Hubert Harrison

Hubert Harrison Chances are you have never heard of someone named Hubert Harrison.  Until this past few months, I know I never had.

I’d like to introduce you to a truly remarkable person in our own American history.

I came across him in a strange way.  Somehow I clicked onto a page on Google that was about a black man named Hubert Harrison, who was giving lectures and selling books on the street corners in Harlem during the First World War – lectures on science, women’s suffrage, evolution, religious superstitions, politics, class and race consciousness, and other topics which would draw crowds of hundreds of people.

I thought to myself: Who is this man?

Another thing that peaked my interest was a quote from Henry Miller, the great American author of Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn and other books, and an early literary idol of mine, who, as a young man recalled Harrison as one of his own idols.  Miller wrote:

“There was no one in those days who could hold a candle to Hubert Harrison.  With a few well-directed words he had the ability to demolish any opponent.  I described the wonderful way he smiled, his easy assurance, the great sculptured head which he carried on his shoulders like a lion.  I wondered aloud if he had not come from royal blood, if he had not been the descendant of some great African monarch.  Yes, he was a man who electrified one by his mere presence.  Besides him, the other speakers, the white ones, looked like pygmies, not only physically but culturally, spiritually.  Some of them, like the ones who were paid to foment trouble, carried on like epileptics, always wrapped in the Stars and Strips, to be sure.  Hubert Harrison, on the other hand, no matter what the provocation, always retained his self-possession, his dignity. “

I discovered a superb biography, “Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918″, by Jeffrey B. Perry; absorbed it in a few days, and was quite astounded by this heretofore unknown person Hubert Harrison that I had run across.

Harrison was born on St. Croix, Danish West Indies in 1883.  His mother was a working-class woman, and his biological father was a slave.  Growing up in poverty on the island, Harrison learned first-hand the struggles of his race.

In 1900, as a 17-year-old orphan, with nothing but the clothes on his back, he arrived in New York City, and immediately was confronted with the atmosphere of intense racial oppression of African Americans existing in the United States. Harrison was especially horrified and shocked by the lynchings and virulent white supremacy that was then reaching a peak in these years in the South.

Working low-paying service jobs, he attended high school at night, and read and educated himself.  Over the ensuing decades, he rose to become one of the most influential people in America.  Writer, orator, educator, critic, editor of “Negro World”, political activist in the Socialist Party, founder of the New Negro Movement, his work had an immense influence not only upon his own time, but upon the times and people that followed.

Author, journalist and historian Joel A. Rogers wrote:

“Harrison was not only the foremost Afro-American intellect of his time, but one of America’s greatest minds.  No one worked more seriously and indefatigably to enlighten his fellow men.”

At the core of Harrison’s life,was an unrelenting devotion to justice.  Racism and white supremacy were his targets.

Harrision once wrote:

“Politically, the Negro is the touchstone of the modern democratic idea.  The presence of the Negro puts our democracy to the proof and reveals the falsity of it…True democracy and equality implies a revolution…startling even to think of.”

Through his writing and lectures and social involvement, he labored unrelentingly to educate the masses, and to give voice and dignity to African-American men and women everywhere.

He wrote:

“America is a great experiment in democracy…unique in the history of the world…And the great American experiment is to determine for the future whether we can make out of the welter of races and nations one people, one culture, one democracy.  It is confessedly a hard task, but it can be done, and the grounds of that faith rest on the known facts of the present and the past.”

Of course, he was attacked on many fronts; but his labors became the seedbed of future movements and many great future leaders.


Traveling to a New AmericaJames Hilgendorf is a filmmaker, speaker, poet, and the author of ten non-fiction books that are opening the way to a new vision of ourselves, a new dream of America, a new religion for the world.  This year, he is traveling to towns and cities all across America, meeting people, giving talks and readings, and holding discussions about the future of America – all under the banner of “Traveling to a New America“.

Follow the journey on Facebook.

To arrange talks, contact the author.

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