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Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
Hubert Henry Harrison: The Black Socrates
John G. Jackson
The editor of this journal has asked me to write an article on the eminent Black freethinkers of the Harlem Renaissance (1917-1928). Most readers are probably familiar with the names of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, Arthur A. Schomburg, Marcus Garvey, and A. Philip Randolph. Among the outstanding celebrities of this period was Hubert Henry Harrison, yet today few people are aware of his life and work. I had the good fortune to know Harrison personally, so I can draw on not only written sources but also my own memory.
Hubert Henry Harrison was born in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, on April 27, 1883. He died in New York City in December 1927. This extraordinary man was only forty-four years old at the time of his death. He was an intellectual genius, and in his short lifespan his achievements were so great that one wonders how they were accomplished. My late friend Joel Augustus Rogers published a short biographical sketch of Harrison in his \World's Great Men of Color.\ Rogers was a personal friend and disciple of Harrison, and it saddened him to think that a great man like Harrison should be largely unknown.
To cite Rogers:
That individuals of genuine worth and immense potentialities who dedicate their lives to the advancement of their fellowmen are permitted to pass unrecognized and unrewarded from the scene, while others, inferior to them in ability and altruism, receive acclaim, wealth, and distinction, is common -- yet it never ceases to shock all but the confirmed cynic. Those with a sense of right and wrong, of fitness and incongruity -- whether they be wise men or fools -- will forever feel that this ought not to be.
Shakespeare was so little regarded during his lifetime that no one bothered to record the details of his life, and today most of what is said about him is pure conjecture. Gregor Mendel, whose experiments were to revolutionize biology and agriculture, was practically unknown until sixty years after his death. Of course, there are some of genuine worth who do not die obscure and who do win gradual recognition while alive. But why are so many whom we feel really ought to be up, down; and why are so many who certainly ought to be down, up?
Hubert Henry Harrison is the case in point. Harrison was not only perhaps 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 fellowmen; none of the Afro-American leaders of his time had a saner and more effective program -- but others, unquestionably his inferiors, received the recognition that was his due. Even today but a very small proportion of the Negro intelligentsia has ever heard of him.\ (World's Great Men of Color, Vol. 2, p. 611, New York: J. A. Rogers, 1947).
The reason for this neglect was explained by Rogers as follows:
Harrison's lifelong enemy, like that of most scholars, was poverty. Destiny sent him into this world very poor. And if this were not enough, she gave him a critical mind, and a candid tongue, a family to support, a passion for knowledge; on top of all that, a black skin, and sent him to America. Surely a more formidable string of handicaps would be hard to conceive. (ibid., p. 617).
One reason Harrison is not better known is that he was a champion of unpopular causes. He was a great scholar, orator, and writer. He was a champion of labor, a foe of superstitution, and an avowed atheist. At one of his lectures he was asked why he rejected Christianity; he replied that any rational Black man who accepted Christianity must be crazy. As Harrison pointed out, the Christian Bible is a slave master's book. Slavery is defended in numerous passages in Holy Writ, whereas antislavery is nowhere endorsed in that work. In the Christian pantheon, god is white, and so is Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, and all the angels. The only black member is the devil. He pointed out how pathetic it is to go to a Jim Crow church on Sunday and hear Black people singing a hymn, asking god to bleach them whiter than snow, so that they might enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Another favorite hymn among Black Christians is \You Can Have All the World, But Just Give Me Jesus.\ Harrison argued that he would rather remain Black and go to hell. After all, the devil and all his imps are Black and he would feel at home among Black people. There would be a heat problem, but in due time one would get used to it and perhaps enjoy it. In summing up, he would say that he had no intention of bowing down to a lily-white god or worshipping a Jim Crow Jesus. His candor sometimes infuriated the religionists, and riots occurred at his meetings.
In the fiftieth anniversary number of the \Truth Seeker,\ published in 1923, a picture of Hubert Harrison appeared. The editor, George E. MacDonald, tells of how Harrison, at an open air meeting, denounced the churches for their abetting of superstition, ignorance, and poverty and made a plea for birth control. A religious fanatic in the audience attempted to strike Harrison with a crowbar. Grappling with this nut, Harrison seized the crowbar and chased him out of the meeting. A policeman intervened and arrested Harrison, but let his opponent escape. The case was tried before a magistrate, who reprimanded the cop for arresting Harrison. The judge stated that Mr. Harrison had a perfect right to defend himself against assault and battery and told the officer that he had arrested the wrong party.
At the age of sixteen, Harrison, as a cabin boy on a boat, made a world tour, and at age seventeen he settled in New York City. He attended night school classes for awhile. In the examination for the diploma, his mark was 100 percent; he was the only student with that grade. Harrison's knowledge of foreign languages enabled him to qualify as a special foreign clerk in the post office. After four years, he lost the job on account of writing uncomplimentary articles in the public press about Booker T. Washington.
