Background/Context: Spurred on by the mass migration of African Americans from the South and blacks from the Caribbean, Harlem by the 1920s was defined by its association with New Negro culture and was widely known as the “mecca” of black life. The New Negro movement, as the period was called by contemporaries, has become a focus of scholars interested in black radical politics. Still, there has yet to be a focused study of the underlying educational experiences that helped create the New Negro movement and the mass political awakening that accompanied it.
Focus of Study: This paper takes as its focus Hubert Harrison, an Afro-Caribbean immigrant who arrived in New York City at the dawn of the New Negro movement and became a leading public intellectual and educator of the movement. In particular, it focuses on Harrison’s participation and influence in several dimensions of the network of informal education that emerged as a part of Harlem life in the first part of the 20th century: street oratory, educational forums, and the black press. After a brief overview of Harrison and his political development, I examine each educational practice, discussing both Harrison’s contribution and the wider culture of radical education he helped to create. I argue that at the foundation of the New Negro movement—and the burgeoning political consciousness among inhabitants of the uptown neighborhood in New York—was a system of education unlike anything that could be found inside a classroom. It was dynamic, democratic, and for many black residents moving into Harlem, inspirational.
Research Design: This paper uses archival materials from Hubert Harrison’s papers at Columbia University. Those include newspaper clippings, diary entries, and pamphlets for talks and courses, among other material. It also draws upon newspapers and reports from the period as well as secondary literature on the topic.
Conclusions/Recommendations: While education scholars have often grappled with the limits of school as a mechanism for changing society, the history of Harrison and informal education in Harlem reveals the importance of political education outside the classroom in creating and sustaining social movements. For Harrison and the Harlemites of the 1920s, street oratory, educational forums, and a radical black press served as essential mechanisms for broadening what historian Robin D. G. Kelley has called the “black radical imagination.” Yet the educative experience of blacks arriving in Harlem is not so different from the experience of others who have participated in social movements in the 20th and 21st centuries. The challenge for scholars is not to identify and study political movements that can be linked to various forms of schooling, but to identify the educative dimensions of social uprising that take place beyond the walls of the classroom.