The Black Atheists of The Harlem Renaissance: (1917-1928)

By: John G.Jackson


( Prof. John G. Jackson at the 1984 American Atheists Convention.)

The Harlem Renaissance was a result of the participation of the U.S. in World War 1. The war cut off immigrant labor from Europe, creating a labor shortage in expanding industrial areas of the North. This brought a great migration of rural black labor to northern cities. This movement was promoted by the Black Press. Among the newspapers were Marcus Garvey's Negro World , Robert S. Abbott's Chicago Defender , Robert L. Vann's Pittsburgh Courier , and Carl Murphy's Baltimore Afro-American . These papers had large circulations, running into the hundreds of thousands.

About 387,000 black troops participated in the war to make the world safe for Democracy. After the war was over these ex-soldiers found Democracy at home conspicuous by its absence. This situation created a large number of angry young men bent on reversing this unpleasant condition. The propitious spot for this was New York City; and since Harlem was the center of a large black population, it became the focus of a Black Renaissance. Among the many celebrities were a group of radicals: Communists, Socialists and Independents. In this group were several leaders who called themselves either Atheists or agnostics. In this category were HUBERT H. HARRISON, J.A. ROGERS, GEORGE S. SCHUYLER, RICHARD B. MOORE, WALTER EVERETTE HAWKINS, ASA PHILIP RANDOLPH and CHANDLER OWEN. The outstanding personality of this group was HUBERT HENRY HARRISON , who distinguished himself as orator, journalist, scholar and philosopher. Harrison was born in St. Croix, Virgin Islands in 1883, and died in New York City in 1927. At the age of 16 he left home and made a world tour as a cabin boy on a boat. Landing in New York a year later, he worked on routine jobs by day and attended school at night. Shortly afterwards he became a special foreign-language clerk in the Post Office for four years. In his spare time, since he could not afford to attend college, he educated himself, reading widely in the fields of Anthropology, Sociology, Philosophy, Science, Literature and Drama. He joined the Socialist Party and for many years was one of the most influential leaders of that organization. He was also an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, a militant labor organization of the early part of this century.

Harrison was a champion of the underprivileged, at all times and places. Besides defending the constitutional rights of his own group, he advocated Irish home rule and the independence of India and China. He wrote extensively for such left-wing and anti-religious periodicals as The Truth Seeker , The Call , The Masses , The Modern Quarterly , and The New Republic . At the age of 24 Harrison was writing book-reviews for the New York Times . He also wrote articles and reviews for the New York Sun , Tribune , and World . For four years he was Editor of The Negro World , a paper with a circulation of about 200,000 copies per week. He was also Assistant Editor of The Masses for four years. As an orator, Harrison talked wherever he could find an audience. He lectured day and night at colleges and universities, on street corners, public libraries, and YMCAs. As an outdoor lecturer, Harrison spoke frequently at Columbus Circle, and from the steps of the U.S. Subtreasury, directly across the street from J.P. Morgan & Co. and the New York Stock Exchange. On September 11, 1922 the New York Times reported that "Hubert Harrison, an eloquent and forceful speaker, broke all records at the Stock Exchange yesterday." On this occasion he spoke to an audience of about 11,000 listeners. The Police Department had to rope off the area and stop all traffic at the corner of Wall & Broad Streets.

Doctor Hubert Harrison never used any notes. He could discourse learnedly on the theory of evolution and quoted long passages from the works of Darwin, Huxley and Herbert Spencer. I recall attending a street-corner meeting in Harlem when Harrison was discussing the ancient history of Egypt. He recited a brilliant passage from Winwood Reade's great world history, The Martyrdom of Man , which is cited below:

