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Robert Lee Harris, Jr.

Professor Robert L. Harris, Jr. was born on April 23, 1943 in Chicago, Illinois to Robert and Ruby Harris. Growing up in Chicago, Harris attended St. Finbarr Elementary School and St. Philip High School. He graduated with his B.A. degree in history in 1966, and then his M.A. degree with honors in history in 1968; both from Roosevelt University. Harris went on to receive his Ph.D. degree from Northwestern University in 1974.

Harris was hired as a sixth grade teacher at Chicago’s St. Rita Elementary School in 1965. Then, in 1968 and 1969, he worked at Miles College in Birmingham, Alabama, as an instructor of social science. In 1972, Harris was hired as an assistant professor of American history at the University of Illinois, where he taught until 1975. He went on to work as an assistant professor of African American history at the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University from 1975 until 1982, when he was promoted to associate professor. Harris also served as the director of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University from 1986 until 1991, and then as special assistant to the provost of Cornell University from 1994 through 2000. He then was named vice provost for diversity and faculty development in 2000, and served in that position until 2008.

In 2004, Harris was promoted to full professor of African American history at Cornell University, and, in 2010, he was again hired as director of the Africana Studies and Research Center. In 2013, Harris was made both a graduate school professor of African and African American Studies and professor emeritus of African American history, American studies, and public affairs.

Harris authored Teaching African-American History, published by the American Historical Association, in 2001. He also co-edited The Columbia Guide to African American History Since 1939, which was published in 2006. In all, Harris has written thirteen individual book chapters, thirty scholarly articles, and eight dictionary entries. He has served on boards and committees of numerous organizations, including the De Witt Historical Society of Tompkins County, the New York Council for the Humanities, the American Historical Association, the Council for International Exchange of Scholars, the Organization of American Historians, the Society for History Education, and the National History Center. Harris also served as the president of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History from 1991 until 1992. He has been awarded fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. Harris also received the James A. Perkins Prize in 2000 and the Cook Award in 2008 from Cornell University. In 2003, he was awarded the Carter G. Woodson Scholar’s Medallion for Distinguished Research, Writing and Activism from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. Harris is also National Historian for Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.

Robert L. Harris, Jr. was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on October 22, 2013.

Accession Number

A2013.287

Sex

Male

Interview Date

10/22/2013 |and| 10/24/2013

Last Name

Harris

Maker Category
Marital Status

Married

Middle Name

Lee

Schools

Roosevelt University

Northwestern University

St. Finbarr School

St. Malachy School

St. Philip Basilica High School

First Name

Robert

Birth City, State, Country

Chicago

HM ID

HAR44

Favorite Season

Spring

State

Illinois

Favorite Vacation Destination

Chicago, Illinois

Favorite Quote

I Believe I Can Fly.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Birth Date

4/23/1943

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Meatloaf

Short Description

African american history professor Robert Lee Harris, Jr. (1943 - ) taught at Cornell University for over thirty-five years, and served as the director and vice provost of Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center.

Employment

St. Rita Elementary

Miles College

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Cornell University

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. narrates his photographs

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Slating of Robert Lee Harris, Jr.'s interview, session 1

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. lists his favorites

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his mother's family background

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about his maternal great-grandparents

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. remembers his maternal grandparents

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about his mother's upbringing

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his father's family background

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about his paternal grandfather

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about his paternal grandfather's pipe

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his parents' careers

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his parents' personalities

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. remembers his father's shoe repair business

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about his sisters

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. remembers his parents' decision to enroll him in Catholic school

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. remembers the redlining of the West Side of Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about the wealth gap in the United States

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about the achievement gap in the United States

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. remembers his early work experiences

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Robert Lee Harris Jr. recalls the political climate in Chicago, Illinois during the 1950s

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. recalls his involvement in boys clubs

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his early interest in history

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. recalls his activities at St. Philip Basilica High School in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. remembers his visits to the segregated South

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. remembers the death of Emmett Till

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his early aspirations

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. remembers his early experiences of religion

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. recalls his decision to attend Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. remembers the faculty of Roosevelt University, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. remembers the faculty of Roosevelt University, pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. remembers his decision to pursue an academic career

