Harris, Richard E.
Harris, Richard E.
A pioneer of African-American journalism, Richard E. Harris was the first black reporter on the staff of the Arizona Republic. Harris, whose career began in the years before World War II, is also a survivor of the independent African-American press of that era, and his memoir, The American Odyssey of a Black Journalist: 1933-2003, remains a rich yet unappreciated source about the newspapers where Harris worked and about their relationships with white political and business institutions. At various points in his life Harris worked at non-journalistic jobs and experienced firsthand many of the difficulties that faced ordinary African Americans as they looked for jobs and tried to keep them. His nonfiction writing provided rich insight into the cultural and political history of blacks, particularly in Arizona.
Born around 1912, Harris grew up in Chester, Pennsylvania. "He was a cockeyed kid with a scrawny neck and who hated school," he wrote in The American Odyssey of a Black Journalist. After he and other members of a local gang were hauled into a police station on a chicken-stealing charge, however, he dedicated himself to schoolwork in honor of his ailing mother, who died shortly afterward. She had always insisted, no matter how low the family's fortunes, on having a daily newspaper delivered to their home, and Harris not only did well in classes but also "wondered could we not have some literature about African kings or American Negro greats?" as he noted in The American Odyssey of a Black Journalist.
Interrupted Publisher's Breakfast
Harris admired a local high-schooler who had gone on to study journalism at Syracuse University, but opportunities were scarce in the rigidly segregated town. Harris's long work "odyssey" began when he dropped out of school and hitchhiked to the nearby town of Easton and worked three jobs in three weeks, one operating a wheat-threshing machine. Sleeping outdoors for much of the time, he returned to Chester and "swore never to engage in hard and heavy again for my livelihood," according to The American Odyssey of a Black Journalist. Instead, he made his way to Baltimore and walked in at breakfast time to the mansion of Carl Murphy, the publisher of the legendary chain of Afro-American newspapers. Expecting only the excitement of meeting a famous African American, Harris departed with the instruction: "You might try sending news every week. We pay by the inch," he remembered in The American Odyssey of a Black Journalist. That turned into several years' worth of freelance assignments as Harris reported on the early stirrings of the civil rights movement in Chester.
Around 1939 Harris married his wife, Laura, and was hired by the small Chester Times to write a column called "Among Our Colored Citizens." An editor questioned why he spent so much time writing about community problems. Two years later he moved to the tabloid Philadelphia Independent, avoiding the World War II draft because of 20/200 vision in his right eye and because, as he conceded in The American Odys-sey of a Black Journalist, "I didn't have the guts to kill a chicken." Instead, Harris spent World War II writing about discrimination at local shipyards and police prejudice for the Independent, the Chester Times, and finally the larger Philadelphia Afro-American. He covered the sports beat but also the street unrest that ensued after white strikers attempted to prevent the integration of Philadelphia's transportation employment force.
At the Afro-American, Harris interviewed future Czech Prime Minister Jan Masaryk. He was the first of a series of influential American and world figures whose paths crossed his own; others included singer Ethel Waters; actor and activist Paul Robeson, boxer Joe Louis, and policeman and future Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley. Enterprising by nature, Harris formed his own newspaper, the Delaware County Crusader, in 1945. The masthead listed "Harmony," "Equality," "Progress," and "Enlightenment" as the paper's objectives, with immediate goals of "More Adequate Housing," "Improved School Facilities," "Reforms in Health and Sanitation," "Increased Police Facilities," "Broader Recreation Facilities," "Juvenile Delinquency Reforms," "Encouragement of Negro Businesses," and "Upholding the U.S. Constitution and the State Civil Rights Bill."
Desegregated Local Theater
Harris and local civil-rights leader George T. Raymond challenged a local movie theater on its segregated seating policy, and in 1946 he gave heavy coverage to black picketers protesting the city's segregated school system. He ran afoul of local businesses and was forced to barter advertising for meals at a local restaurant. His paper folded, but The American Odyssey of a Black Journalist provides vivid testimony to the workings of the early civil-rights movement in largely unheralded small cities like Chester.
A friend arranged a job for Harris at the Cleveland Courier, and a bus trip to Cleveland, undertaken with the help of a $25 loan from his father, began the cross-country portion of Harris's odyssey. He wrote about the problems of African American students for the Cleveland Courier, Cleveland Call-Post, and Akron Record, moving on in 1950 to Los Angeles and working first for the ultraconservative Los Angeles Sentinel and then for the West Coast bureau of the Pittsburgh Courier. An aspiring author since his youth, Harris took a leave of absence from the Courier beginning in 1952 in order to research his 1954 book, Delinquency in Our Democracy. He visited rigidly segregated Memphis, more moderate San Antonio, industrial Gary, Indiana, and venerable Harlem in New York City, making notes along the way about African-American life in those places.