"There is a land where the air is always tranquil, where nature wears always the same bright yet lifeless smile; and there, as in a vast museum, are preserved the colossal achievements of the past. Let us enter the sad and silent river; let us wander on its dusky shores. Buried cities are beneath our feet; the ground on which we tread is the pavement of a tomb. See the Pyramids towering to the sky, with men like insects crawling round their base; and the Sphinx couched in vast repose, with a ruined temple between its paws. Since those great monuments were raised, the very heavens have been changed. When the architects of Egypt began their work there was another polar star in the Northern Sky, and the Southern Cross shone upon the Baltic shores. How glorious are the memories of those ancient men whose names are forgotten for they lived and labored in the distant and unwritten past. Too great to be known, they sit on the height of centuries and look down on fame. . . . The men are dead and the gods are dead. Naught but their memories remain. Where now is Osiris, who came down upon earth out of love for men, who was killed by the malice of the Evil One, and rose again from the grave and became the judge of the dead? Where now is Isis the mother, with the child Horus on her lap? They are dead; they are gone to the land of the shades. Tomorrow, Jehovah, you and your son shall be with them! . . . There was a town named Heliopolis; it had a college garden, and a willow hanging over the Fountain of the Sun, and there the professors lectured and discussed on the Triune God, and the creation of the world, and the Serpent Evil, and the Tree of Life, and on chaos and darkness and the shining stars; and there the stone quadrant was pointed to the heavens, and there the laboratory furnace glowed. And in that college two foreign students were received, and went forth learned in its lore. The first created a nation in the Egyptian style; the second created a system of ideas; and, strange to say, on Egyptian soil the two were reunited. The philosophy of Moses was joined in Alexandria to the philosophy of Plato, not only by the Jews but also by the Christians; not only in Philo Judaeus, but also in the Gospel of St. John."

Doctor Harrison lectured on the contradictions and absurdities of the bible with telling effect. He advised his listeners to read the Lectures of Robert Ingersoll , and such freethought classics as Paine's Age of Reason , Volney's Ruins of Empires , Draper's Conflict Between Religion and Science , and Andrew Dickson White's Warfare of Science and Theology . On one occasion a ministerial association offered Harrison a position as the president of a theological seminary, with honor; of course, he turned it down. Harrison was a belligerent antichristian. He held that any black person who accepted orthodox Christianity needed to have his head examined. According to the Christian theologians, god placed a curse on the black race, condemning those of dusky hue to be slaves of their more fortunate brothers. In the Christian heaven, god is white, so is Jesus, the holy ghost, and all of the angels. The only black member of the Christian pantheon is the devil, who presides over hell. If given a choice between the Christian heaven and hell, Harrison said he would rather go to hell. When asked why he rejected Christianity, Harrison stated that he refused to worship a lily-white god and a Jim Crow Jesus.

Edwin Walker, a prominent freethinker, organized the Sunrise Club in 1889. This club held fortnightly meetings which featured outstanding speakers. As a rule these meetings were held in the dining room of a hotel, and a dinner went along with the lecture. Harrison was a popular speaker at meetings of the Sunrise Club. On one occasion Doctor Harrison found himself surrounded by literary celebrities. Burton Roscoc, literary Editor of the New York Tribune , reported in that paper, September 11, 1922, that:

"Mencken asked me to introduce him to Doctor Hubert Harrison, who sat next to me at the dinner, and very soon Doctor Harrison was the center of the most serious discussion of the evening; for Theodore Dreiser, Heywood Broun, Ludwig Lewisohn, Charles Hanson Towne came over for the pleasure of talking with the distinguished Negro."

At the time of his death in 1927, Harrison was Staff Lecturer for the New York City Board of Education. He was not an organization man, and in his later years, like Colonel Bob Ingersoll, he spoke only for himself. But he was admired by the Messenger Group. A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen founded the Messenger Magazine in 1917. This publication was launched as a Journal of Scientific Radicalism. J.A. Rogers was a "disciple" of Harrison, and also a member of the Messenger Group. "Harrison's views," said Rogers, "profoundly influenced the Messenger Group, headed by A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, two leaders who did more than anyone else to focus the attention of the government and of the thinking whites on the injustices suffered by Negroes during the war. While the old leaders capitulated and urged the members of the race to submit while the war was on, the two brilliant young men spoke out fearlessly. Largely because of opposition from the War Department, the Messenger received nationwide publicity; by showing that progress towards obtaining justice lay not in barren agitation about race, or in dying and going to a white man's heaven, but in awareness and intelligent application of economic laws, it opened new vistas to the minds of thinking Negroes and not a few Whites." ( World's Great Men of Color , Vol. II, p. 615, New York, 1947.)

