Rare Book and Manuscript Library Acquires Papers of Hubert Harrison, Father of Harlem Radicalism

NEW YORK, October 31, 2005 - Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library has acquired the papers of Hubert Henry Harrison (1883–1927), the prominent Harlem writer, public speaker, and activist whose work influenced a generation of African American intellectuals and radicals.

The papers collection spans the years 1893 to 1928 and features manuscripts, scrapbooks, diaries, correspondence, photographs and annotated books from Harrison’s personal library. With rare letters and personal exchanges among pivotal figures such as Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, and A. Philip Randolph, the Harrison collection documents a critical period of cultural and political debate about the role of race and class in the United States.

“Harrison played a seminal role in shaping twentieth-century Black intellectual thought and social activism,” said Jeffrey B. Perry, author of a two-volume biography of Harrison to be published by Columbia University Press, the first volume of which will appear in 2006. “Columbia’s purchase of the Harrison papers and its commitment to make them available to scholars should spawn many new avenues of research. The papers fill significant gaps in our historical understanding of the early twentieth century and offer important insights on America today.”

Born in 1883 in the Danish West Indian colony of St. Croix, Harrison became the leading African American voice in the Socialist Party of America, as well as a founder and lead writer for the World War I–era “New Negro” movement. His views on the relationship between economic and racial injustice had a profound influence on Marcus Garvey’s black nationalism and on A. Philip Randolph’s labor organizing. A charismatic and popular soapbox orator, Harrison was known to give as many as twenty outdoor talks a week, on topics that ranged from secularism to freedom of speech to birth control. In his later years, Harrison became a lecturer for New York Board of Education, speaking on public education issues at New York University, City College of New York, and Columbia.

The NAACP leader William Pickens called Harrison a “walking cyclopedia” of history and literature. Harrison was instrumental in founding the New York Public Library’s Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints, which grew into the internationally-recognized Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Harrison also served as editor of New Negro magazine, managing editor of Garvey’s Negro World, and was a prolific writer of essays and book reviews for such publications as the New York Times, the New Republic, and the Nation.

“Hubert Harrison was an intellectual giant, and given his humble beginnings and slender resources, his achievements in the realm of ideas and letters appear as miraculous and enigmatic as those of his hero, Frederick Douglass,” said Winston James, Associate Professor of History at Columbia and author of Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth Century America, as well as a two-volume study of Claude McKay, also forthcoming from Columbia University Press. “No one has thought more deeply, boldly and clearly about the condition of Afro-America in the early twentieth century than Harrison. It is a pity that his achievements have remained forgotten for so long.”

Following Harrison’s death in 1927, the papers were stored in the Harlem apartments of his relatives, until Harrison’s daughter transferred them to Perry in 1983 for preservation and inventory. The collection comprises 22 archival boxes and approximately 100 books from Harrison’s personal library, many with his marginal notations. The Rare Book and Manuscript Library plans to make Harrison’s writings, edited with introductions and annotations by Dr. Perry, available in searchable form online along with additional biographical material and a digital selection from the papers. The library can provide users with limited access to the papers while they are being processed. Patrons should make an appointment by calling the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at 212-854-5153.

Columbia University Libraries is one of the top ten academic library systems in the nation, with 9.2 million volumes, over 65,650 serials, as well as extensive collections of electronic resources, manuscripts, rare books, microforms, and other nonprint formats. The collections and services are organized into 25 libraries, supporting specific academic or professional disciplines. Columbia Libraries employs more than 400 professional and support staff to assist faculty, students, and researchers in their academic endeavors. The Libraries’ website at http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/ is a gateway to its print and electronic collections and to its services.

The Rare Book and Manuscript Library owns over 500,000 rare books in some 20 book collections and almost 28 million manuscripts in nearly 3,000 separate manuscript collections. It is particularly strong in English and American literature and history, classical authors, children's literature, education, mathematics and astronomy, economics and banking, photography, the history of printing, New York City politics, librarianship, and the performing arts. Individual collections are as eclectic as they are extensive.