Hubert Henry Harrison: a giant unearthed

Voices Across Borders

The Blog of the Race and Resistance Research Network at TORCH

Posted by: Brian Kwoba

Date: 14 May 2015

Hubert Henry Harrison:  a giant unearthed

Every generation has its own unique and unsung heroes whose life and work have been buried by history. One such figure is Hubert Henry Harrison (1883-1927). Harrison was a giant of African-American history, a unique and indispensable fountainhead for the Black awakening of the 1910s and 1920s which we call the “New Negro” movement.

Harrison was, according to one contemporary of his, “the first Negro whose radicalism was comprehensive enough to include racialism, politics, theological criticism, sociology and education in a thorough-going and scientific manner.” When Harrison spoke in public, “it was not long before the crowd swelled…and even children ceased romping…His audience was always spell-bound.”

I have recently done research at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which has a collection of Hubert Harrison’s papers. The collection contains a wealth of materials including letters of correspondence, newspaper clippings, and Harrison’s numerous scrapbooks.  By studying this collection, I came to realize that Harrison was not only a pioneer of soapbox oratory in Harlem, but also the leading Black exponent of the secular Freethought movement, a professor of embryology at the Chiropractic College in Harlem, a lecturer in comparative religion at the Modern School, staff lecturer on topics ranging from literature to sociology for the New York City Board of Education, editor of The Voice and The New Negro magazineand of Marcus Garvey’s Negro World newspaper.

As a writer, literary critic, orator, journalist, educator, and political activist, Harrison influenced a whole generation of Black leaders and activists from W.E.B. Dubois to Marcus Garvey. The famous Black trade union leader A. Phillip Randolph called Harrison the “father of Harlem radicalism,” yet Harrison today remains a deeply underappreciated figure in African, Caribbean, American, and African-American history.

Though history has generally neglected Harrison, his life and legacy have begun to be unearthed thanks to the unique efforts of the independent scholar Jeffrey B. Perry. Perry has done ground-breaking research over decades to uncover this giant of Black history, and has published a volume of Harrison’s writings and the first of a two-volume biography entitled Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism.

Yet despite Perry’s efforts, Harrison’s impact and importance have yet to be fully acknowledged. My own research analyzes and contextualizes Harrison’s political and intellectual impact. It explores how his penetrating insights into the nature of economics, global politics, race relations, and the struggle for Black liberation influenced a whole generation of movers and shakers in the United States and beyond.

Brian Kwoba is currently completing his doctorate on Hubert Henry Harrison.


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