Abram Lincoln Harris: the first prominent African American economist

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Born in Richmond, Virginia, Abram Lincoln Harris' father was a butcher at a German-American owned meat shop. As a result of Harris' frequent contact with the meat shop's owner, he learned German and became a fluent speaker. This served him well in later life, when he devoted much of his time and attention to the proposals of German or German-trained economists and social reformists like Karl Marx.

Harris finished his degree at Virginia Union University, an historically black college or university (HBCU), graduating in 1922 with a Bachelor of Science. He went on to earn an MA in Economics from the University of Pittsburgh in 1924. It was his masters' thesis, The Negro Labourer in Pittsburgh, that started his examination of African-American labour forces.

Portrait photo of Abram Lincoln Harris

He was an American economist, academic and anthropologist. Widely regarded as one of the first African Americans to achieve prominence in academia in the early 20th century, and an influential figure on a wide range of African-American topics of interest. Many of Harris' early papers show his deep commitment to the analysis of social conditions of, and solutions to the problems of African Americans.

As an academic, he taught at West Virginia State University, a small historically black public college (HBCU) in Institute, West Virginia from 1924. He taught for a year, before he changed directions and took the position as director of the Minneapolis Urban League.

As director, he prepared a detailed report titled The Negro Population in Minneapolis: A Study of Race Relations. In this, Harris discussed the physical and socio-economic conditions of African Americans in Minneapolis in 1926. Using data from census' and surveys, he tried to show the strong social rift within the workplace between blacks and whites at that time.

Harris then enrolled at Columbia University to pursue a Ph.D in economics. In 1927, just one year into his doctoral studies, Harris joined the faculty of Howard University where he worked until 1945. He then taught at the University of Chicago, from 1945 until his death.

His achievements

  • The first African American to achieve prominence in the field of economics.

  • The second African American to receive a doctorate in Economics in the United States, following Sadie Mossell Alexander.

  • A recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship for Economics in 1935, 1936, 1943 and 1953. As a social critic, Harris took an active radical stance on racial relations by examining historical black involvement in the workplace, and suggested that African Americans needed to take more action in race relations.

  • Harris' great number of works on race relations such as The Black Worker: the Negro and the Labor Movement (1931) and The Negro As Capitalist: A Study Of Banking And Business Among American Negroes (1936) pioneered future African-American studies.

  • In 1937, Harris founded the liberal Social Science Division of Howard University, and served as the group's leader through the late 1930s and early 1940s.

  • Harris left Howard in 1945 and moved to the University of Chicago, and became one of the first African-American academics with an appointment at a high-ranking historically white institution.

Following Harris' move to a historically white institution, his economic ideologies seemed to change, with race relations now taking a back seat in his academic study. His previous defence of radical economists also turned to critique. Due to this switch, during his life time he had a significant influence on both Black radical and neoconservative thought.