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Hubert Henry Harrison: Great African American Freethinker

by Patrick Inniss

Hubert Henry Harrison was born in 1883 in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, and became, by the 1920s, one of the nation's most prominent atheists.

Harrison was a controversial figure from an early age. Coming to New York City at 17, he used his knowledge of foreign languages to land a job with the postal service. This permitted him to pursue his passions for learning and writing. This latter pursuit soon landed him in hot water with his bosses, however, when he wrote an article critical of Booker T. Washington, a darling of the establishment.

In 1905 he turned to the law as a profession, but continued his writing, and also became a popular speaker. By age 24 he was contributing book reviews to the Sun, the Tribune, The Nation, and The New Republic.

Harrison served as editor of the magazine The Masses for four years. Soon, Harrison was one of the foremost intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance, which was marked by a number of exciting, talented freethinkers.

Harrison's knowledge of languages included an ability to read Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Arabic, which served him well in his biblical studies. Although Harrison attended night school at times, he was largely self-educated. But his knowledge was such that he became a lecturer for the NYC Board of Education, speaking at NYU, Columbia and City College. Working without notes, Harrison routinely quoted long passages from the works of authors such as Darwin and Huxley. By no means limited to the academic environment, he often spoke from a stepladder on street corners, delivering book and drama reviews, or discussing philosophy, psychology, or astronomy. Harrison also delivered speeches in support of the Socialist party, but resigned in 1917 when he discovered that White speakers were paid more!

Science was one of Harrison's loves, and he especially enjoyed speaking on the subject of evolution and debating religionists. Harrison was frequently critical of church positions on science and birth control, and made no efforts to veil his feelings in his well-attended lectures. Harrison recognized the connection between racism and religion, and pointed this out quite bluntly. The Bible was a slave master's book in Harrison's eyes, which not only sanctioned the keeping of slaves, but even gave advice on their handling. He felt that any Black person who accepted Christianity was either ignorant or crazy.

Of course, one might ask, would the now popular alternative, Islam, be any better? The slave masters may have been largely Christian, but many of the slave traders were Muslims, apparently not deterred by their faith.

Harrison observed that he would rather not go to Heaven if it operated under the Jim Crow system, and, noting that the only spiritual creature ever depicted as non-White was Satan, that perhaps he would be more comfortable in Hell.

Such candor frequently provoked violence at Harrison's lectures, a fact which seemed to only enhance his stature as an effective and influential speaker.

Hubert Henry Harrison's efforts were not confined to speaking and writing. He was a labor organizer with the International Workers of the World (the "Wobblies") from the early days of the group's existence, working with many of the top labor leaders of the day.

His support of unpopular causes such as labor rights, freethought, and an uncompromising advocacy of racial equality meant that Harrison never received the recognition that would otherwise have been accorded such a learned and able speaker and educator.

At the turn of the century, the opposition of the churches and industry was too much to overcome, especially in addition to the racial prejudice which Harrison faced.

The measure of his success is not to be found in the history books, but in the recollections of those who knew and were influenced by him, and the contemporary press accounts of his achievements.

Harrison died in New York at the age of only 44. He left a legacy as one of the most outstanding persons of his day, a champion of the underprivileged and oppressed, a freethinker who overcame many obstacles to become a man to be admired by all.

Patrick Inniss is a columnist from the Seattle, Washington area. The following piece appeared in the February 1992 issue of Secular Subjects, the newsletter of the Rationalist Society of St. Louis, and is reprinted with special permission of the author.

[*] AAH Examiner Selected Articles


This page was last updated 02/13/2004

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