In 1918 Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned for giving a speech opposing the entrance of the United States into the European War. Randolph and Owen went on a lecture tour the same year, appealing to the American people to petition Congress to agree to a negotiated peace, and thus bring the European conflict to an end. They were arrested by federal marshalls on a charge of treason. The presiding judge dismissed the case. He was convinced that the defendants were victims of war hysteria and that the government did not have a valid case against them.

Joel Augustus Rogers (1880-1966) was a prominent member of the Messenger Group. He was a fine example of a self-educated scholar. He never finished high school, yet he was recognized as a historian, anthropologist and journalist. He wrote brilliantly polemical works, which he had to publish himself. The big publishing houses thought his works were too controversial; so they rejected them. His best known books are: Nature Knows No Color Line , Africa's Gift to America , World's Great Men of Color , (2 volumes), Sex and Race , (3 volumes), and From Superman to Man . Rogers lectured at such outstanding educational institutions as The University of Chicago, and at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1930 he was elected to membership in the Paris Society of Anthropology, and in 1931 he was invited to address the International Congress of Anthropology. Mister Rogers was a personal friend of mine for many years. He told me that he admired the lectures of Colonel Ingersoll. When asked what lecture he liked best he said, "The Lecture on Shakespeare." As a field anthropologist, Rogers traveled around the world, visiting sixty different nations. He told me of a visit to a primitive tribe in Ethiopia. These people had no civilization and no religion; and they were the happiest people in the world. This journey convinced him that civilization and religion are the two greatest curses of the human race.

George S. Schuyler was another member of the Messenger Group. It was his conviction that all intelligent people are Atheists. In The Messenger , February 27, Schuyler reviewed a scholarly book tending to show that Jesus christ was a mythological character. The following passage is a condensation of the review:

Jesus: A Myth , by Georg Brandes
(reviewed by George S. Schuyler)

"It is doubtful whether any intelligent person accepts the Jesus Christ of the Scriptures as a fact. His alleged exploits, career, death and resurrection can only be wholly swallowed by the same gullible folk who swarm into the sideshows at Coney Island; who believe that George Washington never told a lie; that Congressmen are exceptionally honorable; that the YMCA is something other than a training school for young babbits, or that the common people rule this country. The reviewer ditched this Jesus Myth about the same time that he threw Santa Claus overboard; i.e. , at the age of eight.

"Now comes Mister Brandes, the noted Danish critic. He cleans up for this old myth in a very effective manner. His disposal of Jesus will satisfy most any rational being, that is to say, it will satisfy about one-twentieth of the people. The rest want to believe such myth because of the satisfaction and compensation they derive therefrom. If they didn't swallow the Jesus Myth, they would be worshipping Buddha, Osiris or Jupiter. Mentally inferior people must worship something or somebody. Thus, while this book will be read with interest by the intelligent minority, it will be shoved into the trash can with shocked silence by Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Holy Rollers, Christian Scientists, Rotarians and such folk.

"The author holds that Jesus is as much a myth as William Tell. . . . The author's criticism is always keen and searching. . . . This is probably the most Spirited and iron-clad attack that has ever been written on the authenticity of the so-called Savior of Mankind."

The Poet's Corner of The Messenger was edited by Walter Everette Hawkins. One of his poems was published in the November 1917 issue of The Messenger . It is reproduced below:

Here and Hereafter

Now you preach a lot of Heaven,
And you talk a lot of Hell,
But the future never troubles me
Tis plain as tongue can tell;
And it's a mighty poor religion
That won't keep a man from fear,
For the next place must be Heaven,
Since 'tis Hell I'm having here.

