Hubert Harrison was born in St. Croix of the Virgin Islands in 1883. At the age of seventeen he travelled to New York City where he worked as a bellhop and an elevator operator. He also attended night school and studied sociology, science, psychology, literature, and drama.
Harrison's studies radicalized him and he became a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. He later joined the Socialist Party where he met other African American radicals such as Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen, and Claude McKay. He impressed them with his intellect and was given the nickname, the "Black Socrates". According to Barbara Bair, Harrison "protested the quick abandonment of the recruitment campaign among blacks in 1912... while openly criticizing the racial prejudice manifested by some party leaders."
Harrison joined Bill Haywood, Carlo Tresca, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn in the Industrial Workers of the World campaign during the Paterson Silk Industry Strike in 1913. This alienated him from the executive committee of the Socialist Party. In 1914 he was suspended from the party.
Max Eastman, editor of the The Masses, employed him on his journal. Harrison also edited The Voice and contributed to the The Messenger, The Call, The New Republic, the New York Times and the New York World. He also published two important books, The Negro and the Nation (1917) and When Africa Awakes (1920).
Harrison was a strong opponent of United States involvement in the First World War. This caused him to break with William Du Bois who had argued in The Crisis that: "Let, us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks."
Harrison also lectured on socialism and African American civil rights from street corners and in September, 1922, the New York Times reported that he was drawing crowds of over 10,000 people and the New York City police had to stop the traffic. His friend, Joel Rogers, recalled that "he spoke wherever an audience could be had on subjects embracing general literature, sociology, Negro history, and the leading events of the day."
It is claimed that Harrison had a great influence on Marcus Garvey. Harrison, who was now claiming that race was more important than class and after leaving the Socialist Party he joined Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Harrison also edited the organizations journal, The Negro World, for four years. He also worked as a staff lecturer for the New York City Board of Education.
Harrison advocated the creation of a separate black state within the territory of the United States, and in 1925 he founded the International Colored Unity League and a new periodical, the Voice of the Negro.
Hubert Harrison died of an appendicitis-related illness on 17th December 1927.
The essence of the present situation lies in the fact that the people whom our white masters have "recognized" as our leaders (without taking the trouble to consult us) and those who, by our own selection, has actually attained to leadership among us are being revaluated and, in most cases, rejected. The most striking instance from the latter class is Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, the editor of the Crisis. Du Bois's case is the more significant because his former services to his race have been undoubtedly of a high and courageous sort.
Dr. Du Bois first palpably sinned in his editorial, "Close Ranks". But this offense lies in a single sentence: "Let, us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks." It is felt by all his critics that Du Bois, of all Negroes, knows best that our "special grievances", which the War Department Bulletin describes as justifiable, consists of lynching, segregation and disfranchisement and that the Negroes of America cannot preserve either their lives, their manhood or their vote (which is their political lives and liberties) with these things in existence.
Twenty years ago all Negroes known to the white publicists of America could be classed as conservatives on all the great questions on which thinkers differ. In matters of industry, commerce, politics, religion, they could be trusted to take the backward view. Only on the question of the Negro's "rights" could a small handful be found bold enough to be tagged as "radicals," and they were howled down by both white and colored adherents of the conservative point of view. Today Negroes differ on all those great questions on which white thinkers differ, and there are Negro radicals of every imaginary stripe agnostics, atheists, I.W.W.'s, Socialists, Single Taxers and even Bolshevists.
He spoke wherever an audience could be had on subjects embracing general literature, sociology, Negro history, and the leading events of the day. He wrote for such radical and antireligious periodicals as The Call, The Truth Seeker, and The Modern Quarterly, being perhaps the first Negro of ability to enter this field. His views on religion and birth control were often opposed by Catholics and Protestants alike, and at his open-air meetings he and his friends were obliged to defend themselves physically from mobs at times. But he fought back courageously, never hesitating to speak no matter how great the hostility of his opponents.
One of the men who was very much influenced by Harrison was Marcus Garvey, later the most prominent of Negro agitators. Garvey's emphasis on racialism was due in no small measure to Harrison's lectures on Negro history and his utterances on racial pride, which animated and fortified Garvey's views. Harrison's slogan became "Race First," in opposition to his earlier socialistic one of "Class First."
Harrison's views profoundly influenced the Messenger Group, headed by A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, two leaders who did more than anyone else to focus the attention of the government and of thinking whites on the injustices suffered by Negroes during the war. While the old leaders capitulated and urged the members of the race to submit while the war was on, these two brilliant young men spoke out fearlessly.