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Reverend Curtis Harris

Curtis West Harris was born on July 1, 1924 in Denron, Virginia. His father left the family when he was a young boy and his mother moved the family to Hopewell, where she worked as a domestic. There, Harris earned his high school diploma from Carter G. Woodson High School in 1944. After graduation, he went to work for a cotton plant called Hercules. Knowing he wanted more out of life, he convinced his older sister to pay for tuition at Virginia Union University in Richmond.

Harris attended Virginia Union from 1945 until 1946, when he married his high school sweetheart. The young couple moved to Norfolk but soon returned to Hopewell where he began working as a janitor at Allied Chemical. During this time Harris became active in the civil rights movement. In 1959, he became the pastor of Union Baptist Church.

Harris was active in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He participated in the famous march from Selma to Montgomery and volunteered to serve as a human shield for Martin Luther King, Jr., during the march. In 1963, he successfully fought the Ku Klux Klan and the city of Hopewell to prevent the city from building a landfill in the African American community. In 1964 Harris' two sons helped integrate Hopewell High School.

Beginning in the 1960s Harris unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the Hopewell city council seven times. Finally, in 1983, he forced the city to switch from its at-large system to a ward system and became the second African American to serve on the Hopewell city council. In 1996, Harris became the second African American Vice-Mayor of the city and eventually became the first black mayor in 1998.

He continues to work vigorously on civil and human rights issues in Virginia. He is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In 2004, Harris' formerly segregated school, Carter G. Woodson, named a library in his honor.

Harris passed away on December 10, 2017 at age 93.

Accession Number

A2004.107

Sex

Male

Interview Date

7/23/2004 |and| 10/11/2004

Last Name

Harris

Occupation
Schools

Carter G. Woodson High School

Carter G. Woodson Middle School

Virginia Union University

First Name

Curtis

Birth City, State, Country

Denron

HM ID

HAR08

Favorite Season

None

State

Virginia

Favorite Vacation Destination

None

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

District of Columbia

Interview Description
Birth Date

7/1/1924

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Washington

Country

USA

Favorite Food

None

Death Date

12/10/2017

Short Description

Mayor and pastor Reverend Curtis Harris (1924 - 2017 ) was the first African American council member, vice mayor and mayor of Hopewell, Virginia.

Employment

Allied Chemical

Union Baptist Church

Hopewell City Council

City of Hopewell, Virginia

Favorite Color

None

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Reverend Curtis Harris's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Reverend Curtis Harris describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Reverend Curtis Harris talks about his father

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Reverend Curtis Harris talks about his father's absence during the first twelve years of his life

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Reverend Curtis Harris recalls meeting his father for the first time as a twelve-year old

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Reverend Curtis Harris talks about his grandparents

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Reverend Curtis Harris recalls his family's move to Hopewell, Virginia in the 1920s

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Reverend Curtis Harris describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Reverend Curtis Harris talks about his favorite childhood activities

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Reverend Curtis Harris describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Reverend Curtis Harris lists his siblings

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Reverend Curtis Harris describes his childhood communities in Hopewell, Virginia

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Reverend Curtis Harris describes his elementary school years at Carter G. Woodson School in Hopewell, Virginia

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Reverend Curtis Harris describes the role of religion during his childhood in Hopewell, Virginia

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Reverend Curtis Harris talks about his interests and social life as a teenager at Carter G. Woodson School in Hopewell, Virginia

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Reverend Curtis Harris talks about his plans for studying pre-med courses at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Reverend Curtis Harris talks about moving to Norfolk, Virginia with his wife after dropping out of Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Reverend Curtis Harris talks about working as a janitor for Allied Chemical and Dye Corporation in Hopewell, Virginia

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Reverend Curtis Harris talks about his experiences playing for the Hopewell All-Stars, a semi-pro baseball team

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Reverend Curtis Harris talks about how he rose to the role of pastor at Union Baptist Church in Hopewell, Virginia

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Reverend Curtis Harris talks about how he became involved with the Civil Rights Movement

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Reverend Curtis Harris remembers taking part in the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, pt. 1

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Reverend Curtis Harris remembers taking part in the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Reverend Curtis Harris recalls his experiences in the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Reverend Curtis Harris talks about volunteering to be a human shield for the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Reverend Curtis Harris talks about his attempts to run for the city council in Hopewell, Virginia from the 1960s to the 1980s

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Reverend Curtis Harris explains how he sued Hopewell, Virginia for racial discrimination in its city council districts in 1983

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Reverend Curtis Harris talks about being elected to the Hopewell City Council in 1984

