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]
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]
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]
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]
[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.
[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.
[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.