At a Glance …
Born 1912(?); raised in Chester, PA; married Laura Dunjee, 1939(?). Education: Attended high school in Chester, PA. Religion: Baptist.
Baltimore Afro-American and other publications, freelance journalist, 1930s; Chester Times, columnist, 1939-41; various Philadelphia-area African-American-oriented newspapers, reporter, 1941-45; Delaware County Crusader (PA), founder and editor, 1945-47; Cleveland-area African-American-oriented newspapers, including Cleveland Courier, Cleveland Call-Post, and Akron Record, reporter, 1947-50; Los Angeles Sentinel, reporter, early 1950s; nonfiction writer, 1950s-; factory worker, early 1960s; Arizona Republic, reporter, 1964-66; Phoenix Urban League, youth director, 1966-late 1970s.
First African-American member, Phoenix Press Club.
Black Writers Workshop, Phoenix, Young Buffalo Tradition Award, 1976; First Institution Baptist Church, Phoenix, outstanding achievement in journalism award, 1984; Youth United Alumni, Spirit of the Drum award, 1996; Arizona Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Griot Award, 2002; Ageless Hero Award, 2002.
Home—Apache Junction, AZ.
Back in Los Angeles Harris worked on his book, sometimes concealing his manuscript in a desk drawer and taking it out when he could. He also happened upon a pamphlet that suggested desert land as a retirement investment and bought a two-acre plot in Apache Junction, Arizona, near Phoenix. He became fascinated by Arizona and moved there but had trouble finding work at area factories and employment offices. In 1963 he moved to Groton, Connecticut, to take a job as a sheet metal worker at a General Dynamics plant, but he missed Arizona's mild winters and moved back there a year later. Then, in 1964, he wrote a letter to Arizona Republic publisher Eugene Pulliam saying that he had heard the paper was open to hiring its first black reporter. "So, just in case this is not another rumor," he wrote, "I am willing to offer for your consideration a few facts on my journalistic background. Naturally, I am a Negro, and also an Arizona taxpayer and property owner …" A month later he was hired.
Became Youth Director
Harris was generally well received at the Republic and became the first black member of the Phoenix Press Club. When segregationist Alabama sheriff Bull Connor came to Phoenix and inveighed against race mixing at a press conference, Harris remarked that "it was his folks who began the process through rape and brutality [whereupon] his face turned red and his voice stammered as the audience burst out laughing." Harris spent two years at the Republic before his idealism took control once again, and he accepted a job as youth director at the Phoenix Urban League. Over 12 years there he stressed writing and journalism programs. He retired in the late 1970s to a home he built himself on the land in Apache Junction.
For Harris, however, retirement was just a chance to further his nonfiction writing career. He wrote five more books in addition to Delinquency in Our Democracy: Black Heritage in Arizona (1977), The First Hundred Years: A History of Arizona Blacks (1983), Politics and Prejudice: A History of Chester, Pennsylvania Negroes (1991), The Gift of Esteban: A Black Comrade of Conquistadores (1999), and The American Odyssey of a Black Journalist (2003). The histories of black life in Arizona were pioneering regional works that often appeared in historical bibliographies, and The American Odyssey of a Black Journalist was positively reviewed by University of Arizona Associate Professor Gita LeSeur in the Journal of African American History as "an eye opener for a new generation of aspiring journalists, Africana historians, and common folk." In his early 90s when the book appeared, Harris was still an active participant in Phoenix-area life and a unique survivor whose career reflected a good deal of modern African-American history.
Delinquency in Our Democracy, Wetzel, 1954.
The Others Include Black Heritage in Arizona, Relmo, 1977.
The First Hundred Years: A History of Arizona Blacks, Relmo, 1983.
Politics and Prejudice: A History of Chester, Pennsylvania Negroes, Relmo, 1991.
The Gift of Esteban: A Black Comrade of Conquistadores, Relmo, 1999.
The American Odyssey of a Black Journalist, 1933-2003, Relmo Publishers, 2003.
Harris, Richard E., The American Odyssey of a Black Journalist, 1933-2003, Relmo Publishers, 2003.
Arizona Republic, March 13, 2004.
Journal of African American History, Fall 2004, p. 374.
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