This month we are highlighting our African American Education Digital Collection in celebration of Black History Month. Currently, this collection contains materials from the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum as well as materials from the Division of Negro Education of the Department of Public Instruction.
Today’s post features James Henry Harris, an eloquent spokesman for a variety of causes, including equal access to education for African Americans and an end to legal discrimination—in North Carolina and beyond.
James H. Harris, born a slave in Granville County ca. 1830, became Wake County’s most prominent nineteenth-century African American leader. Harris secured his freedom from slavery and moved to Raleigh in 1848. After years of apprenticeships, Harris moved to Oberlin, Ohio in 1856 to escape racial oppression. He studied at Oberlin College for several years, then lived in Canada while aiding fugitive slaves who managed to reach freedom through the Underground Railroad (Little, 2012).
In the years following the Civil War, Harris returned to Raleigh and was appointed
- Teacher of Freed People by the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society in 1865,
- President of the North Carolina State Equal Rights League in 1866,
- Deputy member by the Grand National Council of the Union League of America in 1867,
- Raleigh City Commissioner in 1868,
- State legislator in the House from 1868-1870 & 1883/in the Senate from 1872-1874, and
- Trustee for the North Carolina Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind (now the Governor Morehead School) in 1875
What began as a career in education for Harris quickly turned into a life in politics, as he soon realized the need for legal and political equality to protect the freedoms of African Americans. Still an educator at his core, Harris fought for equal access to education during the 1866 Freedmen’s Convention, where the Freedmen’s Educational Association of North Carolina was formed. The goal of the association was to “aid in the establishment of schools, from which none shall be excluded on account of color or poverty, and to encourage unsectarian education in this State, especially among the freedmen.”
Though he did not serve in the North Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1875, his previous efforts for education ultimately led to amending the 1776 North Carolina Constitution; the right to “low cost” schooling became the right to “free public schools” for all North Carolinians.
Harris also reportedly founded Oberlin Village in Raleigh after purchasing land in 1866 that was once the Lewis Peck Farm. Residents of the new village named it “Oberlin,” generally believed to have been chosen because of Harris’s connection to Oberlin College. By 1880, it was home to about 750 residents, among them carpenters, brick masons, and seamstresses. A few years later, in 1892, Latta University was established in Oberlin Village as a trade school for African Americans. Oberlin Village remains today, and has recently received a memorial park and sculpture (titled “Oberlin Rising“) to commemorate this resilient community built by freed slaves.
“If, under the many difficulties that surrounded the early life of James H. Harris, he was enabled to surmount so many dangers and trials and to plant himself so firmly on the steep ladder of fame, what ought to be expected of those who have, and are now enjoying, the great advantages afforded for that best of all blessings—a good education” (Quick, p. 132).
This series will continue next Tuesday, when we will learn more about the history of African American education in North Carolina.
Balanoff, Elizabeth. (1972). Negro legislators in the North Carolina General Assembly. The North Carolina Historical Review, 41(1), 22-55. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23529002
Dowd, Jerome. (1888). Sketches of prominent living North Carolinians: James H. Harris. Raleigh, N.C.: Edwards & Broughton. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/sketchesofpromin00dowd#page/70
James Henry Harris (ca. 1830-1891) Papers, 1848-1890. State Archives of North Carolina. Retrieved from http://digital.ncdcr.gov/cdm/ref/collection/p16062coll15/id/453
Little, M. Ruth. (2012). History of Oberlin Village. Raleigh, N.C.: Longleaf Historic Resources. Retrieved from https://friendsofoberlinvillage.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/History-of-Oberlin-Village.pdf
Minutes of the Freemen’s Convention, held in the City of Raleigh, on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th of October, 1866. Raleigh, N.C.: Standard Book and Job Office. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=rWlEX03djKIC&printsec=frontcover
Quick, William Harvey. (1898). Negro stars in all ages of the world. Richmond, V.A.: S. B. Adkins & Co. Retrieved from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.a0001076561
Simmons-Henry, Linda & Edmisten, Linda Harris. (1993). Culture town: Life in Raleigh’s African American communities. Raleigh, N.C.: Raleigh Historic Districts Commission.