Rev. Curtis W. Harris, Hopewell’s Drum Major for Justice

Posted on May 14, 2019

Revs. Harris and King
Reverends Curtis Harris and Martin
Luther King Jr., Courtesy of the Harris
Family.

The Reverend Curtis W. Harris is best known for his role in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Civil Rights organization founded by Martin Luther King, Jr., though he has not been studied closely by historians.[i]  The Curtis West Harris and Ruth Jones Harris Papers (Mss. Acc. 2014.006) in Special Collections Research Center at Swem Library allow us to truly grasp the depth of the Civil Rights Movement by examining his leadership over the decades. Beyond providing insights into a local Virginia Civil Rights campaign, the collection also documents Rev. Harris’s time on the Hopewell City Council, and as Mayor, which will be of interest to political scientists. Although well-known for his leadership on racial issues, Harris and the collection of his papers will also be of interest to those who study environmental and labor movements, as it casts Rev. Harris as a leader in both. Those interested in studying religion and the inner workings of churches will find a trove of internal church documents which expose the daily operations of small town Black churches.

In 1960 Rev. Harris led Hopewell’s youth in a vibrant sit-in campaign targeting segregated drugstore lunch counters, where Black residents were allowed to make purchases but forbidden to sit down to eat. The sit-ins were not his first experience with leadership, though, as photos in this collection reveal. He was also an active leader in his union, Local 12103, which organized workers at the Allied Chemical and Dye Company where Harris worked as a janitor before becoming a minister.[ii]

Local 12103 Negotiating Committee
Local 12103 Negotiating Committee,
Mss. Acc. 2014.006, Box 18, Folder 1,
Curtis West Harris and Ruth Jones
Harris Papers, Special Collections,
Swem Library, College of William &
Mary. 
Curtis Harris is, notably, the only
African American on the Negotiating
Committee.
Signing Contract Local 12103
Signing Contract Local 12103, 3
November 1950, Mss. Acc. 2014.006,
Box 18, Folder 1, Curtis West Harris and
Ruth Jones Harris Papers, Special
Collections, Swem Library, College of
William & Mary. 
Curtis Harris stands
with other union members at Allied
Chemical and Dye Company in
Hopewell, VA.

Harris rapidly rose in the SCLC’s leadership structure. He was appointed to the organization’s National Board in 1961 and elected president of the state-wide organization in 1963.[iii] He attended the March on Washington in 1963, as well as the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march. In 1966, Andrew Young sought his input on King’s plan to launch an organizing campaign in Chicago, indicating Harris's stature in the SCLC.[iv]

March from Selma to Montgomery
Reverend Curtis Harris at the 1965
March from Selma to Montgomery,
Courtesy of the Harris Family.
 Curtis
Harris was among the many leaders
present at the historic March from Selma
to Montgomery in 1965, which helped
secure passage of the 1965 Voting Rights
Act.
Officers of the SCLC
The Officers of SCLC, The SCLC Story in
Words and Pictures, 1964, 8,
Mss. Acc. 2014.006, Box 21, Folder 6,
Curtis West Harris and Ruth Jones
Harris Papers, Special Collections,
Swem Library, College of William &
Mary.
 Harris is listed with King and others
as “The Officers of SCLC.”

Harris is somewhat known for his role in the Danville protests of 1963, where he was arrested; yet this our collection provides deep insights into his role as an activist after the 1960’s.[v] He came to embrace environmentalism later in life, going to jail in 1984 in Warren County, North Carolina for a protest over the placement of a toxic waste dump in proximity to the local Black community.[vi] Similarly, in 2008 he worked to stop the placement of an ethanol plant within a Black neighborhood in Hopewell. In the early 1990’s he led a boycott of a nearby Colonial Heights mall to protest the city’s practice of housing, employment, and educational discrimination.[vii] 

