The most important black radical you’ve never heard of


Hubert Harrison, seated left, and International Workers of the World leaders Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Bill Haywood, seated right, organized the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike. PHOTO/American Labor Museum

Hubert Harrison was one of the first black socialists in the United States, a fierce champion of racial equality, and a pioneering analyst of how capitalists use racism to divide the working class. He deserves to be remembered.

Hubert Henry Harrison is the most important black radical you’ve never heard of. While other leading figures in the black freedom movement, from W. E. B. Du Bois to Ella Baker to Malcolm X, have been honored with everything from street names to postage stamps, Harrison remains in the shadows, largely unknown except to specialists in black history. In his day, however, Harrison was a figure who stood alongside giants like Marcus Garvey, Ida B. Wells, and A. Philip Randolph.

Harrison was also one of the earliest black socialists in the United States. In his time in the Socialist Party, Harrison developed an analysis of how capitalism produces racial inequality and pressed the labor movement to directly confront that inequality. A supporter of the party’s radical left wing, Harrison was pushed out during factional struggles before World War I. He went on to form his own newspaper and lead the black radical upsurge in Harlem that followed the war.

Throughout his brief life, Harrison insisted on linking the fight against racial oppression with the fight against capitalism. His life’s work is a vital resource for radicals today attempting to join those two struggles.

Linking Anti-Racism to Socialism

Harrison was born in Saint Croix, a small Caribbean island, in 1883. By the age of seven, he was working as a domestic servant. When his mother died in 1898, Harrison immigrated to New York, finishing high school there and taking a job in the post office. He quickly established himself as an intellectual leader, organizing political discussion groups among his coworkers and throwing himself into New York’s vibrant scene of street lectures and debates.

A fierce advocate for racial equality, Harrison soon ran afoul of the most important black political figure of his generation, the accommodationist Booker T. Washington. Harrison had written a letter to the New York Sun in response to Washington’s recent contention that “the Southern States of the Union offer the Negro a better chance than almost any other country in the world.” In his reply, Harrison excoriated Washington for his silence about the outrages of American racism and accused him of holding his position as race leader “by grace of the white people who elect colored people’s leaders for them.”

Washington never deigned to respond to Harrison in print, but instead replied with action. Using his position as a distributor of patronage jobs to black Americans as part of the Republican Party machine, Washington had Harrison fired from the post office.

Yet if Washington’s intent was to silence Harrison, his plan failed miserably. Less than a month after losing his position, Harrison found work again, this time as a lecturer and organizer for the Socialist Party.

The Socialist Party was a formidable organization, particularly in New York, when Harrison joined it in 1911. Across the country, socialists were winning election to city councils and state assemblies; in Wisconsin, socialist leader Victor Berger even secured a seat in Congress. The party was less successful organizing black workers, despite considerable debate since its founding over the “race question.”

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