote book reviews that appeared in The New York Times and
other publications. “Hubert Harrison is the first regular Black book reviewer in history,” Perry emphasized. “We have located 68-70 book
reviews by Hubert Harrison. In 1907, when he is working in the post office, he wrote two front-page New York Times Saturday Book
Review pieces on literary criticism. Now it is the Sunday Times Book Review. His were front-page. To this day, two members of the
National Book Critic Circles have quotes from Hubert Harrison on their webpage on how to review books.”
      “Eugene O’Neill won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934,” Perry continued. “Harrison did a review of the first rendition of The
Emperor Jones with Charles Gilpen in the lead before Paul Robeson had the lead. O’Neill wrote to Harrison and said ‘You know what you
are writing about. This is as fine of a piece that I have seen.’”
      Harrison was also an editor. During his career, he edited The Masses, The Voice, which is the first newspaper of the New Negro
Movement, which he founded around 1917  and was the principle editor of Marcus Garvey’s Negro World in 1920 and later on edited The
Voice of the Negro in 1927.
      Oratory was also one of Harrison’s gifts. “He is the pioneer Black orator,” Perry said. “But he also was a tremendous orator for the
socialists. When he was active with the Socialist Party circa 1912-1914, he lectured as many times as 23 times per week, morning noon
and night, seven days per week. He lectured for three hours, according to the New York Times, before a rapt audience at Broad and Wall
in front of the stock exchange on socialism. He lectured before 40,000 at Union Square where he had been active in Free Speech
struggles to enable speakers to be able to speak freely in New York City. It wasn’t something that just came. He was also an indoor
lecturer. He was the principle lecturer for the New York City Board of Education from 1922-1926 when lectures at night were the principle
form of adult education for working people in the city. And it is Harrison and professors from Columbia and NYU and City College, all
leading universities. He was lecturing about birth control in New York in 1914 and had to defend himself, according to The Truthseeker,
with the leg of a table. When he was speaking on 181st Street and Broadway, the Irish cop looked the other way and a gang of rowdies
attacked him. And he had to defend himself all the way down into the subway.”
      Harrison was someone whom Arthur Schaumberg said at Harrison’s funeral “A man ahead of his time.” An immigrant from St. Croix,
Harrison spent most of his life trying to find a place where he fit in intellectually and personally. He spent time working with socialists and
Black nationalists.
      “As a race radical, Harrison was a founder of the Liberty League and The Voice, which are the first organization and first newspaper
of the New Negro Movement in 1917, which was race conscious and internationalist,” Perry said. “Its basic program interrelated
literature and the arts. It advocated the enforcement of the 13-15th amendments. It wanted political independence for Black people, no
longer being tied to the Republican Party. It advocated armed self-defense if under attack. It even advocated such things as migration as
a form of direct action. It also advocated — and this becomes important in the struggles in the decade 1910-1920 — federal anti-lynching
legislation. It petitioned Congress for that. A. Philip Randolph called him The Father of Harlem Radicalism. This is the period when Harlem
is considered to be the center of radical Black thought and Harlem is considered the international Negro Mecca. Hubert Harrison is the
major radical influence on both A. Philip Randolph and Marcus Garvey, that’s the class radicals and the race radicals. When I grew up,
that was Malcolm and Martin.”
      As Harrison’s book comes to a conclusion, Harrison spoke out about some of the subordinating of African American demands to the
World War I effort. In speaking out, Harrison lost his job.
      “Woodrow Wilson led us into war to make the world safe for democracy,” Perry said. “Harrison’s basic response to Wilson was ‘Let’s
make the South safe for democracy.’ He and William Monroe Trotter, who was one of the Niagara Movement leaders, planned on
convening a Liberty Congress in Washington, D.C. the last week of June 1918. It would be a major Black protest effort in World War I.
Randolph is a follower of Harrison. He watches and learns. In World War II, it is Randolph who has the March on Washington Movement,
which leads to some integration of the war industries. During the Vietnam War, it is Randolph with King who leads the March on
Washington, which leads to the civil rights legislation. So this is very important what goes on. Harrison and Trotter convene this thing and
have men and women from 35 states come to this meeting in Washington.”
      This Liberty Congress convening in Washington, D.C. to press African American demands while a war was going on met with some
fierce opposition. Joel E, Spingarn, chairman of the NAACP, was a romance language professor at Columbia University and a pro-war
socialist as well as a major in military intelligence, the branch of the war department that monitors the Black and the radical community.
“Spingarn was also by W.E.B. Du Bois’ own account, Du Bois’ closest White friend,” Perry said. “The biggest issue in the Black
community during war time was would there be integrated officer training camps. The Black press was waging a big campaign. The Black
community was on the verge of winning integrated officers training camps when Spingarn said ‘We’ll accept the segregated camps.’ With
the Liberty Congress, Spingarn tried to talk Trotter and Harrison out of convening. Trotter said ‘No way.’ So Spingarn came up with the
plan to undermine the autonomous Black effort being planned by Harrison and Trotter. He was going to hold a Colored Editor’s Conference
to meet in Washington a week before the Liberty Congress in order to push more moderate demands like getting away from the federal
anti-lynching legislation that his organization didn’t support. He enlisted Du Bois in the effort. Here is what happens with Du Bose. Du Bois
not only gets behind Spingarn’s effort to undermine the Congress, but Du Bois also puts in an application in for a captaincy in military
intelligence during World War I. Again, this is Du Bois. Booker T. Washington had died. Most people were looking for Du Bois to be the
leading Black spokesperson. He put in his application, that branch that monitors the Black and radical community. In order to seal the
deal, to get the captaincy, the quid pro quo, he wrote an editorial in Crisis Magazine, July 1918. It was the editorial he was most
embarrassed about in his entire life. It was called ‘Close Ranks.’ It opened ‘While this war lasts, let us forget our special grievances and
close ranks behind the war.’ What are the special grievances? He had defined them three months earlier: lynching, segregation and
disenfranchisement. Everyone knew what they were. Harrison, in his paper, The Voice, criticized Du Bois. He said ‘You cannot be taking
this position.’ He tied it into the captaincy. Amongst the younger generation of the New Negro militants, Du Bois is totally discredited.”
The civil rights and leftist establishment could not let this rebellion go unheeded. “The response is now Booker T. Washington had
Harrison summarily fired from the post office,” Perry said. “The Socialist parties never mentioned Harrison again. Du Bois took a similar
road. He never mentioned Harrison again.”
      Harrison lived for another nine years, but his platform for activism had been taken out from underneath him and he was banished to
historical obscurity. That is, until Jeffrey Perry discovered his writings on microfiche in the New York Public Library. For Perry, it was
buried treasure.
Jeffrey Perry (above) published a biography
about Hubert Harrison (right), a Harlem
community activist during the time of Marcus
Garvey.