Some years ago The Truth Seeker offered a prize for the best letter on the topic: "Why I Became an Atheist." The prize-winning letter was written by Walter Everette Hawkins, under his pen name: Gaulterio Quinonas. The following is the complete letter:

"I became an Atheist after witnessing a devout Christian put the Bible to test. This man grew up in the Church. At 17, he was a Church Officer, a Sunday School teacher, and a leader of the Church Choir. He married young, and became the father of five children. His wife fell sick when his youngest child was still nursing.

"Confident that the Bible was true, this young man with Bible language on his lips, knelt in tears beside the bed of his sick wife and prayed for her recovery; 'The prayer of faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will raise them up Ask and it shall be given Seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened. Every man who asketh, receiveth.' If any man ever prayed faithfully, earnestly, believingly, this man did. If any man ever needed the answer to a prayer, he did. His young wife died, leaving him broken-hearted with 5 young children, all mere babies.

"I was a member of the same church, and was an eyewitness to this incident. I knew this man to be as sincere as any man can be. He helped to convert others and persuaded them to join the Church. His prayers and faith meant nothing whatever.

"This incident convinced me that the Bible is false; that prayer is wasted, and that no God exists. At once I became an Atheist, and at once experienced for the first time the feeling of being a man free and unafraid. Shortly after this, I discovered Thomas Paine's Age of Reason , and later a copy of the Truth Seeker . My Atheism was strengthened and confirmed. It is now my most treasured possession. I will never surrender it."

Most of the Messenger Group were originally socialists, but some of them, like Owen and Schuyler, became disillusioned and wound up in the capitalist camp. Chandler Owen had a brother, who was a custom tailor with his own shop in Columbia, South Carolina. The business failed and Toussaint Owen was urged by his brother to come to New York and seek work in one of the union shops controlled by the socialists. Chandler Owen used his influence to obtain a job for his brother in a socialist dominated union, but the union would not admit a black tailor as a member. From a dedicated socialist Chandler Owen became a confirmed capitalist. He left New York, went to Chicago, where he became a successful businessman.

During the Harlem Renaissance there were other men of eminence who held unorthodox religious opinions, but were not avowed Atheists. The famous novelist and poet, Claude McKay, became a freethinker at the age of eleven. In his declining years he joined the catholic church. Doctor James Weldon Johnson, a man of many talents, was a journalist, poet, diplomat, and a University Professor of Creative Literature. In his autobiography, Along the Way , he confesses that religion meant nothing to him. He could neither prove the existence or the nonexistence of god, so he concluded that he was an agnostic.

This essay is not exhaustive. Many Atheists, from motives of expediency, pretend to be religious. In my fifty years of residence in New York, I lectured at the Ingersoll Forum, the Harlem unitarian church, and the YMCA, and frequently members of the audience would confess that they agreed with me, but for economic reasons they dared not say so in public.

[John G. Jackson is an educator, lecturer, author, and man of principle. He was born on April 1st, 1907 into a family of methodists. As he remembers now, he has been an Atheist since he could think. The family minister once asked him when he was small, "Who made you?" After some thought he replied from his own realization, "I don't know." He lived for fifty years in New York City, 1932 to 1977, lecturing at the "Ingersoll Forum" of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism (from 1930 to 1955). During a parallel period he wrote articles for the Truth Seeker magazine. He was at the same time a writer and associate of the Rationalist Press Association in London, England from 1932 to 1972.

Beginning in 1971 he became a lecturer in the Black Studies Department of Rutgers University, remaining there until 1973. From 1973 to 1977 he was a Visiting Professor at the University of New York. When he moved to Chicago he quickly became a Visiting Professor at Northeast Illinois University from 1977 to 1980. One of the courses which he taught was "Comparative Religion." His approach to that course was such that university officials cautioned him to "be more discreet." Another of his courses dealt with "Social Movements." Jackson has been a consistent friend of labor and has been a member of the UAW, Dist. 65, AFL-CIO, for most of his life. His books include Introduction to African Civilizations; A Guide to the Study of African History, Ethiopia and the Origin of Civilization; Man, God and Civilization; Christianity before Christ. His best selling booklet is featured by American Atheists: Pagan Origins of the Christ Myth .]