As America prepares to inaugurate its first African-American President, the Historical Record looks back at James Henry Harris, Raleigh’s first African-American politician.
James Henry Harris was born a slave in Granville County in 1830. There’s little information about Harris’ early life, but what is known is that he gained his freedom at the age of eighteen. By the end of the Civil War, Harris had received a formal education at Oberlin College, a teaching certificate from the New England Freedman’s Aid Society, served as a recruiter for the 28th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops in Indiana, and traveled to Canada and Africa. He chose to return to North Carolina, the place of his enslavement, to serve as an educator and advocate of civil rights.
James Harris was a Wake County representative at the first Freedman’s Convention in the South. The year was 1865, and the place was Raleigh, in what would become the St. Paul A.M.E. Church on Edenton Street. In the same year, Harris was elected a state representative (by a committee of white men) at the State Convention.
Then in 1867, the Reconstruction Act gave African-American men the right to vote. At the North Carolina Constitutional Convention, January 14, 1868, for the first time in history, James H. Harris represented voting African-Americans in Raleigh.
During the Reconstruction era, Harris and his fellow African-American colleagues in the North Carolina General Assembly, Stewart Ellison, George W. Brodie and Moses Patterson, had a new world of opportunity open to them. Harris took hold of that opportunity, and became a Raleigh City Alderman, a state representative and state senator, director of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company (which was located on the corner of Hargett and Fayetteville Streets) and Vice President of the Union League. He also helped found the Negro branch of the North Carolina Institute for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind, which was the first school for blind African-Americans in the U.S.
As a leader in the Union League, Harris was loyal to Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party. In fact, Harris was a founding member of the North Carolina Republican Party in 1867, served as a delegate and spoke at several National Conventions. His land company developed the Oberlin community, where former slaves were able to own their first homes.
In the legislature, Harris was known as an eloquent orator, and dedicated his political life to reforms for the poor, laborers, women and orphans. After the Civil War when the state public school fund had been drained, he was one of the most outspoken representatives to urge the General Assembly to ratify a new education bill in 1869.
But all was not well with within the Republican Party of the South. By 1874, racial schisms between black and white Republicans were tearing the party apart. Many new laws in the state aimed to take rights away from African-Americans that the national Reconstruction Act had granted. The southern backlash of Reconstruction was in full force. Some leaders of the Republican Party chose to produce a “lily white” ticket in order to gain votes while “red shirt” Democrats vowed to use scare tactics to keep blacks from voting.
In the midst of racial upheaval, James Harris’ wife, Bettie Miller Harris, died in 1876. In the same year, he relocated to Warren County and made an unsuccessful run for congress.
Harris was back in Raleigh by 1880 and the ever-loyal Republican that he was, he started the North Carolina Republican newspaper. He died in 1891 and is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in Raleigh, the cemetery established in 1874 when all the allotted plots for blacks at the City Cemetery had been taken.
James Henry Harris’ legacy lives on in Raleigh, remembered on a state highway historical marker. But for a man of such immense talent, passion and accomplishment, it is surprising how little is left. No memoirs, no biography and perhaps not even an image from those nascent days of photography. It is possible that Harris’ legacy was snuffed out by the Reconstruction backlash, while former slaves continued to lose access to education, voting, and hope.