Breaking the Color Barrier
“Breaking the Color Barrier,” The
Hopewell News
, Feb. 20, 1992,
Mss. Acc. 2014.006, Box 18, Folder 1,
Curtis West Harris and Ruth Jones Harris
Papers, Special Collections, Swem
Library, College of William & Mary.
 Two
of Harris’s sons were the first Black
students to integrate Hopewell High School
in 1963, graduating in 1964.
SCLC Ends its Boycott
“SCLC Ends its Boycott of Southpark,”
Progress-Index, Dec. 17, 1992,
Mss. Acc. 2014.006, Box 18, Folder 1,
Curtis West Harris and Ruth Jones
Harris Papers, Special Collections,
Swem Library, College of William &
Mary.
 Harris announces the end of a
boycott against Southpark Mall in Colonial
Heights after several years.

Carrying his work into the political realm, he was elected to Hopewell’s City Council in 1986, and became the city’s first Black mayor in 1998.[viii] The Reverend Curtis West Harris passed away in 2017 and was buried in Appomattox Cemetery, a site he had first fought to integrate in 1960 when the Hopewell Improvement Association filed suit to integrate the municipally owned burial ground.[ix]

King Statue in Hopewell
“King Statue in Hopewell,” Richmond
Free Press
, April 8-10, 2004,
Mss. Acc. 2014.006, Box 20, Folder 4,
Curtis West Harris and Ruth Jones Harris
Papers, Special Collections, Swem
Library, College of William and Mary.

Rev. Curtis Harris with Martin Luther
King III at the unveiling ceremony for
Hopewell’s King Statue.

 

 

 

 

Notes:

[i] Lauranett Lee’s history Hopewell, Virginia’s Black community is the only book to explore Harris’s life, Lauranett L. Lee, Making the American Dream Work: A Cultural History of African Americans in Hopewell, Virginia (Hampton, VA: SPS Press Publishing, 2008), 124-157.

[ii] For more on Local 12103 of the United Mine Workers of America that Harris was a part of see “Hopewell, Virginia Locals of United Mine Workers of America Photograph Collection,” Multiple Exposure (blog), Library of Virginia, April 27, 2011, http://www.virginiamemory.com/blogs/multiple_exposure/2011/04/27/hopewell-virginia-locals-of-united-mine-workers-of-america-photograph-collection-2

[iii] Chronology of Selected Events in the Life of Rev. Curtis W. Harris (undated), Mss. Acc. 2014.006, Box 1, Folder 2, Curtis West Harris and Ruth Jones Harris Papers, Special Collections, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.

[iv] Letter from Andrew J. Young to Curtis Harris, Jan. 26, 1966, Mss. Acc. 2014.006, Box 10, Folder 7, Curtis West Harris and Ruth Jones Harris Papers, Special Collections, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.

[v] For more on the Danville movement see Emma Edmonds, Mapping Local Knowledge: Danville, Virginia 1945-1975, accessed Jan. 17, 2019, http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/cslk/danville/

[vi] Alex Marshall, “Group Places Demands on City Concerning Labor Day Unrest,” Virginian-Pilot, Sept. 23, 1989, B1, Mss. Acc. 2014.006, Box 23, Folder 3, Curtis West Harris and Ruth Jones Harris Papers, Special Collections, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.

[vii] Pamela Stallsmith, “SCLC to End its Boycott of Mall, City,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, Dec. 16, 1992, Mss. Acc. 2014.006, Box 18, Folder 1, Curtis West Harris and Ruth Jones Harris Papers, Special Collections, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.

[viii] Chronology of Selected Events in the Life of Rev. Curtis W. Harris, Mss. Acc. 2014.006, Box 1, Folder 2, Curtis West Harris and Ruth Jones Harris Papers, Special Collections, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.

[ix] Kate Gibson, “Remembering Rev. Dr. Curtis W. Harris,” The Progress-Index, Dec. 16, 2017, retrieved Jan. 09, 2019, http://www.progress-index.com/news/20171216/remembering-rev-dr-curtis-w-....

Written by Jasper Conner, Graduate Student Apprentice.