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Black History Spotlight: Hubert Henry Harrison

Feb 1, 2005 – Crucian, Hubert Henry Harrison (1883- 1927), was a renowned figure during the Harlem Renaissance. He was known as great orator, leader, critic, writer, labor organizer, champion for the under privileged and defender of the "Negro's racial heritage." Harrison was also an avowed atheist and is credited with bringing socialism to Harlem. The material here was gathered from the Web sites that are referenced.
Harrison was born in the then-Danish West Indies on the island of St. Croix in Estate Concordia, on April 27, 1883, and at the age of 16 left home to tour the world as a cabin boy. A year later he landed in New York City where he worked routine menial jobs while attending school at night. From an early age Harrison was a controversial figure. His knowledge of language included the ability to read Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Arabic and his first professional employment was as a special foreign language clerk with the U.S Postal Service. Working with the postal service gave Harrison the opportunity to pursue his other passion – writing. His thirst for knowledge led him to become largely self-educated and he was widely read in the fields of Anthropology, Sociology, Philosophy, Science, Literature and Drama, according to historian Joel A. Rogers. (See "http://www.sdonline.org/34/jeffrey_perry.htm").
The period of the Harlem Renaissance, from about 1920 to 1930, reflected an outburst of creative activity among African Americans in all forms of art, literature and education, which would redefine the heritage of the black race. During that period, there was a great migration of African Americans to northern cities, and, since Harlem was the center of a large black population it became the focal point of the Black Renaissance.(See "www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history").
Having spent his formative years in the West Indies where there was a more tolerable relationship between blacks and whites, Harrison was disillusioned by the segregation and lack of intimacy he found in Harlem's black community. Historians suggest that Harrison, who was described as dark complexioned, with a stocky build and a booming voice, was one of the first African Americans to publicly discuss color issues within the race, specifically the disproportionate success of lighter skinned blacks. The street corner became the pulpit for his views. This was the vehicle Harrison used to educate, orate and organize changes. He spoke on a variety of subjects sometimes delivering book and drama reviews, or discussing astronomy, psychology, or philosophy.
Harrison lectured wherever he could find an audience. He spoke frequently at Columbus Circle; from the steps of the U.S. Subtreasury; directly across the street from J.P. Morgan & Co. and from the steps of the New York Stock Exchange. John G. Jackson, educator, lecturer and author, who said he knew Harrison personally, said in an article published in February of 1987, that on September 11, 1922 the New York Times reported that Harrison "broke all records" when he spoke to an audience of about 11,000 listeners. The New York City police department had to rope off the area and stop all traffic at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets.(See "http://www.atheists.org/Atheism/roots/harrison/")
Harrison, even today, is revered by select groups as a prominent "freethinker" or atheist. Harrison held that any black person who accepted Christianity needed to have his head examined. Harrison did not accept the belief of some theologians of his time that blacks were less than human.
Harrison helped to establish the Harlem School of Social Science. He organized the Liberty League in 1917 and offered Marcus Garvey his first public speaking appearance in New York in July of 1917. He defended the constitutional rights of blacks and advocated Irish home rule and the independence of India and China.
Harrison wrote articles and reviews for such newspapers as "The Call," "The Masses," "The New Republic," "The Truth Seeker," "New York Sun," "The New York Times," and the "Tribune." He founded "The Voice," the newspaper of the Liberty League. The New York City Department of Education employed Harrison as a lecturer and he spoke at New York University, Columbia and the City College. He often worked without notes. Utilizing his extraordinary memory and intellect Harrison was able to routinely quote long passages from the works of Charles Darwin and Aldous Huxley.
Harrison's achievements and impact on civil rights of the era has never been given the recognition deserving of this intellectual genius. Harrison was considered to be not only the foremost black intellects of his time but one of American's greatest minds. However, the "Black Socrates" as he was called, was unpopular due to his support of labor rights, free thought and his uncompromising advocacy of racial equality.
Harrison died from appendicitis complications in New York at the young age of 44. His legacy remains as a freethinking man who rose from humble beginnings and fought for the rights of oppressed people.
In observance of February as Black History Month, the Source will be highlighting a number of contemporary and historic individuals born in the Virgin Islands who have made major contributions in areas including civil rights, science, literature sports and entertainment.

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