Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr. (1899-1963), was the first African American to achieve prominence in the economics profession in the United States as an academic. Harris' influence touched fields as disparate as economic anthropology, African American studies, institutional economics, and the history of economic doctrines.
Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr., was born into a comparatively middle-class African American family in Richmond, Virginia, on January 17, 1899. His father, a butcher, and his mother, a schoolteacher, together made it possible for their son's upbringing to occur in the midst of relative economic security with a high degree of intellectual stimulation. The elder Harris worked at a meat shop owned by a German-American in Richmond, and the younger Harris, as a consequence of his interaction with the owner's family, developed fluency in German at an early age. This would serve him well in his mature years when he devoted much of his attention to the writings of German or German-trained economists' proposals for social reform.
Harris' earliest writings displayed a deep commitment to the analysis of conditions of and solutions to the problems of African Americans. His perspective took the tone of the left; he was for many years a consistent and radical advocate of the development in the United States of a multiracial labor movement aimed at redressing the class-based grievances of the majority of Americans. It was Harris' presumption that only such a working-class movement could lead to sharp change and improvement in the status of most African Americans.
He was fully attuned to the profound racial division that existed among American laborers, particularly through the long-standing practice of unions to exclude African American workers from their membership rolls. Having finished his undergraduate degree in 1922 at the local black institution in Petersburg, Virginia State University, Harris went on to earn an M.A. in economics from the University of Pittsburgh in 1924. His masters' thesis, "The Negro Laborer in Pittsburgh, " inaugurated his examination of African American workers in the steelmaking and coal-mining industries and led to two articles published in the mid-1920s in the National Urban League's journal, Opportunity, on the difficulties confronting African American miners. One of the central issues he explored was the antagonism African American miners faced from their white peers in the coal sector. He even addressed the phenomenon of "race prejudice" among white workers, native born versus new immigrants, as an additional factor inhibiting labor organization among all the miners.
After teaching for a year (1924-1925) at West Virginia State University (then called West Virginia Collegiate Institute), Harris took a position as director of the Minneapolis Urban League. During his year in Minnesota he prepared a detailed report on the condition of African Americans in Minneapolis. Relying heavily on statistics from surveys and from census reports, Harris documented in dramatic fashion the extent of social and economic inequality faced by African Americans in the northern city. He also devoted a substantial portion of the report to the extensive pattern of wage and employment discrimination faced by African Americans seeking work in Minneapolis, providing additional evidence of a racially split workforce.
In 1925 Harris published a semi-apocryphal essay entitled "Black Communists in Dixie" in Opportunity. The essay was accompanied by an editor's note reading, "This interesting narrative by Mr. Harris is an actual experience. The name of the city and the three leading figures have been changed." Presumably the city was either Harris' native Richmond or Institute, West Virginia, during the period when he taught at West Virginia State. Harris exposed with sardonic humor the prevalence of racism among Southern white leftists, who would seek African American political support but exclude them from the central committees of the Communist Party. Harris also displayed decided cynicism about Bolshevist rhetoric.
A Doctorate in Economics
The best evidence suggests that Harris was the second African American to receive a Doctorate in Economics in the United States, following Sadie Mosell Alexander. But Alexander had not pursued an academic career. Harris' dissertation research at Columbia involved further work that examined the gulf between African American and white labor in the United States. He merged his Ph.D. thesis, completed and defended in 1930, with that of the political scientist Sterling Spero to produce a now-classic study of African American labor history, The Black Worker, published in 1931. Racial antagonism between workers, founded on economic conflict, was a central theme of the volume. White union exclusion of African Americans and the role of African Americans as strikebreakers played a prominent role in the analysis in The Black Worker.
Nevertheless, Harris tended to believe that the only viable course of action for African Americans was to contribute to the development of a working-class political party in the United States. He dismissed such alternative strategies as rebellion, secession, "Back to Africa" (described derisively by Harris as "Negro Zionism"), and an independent African American economy as the stuff of fantasy. Strategies such as interracial conciliation, civil libertarianism, passive resistance, or reliance on the judiciary for relief were either superficial or ephemeral.
Spero and Harris contended in the pages of The Black Worker that the basis for racial antagonism in the working class had roots that could be dug out. First, they argued that distrust of African Americans by whites dated from slavery times; second, many African Americans were recent urban immigrants with a peasant background that led them to be ignorant of the advantages of trade unionism; and third, the anti-union ideology of the African American middle-class leadership of such organizations as the National Urban League fostered racial division among the working class. The first two factors would vanish with the passage of time and with active promotion of working-class enlightenment by progressive labor organizations. The third factor could be reversed by new patterns of education of younger university-trained African Americans who would be at the center of the next generation's middle class.
Harris was consistent in endorsing construction of a racially united militant labor movement. Having joined the Howard University faculty in 1927, before completing his Ph.D., Harris and his colleagues Ralph Bunche and E. Franklin Frazier formed a radical triumvirate of social scientists at the institution. They were principal figures in the attack on the older generation of "race men" at the NAACP's 1933 Amenia Conference. Harris was the main author of the so-called Harris Report, which urged the NAACP to embrace a more militant protest and class-based course of action, rather than a race-based approach. Harris also was the author of a Progressive Labor Party pamphlet in 1930 that called for the formation of a working-class political party in the United States.