By 1905, when he was only twenty-two years old, Harrison was highly regarded as a lawyer.
In 1889, Edwin C. Walker had organized the Sunrise Club of which he was secretary until his death in 1931. Meetings of the Sunrise Club were held on Mondays every two weeks. In 1905, Joseph F. Rinn, president of the Metropolitan Psychical Society, was featured at a meeting of the Sunrise Club. Besides being a wealthy produce merchant and an expert on psychical research, Rinn was a vice president of the American Society of Magicians. The meeting was held in the ballroom of the Cafe Boulevard, which could seat 1,000 people. A crowd of 3,000 showed up, so 2,000 were kept outside by a police guard. Rinn gave a spectacular magic show before an appreciative audience.
In addressing the audience Rinn said, \Ladies and gentlemen, the circular you received indicates what I propose to do tonight through the aid of my spirit guides. It is sufficient to say that I propose to perform phenomena where fraud is impossible and under regulations that no medium has ever accepted, or will accept\ (Joseph F. Rinn, Sixty Years of Psychical Research. New York: The Truth Seeker Co., 1950, p. 224).
Mr. Walker selected a committee to work with Rinn, saying, \Mr. Rinn, we have picked a committee. Mr. Hubert Harrison, a well-known lawyer, who will act as chairman, will be assisted by three other gentlemen\ (ibid., p. 224).
After staging a baffling magic show that convinced the audience that he possessed supernormal powers, Rinn announced that he had no occult powers and that the whole performance was nothing but fraud. Harrison replied, \Mr. Rinn is only joking, friends. We all saw him do things that violate natural law.\ Then Rinn said, \You are wrong, Mr. Harrison . . . I'll admit that you are one of the most brilliant lawyers in New York City, but your work has never made you an expert in trickery\ (ibid., p. 230).
In June 1923, Harrison lectured before the Sunrise Club. In the audience were H. L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, Ludwig Lewishohn, Heywood Broun, Charles Hanson Towne, and Burton Rascoe, literary editor of the New York Tribune. Mencken asked Rascoe to introduce him to Dr. Harrison, and soon these literary celebrities were carrying on a dialogue with Harrison.
At the age of twenty-four, Harrison was writing book reviews for the New York Times. He also wrote for the New York Sun, Tribune, and World. He wrote articles for such magazines as The Nation, the New Republic, and The Masses. He was assistant editor of The Masses for four years. For four years, he was also editor of The Negro World, a paper published by Marcus Garvey.
In 1926 Harrison became a staff lecturer for the New York City Board of Education. He lectured in the great hall of City College and also at New York University, Columbia University, public libraries, and YMCAs. Harrison believed in education for the masses, so he also took to the soapbox and orated on street corners in the evenings. On September 10, 1922, Harrison lectured from the steps of the U.S. Subtreasury at Wall and Broad Streets, across the street from J. P. Morgan and Company and the New York Stock Exchange. The New York Times (September 11, 1922) reported that \Hubert Harrison, an eloquent and forceful speaker, broke all records at the Stock Exchange yesterday.\ This lecture was well attended, for there was an audience of over 11,000 held spellbound by Harrison's oratory.
Soon after the Industrial Workers of the World was founded in 1905, Harrison joined and became an organizer. He participated in the Paterson, New Jersey, silk mills strike, where he cooperated with John Reed, Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Morris Hillquit. Harrison was a champion of the underprivileged. He advocated Irish home rule and freedom for India, China, and other nations which were being exploited by the Imperialists. For many years, he was a leader in the Socialist party and one of its best lecturers. In 1917 Harrison learned that all the other lecturers in the Socialist party in New York City were being paid larger salaries than he was. He went to the headquarters and protested. Harrison was told that being a Black man, he should be glad to have the job at any price. He promptly resigned from the Socialist party.
Harrison, being an atheist, wrote and lectured frequently for the freethought movement. He wrote for The Truth Seeker, The Call, and the Modern Quarterly and gave lectures debunking the Bible and the various religious rackets. This caused concern among many preachers, for young people who were members of their churches attended Harrison's lectures and were being converted to freethought. A ministerial association which owned a theological seminary in Tennessee offered Harrison the presidency of its school. Harrison was a biblical scholar with a knowledge of such exotic languages as Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Arabic. He told me that he thought seriously of taking the job, but at that time he was editor of Garvey's Negro World. So he consulted Garvey to get his opinion. Garvey told Harrison to refuse the offer since he planned to establish a Pan-African University and had him in mind for the presidency of that school. Garvey was later railroaded to jail and deported back to Jamaica, so Harrison lost out.
Harrison claimed that he was a Doctor of Civil Science. He never attended a college or university so the doctorate must have been an honorary one. He was adversely criticized for claiming it. But I think that any institution that would have conferred a doctorate on Harrison would have honored itself, for he possessed scholarship in many fields of knowledge.
