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My dear Mrs. Harrison, Nothing will ever be able to express my greatest sorrow and surprise when I visited the home of a friend yesterday and saw a copy of the Amsterdam News with the headline "Hubert Harrison Dies." It seems impossible that he is really gone and that I shall never see him again! Joel Augustus Rogers Paris, France, January 8, 1928 (2)
In 1947, the Jamaican born, black historian and Pittsburgh Courier journalist Joel Augustus Rogers contemplated and bemoaned how the radical Harlem intellectual Hubert Harrison, even twenty years after his death, seemed to be totally unacknowledged and neglected by most black intellectuals. (3)
Harrison was not only perhaps the foremost Afro-American intellectual of his time, but one of America's greatest minds. No one worked more seriously and indefatigably to enlighten his fellow-men; 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 only a very small proportion of the Negro intelligentsia has ever heard of him. (4)
Rogers had very good reasons to question Harrison's disappearance from the minds of the black intelligentsia by the 1940s. When Rogers relocated to Harlem from Chicago in 1921, Harrison had already become known as one of New York's most prominent black activists and intellectuals. Using this as a backdrop into the friendship of Rogers and Harrison, this essay seeks to show the influence of Harrison on Rogers' life, their similarities, and the admiration both men had for each other.
Harrison became a very influential figure in Rogers' life for several reasons. First, Harrison had embraced Rogers' 1917 From Superman to Man (FSM) when other African Americans had initially ignored it. In 1919, Harrison praised FSM in the magazine The New Negro 4, under the pseudonym Ignacio Sanchez. "This volume by Mr. Rogers is the greatest little book on the Negro that we remember to have read." Harrison noted that Rogers did not claim to write a scientific work, unlike many of his contemporaries who contemplated that science consisted of only logical analysis. Yet, if science was made of facts, then FSM became the model for all African American writers who wished to write about the race problem in America. After explaining that FSM traversed the social sciences of history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics, and politics, Harrison emphasized, "From this book the unlearned reader of the African race can gather proof that his race has not always been a subject or inferior race." Harrison admired the way Rogers contextualized the conversation between the Yale-educated Pullman porter named Dixon and the passenger/antagonist referred to as the southern legislator (in later editions the Senator from Oklahoma). In FSM, one can see that Rogers at many times while living in Chicago must have seriously struggled internally and argued with himself about the plight of African Americans in America. His dialogue between Dixon and the southern legislator must have paralleled his own internal struggle as a black male during that era--how to deal with the reality of rejection and isolation in a country that claimed to live by democratic principles. (5) Harrison must have also thought about this when he said:
This conversational device gives the author an opportunity to present all the conflicting views on both sides of the Color Line, and the result is a wealth of information which makes this book a necessity on the bookshelf of everyone, Negro or Caucasian, who has some use for a knowledge on the subject of the Negro. (6)
In 1919, Harrison also wrote Rogers a congratulatory letter for FSM and republished it in his own work, When Africa Awakes (1920). Harrison's biographer, Jeffrey Perry, writes that Rogers greatly appreciated Harrison's support of his writing, and around 1921 wrote Harrison that "it was due to your stimulation that I made the effort to get out F.S. to M." Rogers added that he was "much indebted" and would never be able to thank Harrison enough. In 1922, when Harrison was briefly the editor of Marcus Garvey's Negro World, he revisited FSM in the Negro World and explained his initial experience when he read the novel. "I sat down to read it and did not rise from my seat until I had read it through. Then I paid for it and took it home, realizing that I found a genuine treasure." (7)
In addition to popularizing Rogers' FSM, Harrison also reviewed Rogers' As Nature Leads (1919), and had taken the initiative to correspond with Rogers before he moved to New York. Harrison also sold copies of FSM while lecturing on the street-corner in Harlem. The late John G. Jackson (1907-1993), a close friend of Rogers and Harrison, said, "Harrison reviewed this book from a stepladder in a street corner meeting in Harlem and sold a hundred copies of the book for one dollar a copy. Rogers was in the audience and was both pleased and surprised."
Secondly, Harrison must have made quite an impression on Rogers when he first moved to New York by allowing him to live with him and his family. One must seriously take this into consideration that Rogers not only lived with Harrison; but was also one of his witnesses in court when Harrison became a naturalized citizen in 1922. Third, and probably the most important reason for this friendship, was the fact that both men had abandoned Christianity and embraced the rationalism of the freethought movement of the late nineteenth century, and shared a common interest in African and world history. (8)
Harrison was born in St. Croix, Danish West Indies, on April 27, 1883, and according to Rogers, his parents were of "unmixed African ancestry." Before his mother died in 1899, she gave birth to several other children. Orphaned at seventeen, Harrison immigrated to New York and began working menial jobs and attending high school at night. Harrison had an amazing zeal for learning and questioned many western beliefs that were considered the norm. His biographer Jeffrey Perry writes:
His insatiable thirst for knowledge and his critical mind led him to break from "orthodox and institutional Christianity" and to develop an agnostic philosophy of life, which stressed rationalism, modern science, and evolution and placed humanity at the center of its worldview. It also led to involvement in Black intellectual circles, worker's …