Hubert Henry Harrison (1883-1927)

Image Courtesy Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library

Hubert Henry Harrison, author, lecturer, editor, and labor leader, was born in Concordia, St. Croix, Danish West Indies (now United States Virgin Islands) on April 27, 1883.  Upon the completion of his elementary schooling in 1900, he moved to New York City, New York.  There he took on various service-oriented positions, including that of telephone operator and hotel bellman.  Beginning in 1901 he attended an evening high school program, finishing at the top of his class in 1907.  After graduation Harrison became a postal clerk.

In 1909 Harrison married Irene Louis Horton, and soon distinguished himself as the leading authority on black politics and history.  Concluding that the color problem was actually a class problem (he would later change his mind), Harrison in 1909 became one of the few African American members of the New York Socialist Party.  In 1910 Harrison wrote a scathing analysis of Booker T. Washington and his philosophy of racial accommodation for the The New York Sun.  In retaliation, Washington in 1911 mobilized his considerable influence to have Harrison fired from his position in the post office.

All the more motivated, Harrison became a full-time lecturer on black history and Socialist politics and soon emerged as the most prominent African American in the New York Socialist Party.  In 1911 he became an assistant editor for The Masses, the Socialist Party newspaper and founded the Colored Socialist Club (CSC).

Harrison continued to write columns and editorials for radical newspapers and publications, although in 1912 he criticized the Socialist Party for failing to fully address the race issue in an article titled “Socialism and the Negro,” published in the International Socialist Review.  In this article he argued that blacks should be more actively recruited by the Party since historically they were the most oppressed labor group.

Harrison’s continued criticism of Socialist policies regarding African American workers eventually led to his suspension from the Party in 1914.  Harrison, however soon forged alliances with other radicals such as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and William “Big Bill” Haywood of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who seemed more committed to combating both racism and capitalism.

In 1917 Harrison organized and became president of the Liberty League, a militant, all-black organization devoted to equal rights.  He wrote for The Voice, the newspaper of the Liberty League, where he denounced Jim Crow laws and lynching.  Two years later, in 1919, Harrison founded The New Negro, a newspaper he dedicated to denouncing the murderous race riots and lynching across America.  Harrison’s New Negro popularized the term “New Negro,” which urged African Americans to physically fight back against their white oppressors and permanently discard the obsequious image popularly attributed to them by the white media.

By 1920, Hubert Harrison found his newspaper and his organizing efforts overshadowed by another West Indian immigrant, Marcus Garvey, and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).  Though never officially joining the UNIA, Harrison accepted a position as editor for Negro World, the UNIA newspaper.  He worked for Negro World for two years before breaking with Garvey in 1922.  Eventually Harrison would join other African American leaders in signing a petition calling for Garvey’s deportation by the Federal government.

After leaving Negro World Harrison continued to lecture and write editorials for black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier.  Referred to by many as the “Black Socrates,” Harrison never received a college degree.

Hubert Henry Harrison died on December 17, 1927 in New York from complications from an appendectomy.  He was 44.