STR Presents Profiles in Black: Abram Lincoln Harris

Feb 04, 10 STR Presents Profiles in Black: Abram Lincoln Harris
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Although many feel that the idea of Black History Month is outmoded, many Americans across the racial, ethnic, and ideological spectrum are still unaware of the many contributions that black Americans have made to the growth and uplift of this nation.  While most people are aware that blacks have often served as the moral center of the country and contributed immensely to American arts and culture, blacks have often gone unheralded for their contributions in economics, science, and other professional fields.  Thus, throughout the month, I will highlight black Americans that have made tangible contributions to American society.  Today: Abram Lincoln Harris.

Abram Lincoln Harris was born in 1899.  Mr. Harris grew up in Richmond, Virginia where his father was a butcher and his mother was a teacher.  After graduating from Virginia Union University in 1922, Mr. Harris furthered his education at the University of Pittsburgh.  Here, he earned an M.A. in Economics and rose to prominence with the publication of his masters’ thesis entitled The Negro Laborer in Pittsburgh.  Displaying an affinity for the writings of Karl Marx and other social reformers, Mr. Harris’ early philosophy focused on the need for a multiracial labor movement that could negotiate from a position of economic strength while working to alleviate historic inequalities that arose due to America’s long inequitable treatment of blacks.

Abram Lincoln Harris was not naïve.  Many of his writings focused on the deep racial and ethnic divisions among American laborers.  Where their common economic interests should have dovetailed into a strong movement, racial pride and prejudice kept the movement fractured for many years throughout many industries.  Mr. Harris continued to teach at various universities and publish writings exploring the state of black and white laborers in America.  He even wrote with bemusement about leftists who sought black political support, but refused to allow blacks to attend Communist Party meetings.  While Mr. Harris was committed to a broad labor movement, he was never an avowed communist.

Instead, Mr. Harris continued to study black and white laborers and the economic and social conditions that led to conflict between them.  He became the second black American to earn a Ph. D in economics.  After earning his Ph. D in Economics from Columbia University, he collaborated with Sterling Spero to write and publish the seminal work, The Black Worker, the Negro, and the Labor Movement.  In this classic book, Harris wrote about the benefits of unionism and its ability to tamp down racial antagonism.  He was critical of popular black groups that espoused an anti-union philosophy.  As a prominent member of Howard University’s faculty, Mr. Harris called for the creation of a working class political party.

Abram Lincoln Harris’ radicalism waned as the Great Depression and WWII raged.  Although Harris remained a socialist throughout the 1930s, with his appointment to the faculty of the University of Chicago, he focused more on traditional economics and most of his racial critiques ceased.  Many scholars believe that it was the influence of the famous University of Chicago economist Frank Wright that tempered much of Harris’ radicalism.  Harris’ work at Chicago repudiated many of his earlier writings and formed the intellectual foundation for many neo-conservative economists such as Thomas Sowell.

Whether one subscribes to the socialist economic views of his earlier years or the more conservative bent of his later years, Abram Lincoln Harris laid a strong intellectual foundation for the field of economics that continues to be studied and appreciated by economists to this day.  His influence on the field of economics cannot be overstated and his influence can be felt throughout late 20th century across the political and ideological spectrum.

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