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November 20th, 2008 at 10:17 am

Writing Hubert Harrison — A Post by Jeffrey Perry

Hubert HarrisonThe following post is by Jeffrey B. Perry, author of Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918. You can also read his previous post “Who Was Hubert Harrison?”.

Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 is the first volume of my two-volume biography of a brilliant and influential early-twentieth-century Black intellectual and activist whose life and work has much to offer twenty-first century readers.

During the 1960s, like millions of other people, I was deeply affected by the movements for social change in the United States inspired by the civil rights struggle. As a student (at both Princeton and Harvard) in that period, I was afforded opportunity to study, to research, and to interact with scholars. My ancestral roots, as far back as identifiable, are entirely among working people. These factors, and many related experiences, have led me toward a life in which I have tried to mix worker- and community-based organizing (I worked in the trade union movement for over thirty years) with historical research and writing. My major preoccupation has been with the successes and failures of efforts at social change in the United States. In that context, I have focused on the role of white supremacy in undermining efforts at social change and on the importance of struggle against white supremacy to social change.

I was influenced toward serious study of matters of race and class in America through personal experiences and through the insightful and seminal work of an independent scholar and close personal friend, the late Theodore William Allen (author of the two-volume work The Invention of the White Race). Allen’s writings on the role of white supremacy in U.S. history and on the centrality of the struggle against white supremacy to efforts at social change have attracted increased, and well deserved, attention. Familiarity with Allen’s life and work disposed me to be receptive to the life and work of Harrison, another independent, anti-white-supremacist, working-class intellectual.

It was in this context, in the early 1980s, while working on a proposed Columbia University doctoral dissertation (under Professor Nathan I. Huggins and Hollis R. Lynch) on approaches to the struggle against white supremacy, that I first encountered the work of Hubert Harrison. When I first read microfilm copies of Harrison’s two published books I was arrested by the clarity of his writing and the perceptiveness of his analysis. I knew that I had encountered a writer of great importance, and, within a short while, I decided to change my dissertation topic to a biography of Harrison. I searched for what I could find on him and was several hundred pages into his biography when, through the help of two Virgin Islanders—G. James Fleming, professor emeritus of Morgan State University in Baltimore, and June A. V. Lindqvist, librarian at the Enid M. Baa Library and Archives in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas (and a relative of Harrison’s wife)—I was put in contact with Harrison’s daughter, Aida Harrison Richardson, and son, William Harrison.

I met Aida and William for the first time in 1983. Aida was a former school teacher and principal, William was a former attorney, and both were very bright, socially aware, race-conscious individuals who knew the value of their father’s work. They, along with their mother, the late Irene Louise Horton Harrison, had preserved the remains of Hubert Harrison’s once vast collection of papers and books in a series of Harlem apartments. After several meetings and discussions of their father’s work, they very generously (before William’s death in 1984) granted me access to some of their father’s materials, which were in a room in William’s Harlem apartment. At subsequent periods over the years I was provided access to additional materials (including Harrison’s diary), by Aida and then (after she passed in 2001) by her son Charles Richardson. I proceeded to preserve and inventory the Hubert H. Harrison Papers (many of which were in fragile condition) and, when the family requested, I worked with them to place the papers with the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University. I then worked with the Columbia staff to develop a finding aid

From very early in this process I realized that Harrison was a major figure whose life and work merited a two-volume biography. Though I was frequently confronted, in various forms, with the questions—“Who is Harrison?” and “Who are You?” I continued to work on Harrison and over the years I have published a number of articles and edited one book (A Hubert Harrison Reader, Wesleyan University Press, 2001) on him.

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