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. remembers the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago, Illinois, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. recalls meeting his wife

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. recalls the start of his teaching career

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. remembers the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago, Illinois, pt. 2

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his master's degree thesis

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. remembers the influence of Malcolm X

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. remembers the uprisings of 1968 on the West Side of Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his teaching experiences at Miles College in Fairfield, Alabama

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Robert Lee Harris Jr. recalls his graduate studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, pt. 1

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his dissertation

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Slating of Robert Lee Harris, Jr.'s interview, session 2

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. recalls his graduate studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, pt. 2

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes the findings of his dissertation

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. recalls joining the faculty of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his teaching experiences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. reflects upon his time at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about the regional differences in racial categories

Tape: 7 Story: 8 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about the historical accounts of the Civil War

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about the Dunning School

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. recalls joining the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes the scholarship of Stanley M. Elkins

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about the scholarship on slavery

Tape: 8 Story: 5 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes the changing perceptions of slavery

Tape: 8 Story: 6 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. reflects upon the impact of Alex Haley's 'Roots'

Tape: 8 Story: 7 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. recalls writing the study guides for 'Roots'

Tape: 8 Story: 8 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his scholarship on H. Ford Douglas

Tape: 8 Story: 9 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York

Tape: 9 Story: 1 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his career at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, pt. 1

Tape: 9 Story: 2 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. remembers John Henrik Clarke

Tape: 9 Story: 3 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about his scholarship on African American historiography

Tape: 9 Story: 4 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his article, 'The Afro-American Classics: The Essential Library'

Tape: 9 Story: 5 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about the contributions of historian George Washington Williams

Tape: 9 Story: 6 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his anthology contributions

Tape: 9 Story: 7 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his academic textbook, 'Teaching African American History,' pt. 1

Tape: 10 Story: 1 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his academic textbook, 'Teaching African American History,' pt. 2

Tape: 10 Story: 2 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about the election of President Barack Obama

Tape: 10 Story: 3 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. reflects upon the impact of President Barack Obama's administration

Tape: 10 Story: 4 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about the employment opportunities in technological fields

Tape: 10 Story: 5 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his career at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, pt. 2

Tape: 10 Story: 6 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about his current scholarship, pt. 1

Tape: 10 Story: 7 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about his current scholarship, pt. 2

Tape: 10 Story: 8 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about African American representation in the workforce

Tape: 11 Story: 1 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his hopes for African American youth

Tape: 11 Story: 2 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about the changes to the Africana studies program at Cornell University, pt. 1

Tape: 11 Story: 3 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about the changes to the Africana studies program at Cornell University, pt. 2

Tape: 11 Story: 4 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about the field of Africana studies

Tape: 11 Story: 5 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. talks about 'The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'

Tape: 11 Story: 6 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 11 Story: 7 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his advice to aspiring historians

Tape: 11 Story: 8 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes his advice to African American studies scholars

Tape: 12 Story: 1 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. remembers attending international conferences

Tape: 12 Story: 2 - Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes how he would like to be remembered

