Hubert Harrison: Black Griot
of the Harlem Renaissance
By Brian Kwoba
The historical restoration of Hubert Henry Harrison (1883–1927) calls for a rethinking of the Black radical tradition in the early twentieth century. As a journalist, educator, and community organizer, this “Black Socrates” influenced a whole generation of Afro-diasporic intellectual and political innovation. Thanks to the decades-long and groundbreaking efforts of independent scholar Jeffrey B. Perry, a growing interest has emerged regarding the life and legacy of Harrison, who A. Phillip Randolph called the “father of Harlem radicalism.” Because he remains such an under-appreciated figure, his recovery requires us to expand and reframe multiple histories—including that of the socialist left, the New Negro movement, Garveyism, and the “Harlem Renaissance”—that have marginalized him. Harrison had a critical impact on all of these social movements, and exploring his angle of vision illuminates previously invisible connections between them.
Hubert Henry Harrison was born in 1883 to plantation workers of African descent on the Caribbean island of St. Croix. He obtained a grade school education as well as some religious training in the Anglican Church. Orphaned as a teenager, Harrison managed to relocate to New York City in 1900 thanks to his sister Mary.
At the turn of the century, lynching, segregation, and disfranchisement reigned supreme in the south, while anti-Black pogroms and other mechanisms of white supremacist racial cleansinggave rise to an epidemic of all-white “sundown towns” beyond the traditional south. Though Black life in the Caribbean emerged from a similar history of enslavement, Hubert Harrison’s native St. Croix (like most Caribbean islands) did not have the historical pattern of lynching and Ku Klux Klan-style terrorism that characterized the United States.1 For that reason, the encounter of Caribbean migrants like Harrison with the new regime of violent white supremacy in the United States became a major factor in their political activation.2
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