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Harkless, Necia Desiree 1920–

Necia Desiree Harkless 1920


Embarked on Career in Education

Discovered the Black Madonnas

Investigated Ancient Civilizations


Educator, writer, pianist, and painter, Necia Desiree Harkless is a woman of many talents and interests. Over the decades she has worked as a social worker, music teacher, kindergarten teacher, and university professor of education. Her specialties in education were curriculum development, multicultural education, African American history, and the ancient African kingdoms of Egypt, Nubia, and Nigeria. After retiring from Georgetown College in 1985, Harkless became a Donovan Scholar at the University of Kentucky. With a grant for refueling or retooling, Harkless pursued her longtime passions for cultural ethnography and fine arts.

Harkless grew up in Hamtramck, a section of Detroit largely populated by people of Polish descent, the eldest of three children born to James and Ethel Harkless. Her family attended the Second Baptist church in the community known as Greektown. She found the blending of diverse ethnic communities with their different cultures that make up Detroit stimulating in many ways. Moreover, because Harkless attended the Detroit Settlement schools, which taught art and music as well as the basic curriculum, she became interested in the fine arts. From an early age, she learned to play the piano and also took cello and organ lessons. Later she studied music with Madame Manebaca, a piano soloist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and earned a bachelors degree in piano and organ performance and musical theory from the Detroit Institute of Musical Arts.

Embarked on Career in Education

For fifteen years Harkless taught children to play the piano, but her interest in teaching did not stop there. In 1942 she earned a bachelors degree in education from Prairie View State Agricultural College, in Hempstead, Texas. She worked as a caseworker for the Michigan Department of Social Welfare for a decade, and for several years she taught kindergarten in the Detroit public school system. Focusing on early childhood education, she developed a curriculum guide for early childhood teachers at a time when the federally supported Head Start programs were not yet year-round programs. Later she conducted research in education during her graduate studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, from which she earned a doctorate in education in 1974.

At a Glance

Born June 25, 1920, in Detroit, Ml; daughter of James and Ethel Harkless. Education: Prairie View State and Agricultural College, (Hempstead, Texas), B.A. (education and social science), 1942; Detroit Institute of Musical Arts, B.A., (piano, organ, and musical theory), 1960; University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, M.A. (education), 1969; Wayne State University, Detroit, Ml, Ph.D. (education), 1974.

Career: Michigan Department of Social Welfare, caseworker, 1946-56; Detroit Institute of Musical Arts, music teacher, 1954-65; Detroit Public Schools, teacher, 1965-68; Wayne State University College of Education, researcher, 1968-74; University of Kentucky, associate professor of education, 1974-81; Georgetown College, associate professor of graduate education, 1981-85.

Awards: University of Kentucky Donovan Scholar.

Member: Lexington-Fayette County Historic Commission, Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, Advisory Board of the Governors School for the Arts, Lexington Art League.

Addresses: c/o Heart to Heart, P.O. Box 2017, Lexington, KY 40594.

Harkless taught in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky from 1974 through 1981 and at Georgetown College, a private Baptist college in Georgetown, Kentucky, from 1981 until her retirement in 1985. Among her projects while at the University of Kentucky was the development and field testing of curriculum guides to teach American students about Nigeria, a country in west central Africa to which many African Americans can trace their ancestry. As a professor emerita and University of Kentucky Donovan Scholar, Harkless continued to receive financial support to pursue her research interests, among them the Black Madonnas of Europe, ancient African culture and art, the Nubian and Meroitic kingdoms of ancient Egypt and Sudan, and the contributions of black American women in America from 1776 to 1986. She has spoken often on these topics to interested groups of all ages as part of the Kentucky Humanities Councils speakers bureau.

Also a visual artist, Harkless started painting in oils during retirement because she wanted to depict the Nubian experience. She often paints on silk, which is then mounted on linen. Such works as Nubian Mothers, Nubian Water Carrier, and Nubian Art Class celebrate the beauty and majesty of the Nubian form. In addition, Harkless created a line of silk scarves, which she called Simply Joy, that are made with shiburi, a Japanese technique similar to batik.

Discovered the Black Madonnas

At an early age, Harkless became enthralled with the Black Madonnas, statues that can be found in more than a thousand churches throughout Europe. Love of the Black Madonna was planted before I was born, Harkless told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). As a soldier during World War I, her father had fought for the French because at that time black American soldiers were not allowed to fight alongside white American forces. Although he was stationed near Paris, Harkless, like his fellow black American soldiers, was told that Paris was off-limits, so he visited other areas of the country. At a church in Chambery in the French Alps, James Harkless first discovered a Black Madonna--a statue of Mary the Mother of Jesus holding the infant Jesus--and sent a postcard of it home to his wife, Ethel. Dear Love, This is the Black Madonna. Her gown is pure gold.Jim, the card read. In 1994, Necia Harkless traced the path her father had traveled in France, visiting the famous Notre-Dame de Myans in Chambery, as well as other churches housing Black Madonnas. People didnt know about the Black Madonnas. I felt I should educate them, Harkless told CBB. When you go into churches, theyll say because of smoke from candles, the Madonnas have turned black, but from what we now understand, the prototype came from Isis (an ancient Egyptian fertility goddess), she explained. In her chapbook of poems, Heart to Heart, Harkless reproduced photographs and briefly told the stories of three Black Madonnas.

Investigated Ancient Civilizations

As an ethnographera person who studies a civilization in terms of its culture at a particular place and during a certain timeHarkless spent over a decade researching and recovering the true history of the dark-skinned peoples of the Middle East, especially in ancient Egypt between the Red Sea and the Nile River. Her efforts centered on the kingdoms of Kush that are mentioned in the Bible and in ancient classical writings. Artifacts from these kingdoms have been preserved in museums worldwide and are only in the 1990s being recognized as Nubian, that is, originating from the ancient black-skinned inhabitants of Nubia, and recategorized to reflect this new information. Harkless has traveled widely and seen many of the artifacts and archaeological sites firsthand. I feel like a Sherlock Holmes or an Alice in Wonderland, Harkless told CBB of her research efforts. Harkless has shared her research with colleagues at professional meetings of archaeologists and ethnographers. In 1998 she was completing a lengthy work on the subject, tentatively entitled Nubian Pharaohs and Meroitic Kings: Rulers of the Kingdom of Kush. In this work, she described the oral, classical, and biblical traditions that shed light on the kingdom of Kush. She also detailed the archaeological efforts of nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars to preserve artifacts from the kingdoms, described the Nubian temples and tombs, and provided information on the ancient geography, climate, vegetation, and animal life. Because the classic work on this subject has long been out of print and further research has revealed new insights, Harkless felt some urgency to complete this scholarly work. Furthermore, Harkless has often stressed the need for African Americans to remember that they are the descendants of kings and queens, not only slaves.



Harkless, Necia Desiree, Heart To Heart: Poems and Images by Necia Desiree Harkless, Heart To Heart and Associates (Lexington, KY), 1995.


Interview with Necia Harkless, July 7, 1998.

Further information was provided by Entertainment 2000, P.O. Box 2017, Lexington, KY 40594.

Jeanne M. Lesinski

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