DASession

1$2

DATape

4$8

DAStory

2$5

DATitle
Robert Lee Harris, Jr. remembers his early work experiences
Robert Lee Harris, Jr. describes the changing perceptions of slavery
Transcript
The people who lived in the house before we purchased it left this buggy, it was like a twin buggy; and I used to go to the A and P [The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company] on Saturday and I would deliver groceries. And given that I had this twin buggy, I had this big--I mean most guys had the Red Flyer little wagon, I had this big buggy, put the groceries in, deliver them.$$So grocery delivery was kind of a job that the young boys, I mean boys would do in the neighborhood [North Lawndale, Chicago, Illinois] (simultaneous)?$$(Simultaneous) Yeah, yeah you pick up a few dollars. I mean, you know, you get fifty cents, a dollar maybe to go with the woman who had bought her groceries. I mean these were black and white initially, but the neighborhood was, was pretty safe. I also had two paper routes. I--in a way in my family there was this go get them, entrepreneurial spirit. And so I had two paper routes. I delivered newspapers and at that time I delivered newspapers, I also picked up the money; you know, people paid each week for their newspaper. Sometimes you'd get tips. During the wintertime I would shovel snow, I'd go and I'd ask people, "You need me to shovel your--your sidewalk?" I, later when I was in about, where was I, I was about seventh grade 'cause I--I started working for my father [Robert Lee Harris, Sr.] in high school [St. Philip Basilica High School, Chicago, Illinois], or maybe eighth grade. But I worked in this grocery store, I stocked the shelves and what have you in the grocery store. And this was basically a Jewish neighborhood. The store owners were Jewish. There's one day of the year, I can't remember what it is where Jews are not supposed to handle any money. And so when I first started working at this store, or maybe I told my mother [Ruby Watkins Harris] about this, because he wanted me, that, the guy who owned the grocery store, he wanted me to handle all the money that day. But my--no, no, this--no, this was some--this was earlier when I first started working at the store, that's right. When I first started working in the store my mother said to me, 'cause my mother also did what they call day work sometime, housework, cleaned up white folk's homes, which also created problems in her retirement because there was no social security taken out, you know, from her--her pay. But my mother told me, she said, "Son, when you start working in that store," she said "maybe not the first day, but there's gonna be a day when he's gonna leave some money around you." She said, "Don't touch it." I was working for about three days and the guy--they lived in the back of the store. He said he had to go to the restroom, and so he went to the back of the store to go to the restroom. And so--let me also say, I should back up just a little bit, 'cause my mother said, "He's gonna leave some money around you, don't--don't touch it." I said, "Oh, momma, what are you talking about?" She said, "Boy," now I knew she's serious, she said, "don't touch any money." So he goes to the washroom. I look down by the cash register, there's a twenty dollar bill on the floor. My mother's words are, you know. I'm like afraid of that twenty dollar bill, I don't want to go near it. And when he came back, I immediately said, "There's a twenty dollar bill on the floor." He said, "Oh, it must've fallen from the cash register." I passed his test. And as I explain to students, I could've robbed the man blind after that. See you know, it was Langston Hughes who talked about the ways of white folk ['The Ways of White Folks']. We knew their ways more so than they knew our ways. But that was an important lesson that my, my mother taught me.$I know this is a big discussion, Eugene Genovese's 'Roll, Jordan, Roll' ['Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made']--$$Right.$$--and the writings of Leon Litwack and Ira Berlin and others--$$Yeah.$$--writing about slavery.$$Yeah.$$And I know John Clarke [John Henrik Clarke] said at one of the meetings [of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History] that, you know, Blassingame [John W. Blassingame] had the only book written by an African American about the slave experience at that time.$$Well, you know, this is something that puzzled me as a graduate student and then as a beginning assistant professor. We wrote more--and I was one who fell into this category as well, we wrote more about those African Americans who were free than we did about those who were enslaved. In part, that was to justify racial equality in a way; to show that we did have individuals of merit, of achievement, okay. We had very few novels about the period of, of slavery. It's only more recently like with Toni Morrison's 'Beloved,' and a, a number of other novels that have come out that have addressed, have dealt with--. It--it's, it's one of the things if you look at the Jewish American population, there's more work that has come out on the Holocaust I would say in the last twenty, thirty years then had been published before. It was something that, in a way, I--well, I'm just gonna be--speak for African American--I think we were shamed of enslavement. And we had to reach a point, the Civil Rights Movement freed us in a number of ways and one of the ways, with the Civil Rights Movement, with the notion that we had achieved, and I don't want to say that we had achieved racial equality, but we achieved some semblance of racial equality, that freed us up in many ways to look at our past, to look at the tragedies as well as the triumphs. Before the late 1960s, we wanted to look more at the triumphs. In fact, people talk about Carter G. Woodson basically writing contributionist history--showing the contribution that African Americans made to development of American society and again, justifying, saying that we deserve rights as citizens of the United States.$$Yeah, I think you're right. The name 'The Negro in Our History' [Carter G. Woodson] for instance?$$Yeah, yeah. So this was something that, I think, the Civil Rights Movement, the 1964--well, let's say '63 [1963], '64 [1964], '65 [1965] freed us up to really encounter our past in ways that we had not encountered our past before.