In a visit to the Schomburg Library of African and Afro-American Literature, Mr. Arthur A. Schomburg, the curator, told me that Harrison had such wide knowledge of science, that a German scientific magazine published one of his articles and was so impressed with its erudition that they placed Harrison's picture on the cover of the magazine. Harrison was at his best lecturing on evolution. He had read the works of such evolutionists as Darwin, Wallace, Huxley, Spencer, and Haeckel and quoted long passages from their works verbatim. In his lectures, he never used notes; all the information was stored in his memory.
Harrison welcomed questions from the members of his audiences, and he enjoyed lecturing on controversial subjects such as evolution and religion. In a lecture on evolution, on one occasion, he told of how man evolved from the apes millions of years ago in Africa. In the ensuing question period, a young man said that since the first true men were Africans, then didn't Dr. Harrison think that was why Africans looked more like apes than Europeans did. Harrison replied that the truth was that whites looked more like apes than did Blacks and that anyone who doubted this opinion should go to any sizable zoo and closely observe the anthropoid apes. The fact is that there are no black apes; they all have fair skin. Apes also have straight hair, thin lips, and Anglo-Saxon type noses. The audience applauded vigorously and laughed heartily. Hecklers were also welcomed in Dr. Harrison's audiences, since he possessed a keen sense of humor and easily made laughingstocks of his hecklers. On one occasion, a young man, recently graduated from Harvard, attended one of Harrison's lectures. After the lecture the student asked a silly question; the lecturer replied with a silly answer. The youth became angry and told Harrison not to take him for a fool for he was highly educated, having recently finished Harvard. The lecturer replied that he could not have finished Harvard because it was still there. Then Harrison observed that when one graduates from a school the event is called Commencement Day. The student then was asked why he decided to finish on Commencement Day. Both laughter and applause followed, and the Harvard man was not pleased.
Though Harrison lived in Harlem, he lectured all over New York City and had a considerable following among the liberal whites. In 1913 he organized the Radical Forum. An odd feature of this group was that the leader was a Black man and his followers were all white. Frequently Harrison reviewed books from the lecture platform and then sold copies of the book to the audience. One of his disciples was a brilliant young writer, J. A. Rogers, who published a work entitled From \Superman\ to Man, a scholarly expose of race prejudice. Harrison reviewed this book from a stepladder in a street corner meeting in Harlem and then sold one hundred copies of the book for one dollar a copy. Rogers was in the audience and was both pleased and surprised. To cite Rogers, \The feat was all the more remarkable in view of the fact that the purchasers were Negroes, who as a group, are very little inclined to buy books\ (World's Great Men of Color. Vol. 2, p. 614).
This author attended Harrison's last lecture at the Harlem YMCA in December 1927. Harrison delivered a brilliant and scholarly discourse on the African origin of civilization, then told the audience that he was afflicted with a pathological appendix and that after an operation at Harlem Hospital, he would be back to deliver another lecture. Unfortunately, Harrison died on the operating table and hence delivered no more lectures. His death was largely ignored in the public press but he did get some sympathetic notices. The editor of the New York News, Alderman George W. Harris, a Harvard graduate, wrote:
Thousands of New Yorkers will miss the philosophy of the most brilliant street orator that this metropolis has produced in the last generation. The soul of Hubert Harrison knew neither black nor white, race nor religion. If a more universal man has been created in our day we have not met him. His fund of philosophy, ready wit, his measured and melodious utterances disarmed all those who came to scoff, and turned them into his admiring followers. He was a potent and living example of the potential equality of the Black man. (New York News, December 31,1927).
The obituary notice in The Pittsburgh Courier observed:
It was a revelation to see Hubert Harrison mounted on the street corner ladder and surrounded by a crowd of several hundred Negroes, discussing philosophy, psychology, economics, literature, astronomy, or the drama, and holding his audience spellbound. His achievements should prove an inspiration to many young Negroes, for despite the handicap of poverty, he became one of the most learned men of his day and was able to teach the wide masses of his race how to appreciate and enjoy all the finer things of life; to glance back over the whole history of mankind and to look forward as far as thought can reach.
Much more could be said about the career of Hubert Henry Harrison, but limitations of space forbid further comment. During the Harlem Renaissance, many Black freethinkers were active, and they will be discussed in a future article.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John G. Jackson is an educator, lecturer, author, and man of principle. Born on April 1, 1907, he has been an atheist since he could think. He lived for fifty years in New York City, from 1932 to 1977, lecturing at the Ingersoll Forum of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism (from 1930 to 1955). He also wrote for The Truth Seeker magazine and was a writer and associate of the Rationalist Press Association in London. In 1971 he became a lecturer in the Black Studies Department of Rutgers University, remaining there until 1973. From 1973 to 1977 he was a Visiting Professor at the University of New York. He was a Visiting Professor at Northeast Illinois University from 1977 to 1980.