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Reverend Curtis Harris describes his confrontation with the Boatwright Commission

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Reverend Curtis Harris recalls the struggle to integrate Hopewell High School in Hopewell, Virginia in 1964

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Reverend Curtis Harris describes his campaign against discrimination at the U.S. Army base at Fort Lee, Virginia

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Reverend Curtis Harris recalls the reaction from the U.S. military to his protests at Fort Lee, Virginia

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Reverend Curtis Harris details his efforts to construct a memorial for Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Hopewell, Virginia

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Reverend Curtis Harris reflects on his life in Hopewell, Virginia

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Reverend Curtis Harris talks about the history of school desegregation since Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Reverend Curtis Harris describes how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Reverend Curtis Harris reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Reverend Curtis Harris narrates his photographs

DASession

2$2

DATape

3$5

DAStory

5$1

DATitle
Reverend Curtis Harris talks about how he became involved with the Civil Rights Movement
Reverend Curtis Harris describes his campaign against discrimination at the U.S. Army base at Fort Lee, Virginia
Transcript
But when did you first become involved in SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference]?$$In '61 [1961].$$Okay, right.$$But I had known about the [Civil Rights] Movement, you know (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) Sure, so tell us a little bit about what you were doing when you first became involved in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, prior to, you know 1964 [sic. 1965], the march from Selma [Alabama] to Montgomery [Alabama]. What were you doing before that locally with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference?$$They, the movement, they, the SCLC was not SCLC. [Hopewell] Improvement Association was our title in Hopewell [Virginia], and we did a lot of things including, I sued the city to use the cemetery.$$To have blacks buried in the cemetery?$$Yeah, and we sued the city to let black people go into the, to the pool. They had a pool down at City Point [Hopewell, Virginia], but blacks couldn't go, couldn't go in it. And the principal of the school, Carter [G.] Woodson [School; Carter G. Woodson Middle School, Hopewell, Virginia], lived right across in front of the pool, but his kids couldn't go in it. They could look through the fence, and so you know we always abided with the law.$$Tell me about in 1963 the fight with the Ku Klux Klan [KKK] and the city to prevent them from building a landfill in the African American community. Tell me about that confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan.$$The Ku Klux Klan, some things had happened to me that we thought it was a Ku Klux Klan that had something to do with it, because they hit against my, threw some, some call it Molotov cocktail.$$Molotov cocktail, threw it through your window (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) In my, yeah, and later on we found out that they were going to locate a landfill in the black community, and we took up against that, but they built it anyway, but we found, we were trying to prevent them from doing it and they--when we went to, when we found out that we going to-- we had a march from the landfill to city hall to protest. We didn't know that the Ku Klux Klan was going to make a protest against us, and when we got back from, when we got down to city hall the Ku Klux Klan was already down there. It was about 150 of them in robes and so they tried to prevent us from making our speeches, so then I started to pray. Let me see you beat that. They come to the conclusion that every man ought to have a right to pray and therefore they would be quiet so we can pray. After we got through praying, then they started praying, and after they got through praying they filed away one by one, didn't say no more words. So, then we had marched from the church, yeah, going to city hall. After we found out that we done won the battle, we gonna march some more, so we marched back over here with police escort.$A lot of the training that you got on the ground during the Civil Rights Movement you put into action in your hometown [Hopewell, Virginia], in your hometown community. Can we talk a little bit about some of the demonstrations and marches you've had on Fort Lee, Virginia, the [U.S.] Army base?$$We've been working on Fort Lee twenty-five years because of discrimination in the workplace.$$Against soldiers or against civilians?$$It was civilians for the most part, but I've done some things with soldiers, but basically it's about civilians. We couldn't get anybody beyond anything, any, you know they would stop at [GS grade] fives and six and sevens and every once in a while you get somebody at an eleven or twelve, but not often and these people were professionals and they couldn't get through, so I embarked on a program of trying to change that, and Fort Lee, see they would, they would change the commander every two or three years, so then I gotta start all over again. So after a while I decided that I'm not gonna do that no more, I'm going to, I'm going to go right to the horse's mouth, and I set up a demonstration that was gonna march all the way down to the gate in attempt to go in the base and march in the base, and I released that to the news media so they could, and they were all out there, but I couldn't have no people, that people got scared. Some of the people who got off from work went out of the back gate, so when I said well I'm marching and I called the state police for protections the state police, the city police, the county police, and we're gonna need all of that protections, so they were there, closed down half of [Virginia State Route] 36.$$Which is the main route into Fort Lee (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) Yeah. We closed one side.