But like Bunche, Harris' radicalism became more muted as the Great Depression era came to a close. He was to claim in his introduction to a 1957 collection of his essays that he was "emerging from a state of social rebellion [while] still adher[ing] somewhat to socialistic ideas by the late 1920s." However, the evidence suggests that Harris was solidly a socialist throughout the entire decade before World War II; indeed, he even advanced a critique of the New Deal based on its failure to address the fundamental problem of class inequality in the United States.
Still, it seems that Harris underwent an ideological conversion after the Great Depression. His writings took on more of the tone and flavor of orthodox economics. Whereas he had defended Karl Marx from the conventional charges of the economists in a contribution to the Wesley Clair Mitchell festschrift in 1935, by the mid-1940s he was publishing essays explicitly critical of Marx. While he may have flirted intellectually with some of the most extreme libertarian perspectives in economics in the 1940s and 1950s—Harris even was associated with the Mount Pelerin Society—he eventually came to describe himself as a proponent of an individualistic brand of socialism patterned after the thinking of John Stuart Mill.
What was the cause of the conversion? Perhaps it was a sincere repudiation of views held in his younger years. Perhaps it was a reaction to the negatives of the Soviet experiment, although Harris seemed to harbor no illusions about the Soviet Union under Stalin in the 1930s, based upon his published work. Perhaps it was, and this is most likely, an accommodation made to facilitate his 1945 move from Howard to the University of Chicago.
Work at the University of Chicago
With the move Harris became one of the first African American academics with an appointment at an historically white institution of the first rank. This was apparently an appointment he valued deeply, despite the fact that he never held a regular position with the faculty of the economics department, presumably due to his race. His position was exclusively in the undergraduate college.
The move was facilitated by the efforts of the renowned Chicago economist Frank Knight, who began publishing several of Harris' papers on themes in economic doctrinal history in the prestigious Journal of Political Economy as early as the late 1920s. The move also was aided in a negative sense by Harris' deteriorating relationship with Howard's tyrannical president, Mordecai Johnson.
It was the papers in the Journal of Political Economy that made Harris' reputation in the economics profession at large. Painstaking, careful, sometimes turgid, the papers were brilliant examinations of the perspectives of a variety of economists who had staked positions on how best to bring about social reform. These papers included critiques, comparisons, and reassessments of the perspectives of Thorstein Veblen, Werner Sombart, Karl Marx, Heinrich Pesch, and John Stuart Mill, among others. Harris' critical acumen was at its best here.
With the move to Chicago, where Harris was to continue teaching until his death in 1963, not only did Harris' work lose its prior radicalism but he wrote very little on questions of race relations and the economic status of African Americans. In fact, there was no further published work on race and economics until an essay of his appeared posthumously in a 1964 Rand McNally volume celebrating a century of Black emancipation. Here Harris can be found expressing views that would be echoed two decades later by the neoconservative African American economist Thomas Sowell. Harris minimized the role of discrimination in explaining African American economic disadvantage and emphasized the role of racial differences in human capital endowments, attributable to differences in familiar socialization processes in African American and white homes.
Harris' earlier work, including the fiery attack on African American entrepreneurs in his Negro as Capitalist, can lay a foundation for contemporary African American radical thought. His later work anticipated the posture of African American neoconservatives. All of his writings on race relations squarely address themes of interest in African American studies courses. His Journal of Political Economy essays continue to play an important role for economists who form an institutionalist school and for economists who are students of the history of economic doctrines.
But Harris also had an important, albeit indirect, influence on economic anthropology. While at Columbia he was a research assistant for Melville Herskovits and, in effect, designed Herskovits' reading course in economics. What Herskovits gleaned from Harris became the basis for the economic component of the theory that informs Herskovits' classic work The Economic Life of Primitive People.
As for Harris' personal life, for an individual with a somewhat austere demeanor and a taste for understated sartorial splendor, it was somewhat colorful. Twice married—first to California (Callie) McGuinn and later to Phedorah Wynn—his intensely personal correspondence with the journalist Benjamin Stolberg reveals that Harris had several extramarital affairs, at least during his first marriage. But what seems to have defined Abram Harris more than all else was his intellectual career and accomplishments. While Frank Knight may have been exaggerating a bit when he described Harris as the greatest intellect at the University of Chicago to a younger African American economist named Marcus Alexis, who was later to join the faculty at Northwestern and to serve as a commissioner with the Interstate Commerce Commission, the observation was surely not far from the mark.
Further Reading on Abram Lincoln Harris Jr
The thinking of Abram Harris, Jr., is available in three major sources: the aforementioned work with Spero, The Black Worker (1931); his study of African American entrepreneurial history in the United States, The Negro as Capitalist (1936), which included a savage attack on the impact of African American businessmen on the African American masses; and his essays and book reviews, virtually all of which are available in a volume entitled Economics and Social Reform (1957) and a volume entitled Race, Radicalism, and Reform: Selected Papers (edited by William Darity, Jr., 1989). The last includes an introductory essay with an appraisal of Harris' life and accomplishments as well as a series of appraisals of each bloc of essays in the volume, both prepared by the editor. For additional biographical information on Harris' career see William Darity, Jr., and Julian Ellison, "Abram Harris, Jr.: The Economics of Race and Social Reform" in History of Political Economy (Winter 1990).