Hubert H. Harrison papers

Hubert H. Harrison papers

Native

Harlem's first great soapbox orator, Hubert H. Harrison was a brilliant and influential writer, educator, and movement builder during the early decades of the 20th century. In the words of civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, he was "the father of Harlem radicalism."

Born in 1883, on the Caribbean island of St. Croix, Harrison moved to New York City in 1900, where he worked low-paying jobs, attended high school, and then earned a living as a postal clerk - all the time engaging with radical political causes. By 1911, he had become a leading activist and theoretician for the Socialist Party in New York City and soon thereafter he began actively supporting the Industrial Workers of the World.

In 1917, Harrison founded the first organization (The Liberty League) and the first newspaper (The Voice) of the “New Negro Movement” and he published his first book, The Negro and the Nation. He opposed positions taken by Joel E. Spingarn and W.E.B. Du Bois of the NAACP during the First World War and, along with William Monroe Trotter and others he organized the 1918 Liberty Congress. The Congress, the major Black protest effort during the war, demanded enforcement of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments and federal anti-lynching legislation. Beginning in 1920, he became the principal editor of Marcus Garvey's Negro World, which he reshaped into a leading political and literary publication of the era. In its pages, he discussed history, politics, theater, international affairs, religion, and science. He also created a "Poetry for the People" feature, a “West Indian News Notes” column, and what he described as the first regular book review section by a Black author in “Negro newspaperdom.” In 1920 he also published his second book, When Africa Awakes: The “Inside Story” of the Stirrings and Strivings of the New Negro in the Western World. Later, he would criticize Garvey's methods and actions.

Harrison was a prolific speaker and writer in the 1920s during which time he also founded the broadly unitary International Colored Unity League and edited The Voice of the Negro. Harrison's unexpected death following an appendectomy on December 17, 1927, left behind his widow, four daughters, and a young son. A massive Harlem funeral spoke to his contemporary importance, but Harrison's work eventually faded from prominence. His radicalism on questions of race, class, religion, war, democracy, literature and the arts - and the fact that he was a forthright critic of individuals, organizations, and ideas of influence, were major reasons, along with his early death and the fact that he had no long lasting organizational ties, for his subsequent neglect.