NJG Staff Report
Dr. Curtis W. Harris, a national and Virginia civil rights icon and the first African-American Mayor for the City of Hopewell, passed on Sunday, December 10, 2017 in Chester, Virginia at age 93.
Dr. Harris was a noted leader and early member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1950s. Harris was said to have served as a human shield for Dr. King as they marched in the historic Selma to Montgomery civil rights march that later led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
His civil rights activism was carried out in numerous marches and protest demonstrations that led to his being jailed in key Virginia cities as the fight for equality and justice for Blacks in Virginia was being waged in the 1960s and beyond.
Harris, who became a well-known Baptist minister, worked early on as a janitor at what was then Allied Chemical Corporation in Hopewell, Virginia.
In the early ‘50s, he became a union shop steward and pushed the company to hire African-Americans for positions beyond that of janitor.
“We honored Dr. Curtis W. Harris in Newport News annually in September with the Dr. Curtis W. Harris Solidarity Lunch,” said Andrew Shannon.
Shannon is the SCLC State Vice President and Chapter President of the Peninsula District Chapter SCLC; and Founder and Organizer of Southeast Community Day Parade and Festival.
“Dr. Curtis W. Harris was a civil rights legend who was my friend, mentor and patriarch of the civil rights movement in Virginia and nationally.”
Curtis West Harris was born on July 1, 1924 in Denron, Virginia. His father left the family when he was a 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 his tuition so he could attend Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia.
He attended Union from 1945 until 1946. Harris’ civil rights work began in 1950 with his stint as President of the Hopewell chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1959, and First Baptist Bermuda Hundred in Chester, VA was the first church he pastored.
In 1960, a young Curtis Harris participated in a protest sit-in at a segregated drugstore in Hopewell, and served time in jail. It was one of many such events.
Later in that year, he protested the segregation of the Hopewell swimming pool which eventually led to the pool’s closure. In 1960, he initiated the Hopewell Improvement Association, an affiliate of the SCLC and was elected Vice President.
Harris was named to the Board of Directors of the National SCLC in 1961 while Dr. King was president and worked with King on many civil rights initiatives. Harris cited Dr. King as one of his mentors in the civil rights movement.
In 1966, Harris led a peaceful demonstration to prevent the building of a landfill in Hopewell’s African American community; and was confronted by the Ku Klux Klan on the steps of city hall. Harris unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the Hopewell City Council seven times before his steadfast efforts in 1983 forced the city to switch from an at-large system to a ward system to elect city council members
He served as president of the Virginia State Unit of SCLC from 1963–1998,and was elected the National SCLC Vice President in 2005. In 1987, he led a march against discrimination in Colonial Heights, Virginia.
Harris was finally elected to Hopewell City Council (Ward 2) in 1986. In 1994 he was elected vice mayor; and in 1998, Harris was sworn in as the first African American mayor of Hopewell.
Rev. Harris retired from Gilfield Baptist Church in 1994,and on December 16, 2007, he retired as pastor of Union Baptist Church in Hopewell after forty-six years.
Harris and his high school sweetheart Ruth shared many years of marriage before her passing. From this union six children were born. Two of their sons, helped integrate Hopewell High School.
In 2011, Harris was honored by the Virginia General Assembly, House Joint Resolution 716 as “one of Virginia’s most celebrated religious, social, civic, and political leaders for (his) unselfish and unrelenting efforts over the years to pursue and defend the rights of others.”
During his latter years, his passion for civil rights hardly waned. He continued to champion the rights of others at every opportunity, despite any personal costs or hardships his actions caused him.
In the process, of devoting his life to actively pursuing and defending the rights of others, Dr. Harris won praise and honors from civil rights and civic organizations across the state and across the country.
Funeral arrangements are currently being made by the family of Dr. Curtis W. Harris in Hopewell.
If you have any questions or need additional information, please contact Dr. Joanne H. Lucas, daughter of Dr. Curtis W. Harris, or Andrew Shannon at (757) 877-0792.