Unsung Hero: Dr. James S. Harrison

For the past 20+ years, Professor James S. Harrison has been one of the most influential people in Portland. Yet, unless you know him, you’ve probably never heard his name. Professor Harrison is a hero, a scholar, stalwart and an agent of change. He’s cool without trying. In the mid to late 80’s Professor Harrison did something that forever changed the life of one lady in particular.

At this time, he taught History at Benson High School. At this time school curriculums were vanilla white, literally. Professor Harrison did something no teacher she’d ever met had the courage to do. Right before the class ended, Professor Harrison with his cool demeanor and calm tone put forth what could be considered a radical challenge. He challenged his students to discover Quark Walker. This particular student took the challenge to heart. She stayed at the North Portland Library until it closed. She discovered who Quark Walker was hours before. But, something magical happened. While researching Quark Walker she discovers a host of other Black folks she never heard of. It was on…Take this one experience and multiply it by 20+ years, thousands of lectures, hours of study and countless students. I cannot begin to innumerate the number of lives touched by Professor Harrison’s unwavering commitment to Black History. We are both honored and humbled to have this time with Portland’s Black History Hero, Professor James S. Harrison. Portland Stand Up! Prof Harrison! Oh My Gosh! I am so excited to be interviewing you right now! How are you? My health has not been the best over the past year but I am getting better. Do you have ANY idea the many lives you’ve touched? How does it feel to have such a profound impact on so many people–do you ever think of that? Actually, from time to time I do meet ex-students either from my 17 years teaching at Grant, Cleveland or Benson High School or from my 20 years here at PCC and I do know that some students were deeply influenced by their experiences in my classes. In some cases students have made history a lifelong personal study, in some cases students have changed their majors or their field of interest. I’ll give you an example. A former student of yours credits you with having the courage to challenge her entire high school History class with discovering Quark Walker. She credits this lone incident for her lifelong thirst for Black History. What gave you the courage way back then, when history curriculum was about dead, old white men? Why was that important to you? Is it important now? I have always felt that knowing the truth about history was important and I never thought of history as being about dead people. History is about people acting in their own time frame, the present for them, and making decisions based on what they knew back then. In terms of my initial interest it was in high school while I was browsing in the library and found a book by Langston Hughes, The First Book of Negroes. I was fascinated and this began my lifelong study of history. It was important because as a 16 year old I was unaware of the many contributions that Blacks had made in creating this nation and that is a legacy that I want to pass on. I am baffled by proponents who advocate an end to Black History month, what are your thoughts on this? Is Black History month still needed and relevant? In the 7th grade we had Negro History Week. I remember thinking of it as a five day detour from the regular curriculum because Blacks were only mentioned that solitary week in February. My thoughts on the continuation of Black History Month? It is essential that we continue this tradition, but in the same way that it has expanded from 5 days to 28, I see a need to expand it even more. February should be a reminder, it should be an annual re-initiation but it should not be an end in itself. We need to make Black history, Black art, Black music, science, etc. a regular part of our lives so that every month is a celebration. April 4th, 1968 is a date filled with meaning for you. Do you still wear your medallion? Will you share the impact this day has for you and why you wear your medallion every year on April 4th? I was serving as a member of the Peace Corps in 1968 and I got the news over the radio. It was a sad day for this entire nation but even though the man is dead his spirit lives on in those of us who were part of The Movement. I do wear the medallion- both on his birthday and his death day; and other times as well.[April 4th, 1968 is the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died] The year is 2013(this interview occurred last year) and Black History still is not an integrated part of history curricula in school districts across this country, what’s up with that? What, if anything, does it mean to have a Black president? Unfortunately, many teachers are reluctant to include Black history because they are unaware of the facts or afraid of dealing with this highly emotional issue. Let me be more specific, it is widely known that nationwide fewer than half of the high school history teachers even have undergraduate degrees in history and so they simply teach what is in the textbook. If they wander away from that then they may encounter questions that they are unable to answer; in addition, issues of race and prior bad treatment are very emotional and some teachers would rather not even broach the subject. Some also use the excuse that there is not enough room in the curriculum to “add” more information. Prof. Harrison you must help me out. I never understood what is meant by America is a melting pot, what does this mean? This metaphor comes from the early 20th century and it uses a 19th century term. It comes from the title of a 1908 play by Israel Zangwill who thought that European immigrants would internalize “American” culture and easily merge into White society. In steel-making, various ingredients: carbon bearing iron, titanium, aluminum, manganese, etc. They were all put into a crucible and heated to combine them into steel- which was stronger that the separate ingredients. The crucible or melting pot fused the materials in the same way that the USA would fuse European cultures into American society. Note- American Blacks were not included in this process until the Civil Rights Movement. Many people have no idea what happened between slavery and Civil Rights–what are three events everyone should know relative to Black History during this period? (This sounds like one of your test questions, lol!) This is like asking parents, which is your favorite child? I will try to limit myself to three major events. First- Black Reconstruction, the highly praised role that Blacks played in changing southern culture following the Civil War is often understated or denigrated but we would not have public works to restore the infrastructure nor public schools without the combined effort of Blacks and forward looking Whites. Second- the Niagara Movement, which first pitted the ideas of DuBois against those of Booker T. Washington and later led to the formation of the NAACP, which began a tireless struggle against Jim Crow that culminated in the 1957 Brown Decision. Third- A. Philip Randolph and the Railroad Porter’s Union- this was the first all-Black union that organized on a national scale and led to other civil rights activities such as the abortive march on Washington of 1941 and the real one twenty-two years later. Fourth- I could go on and on. Okay, I hate that this interview must end…say you’ll never retire…and…Are you single? If I did not retire there would be no one to pass the baton on to, but that is still somewhere in the near future. My wife of 35 years will be happy when I do.

  • I was Mr. Harrison’s student back in the 70’s, when I was just becoming aware of social issues. His influence has shaped my views on society and politics, and injustice, and created me as a passionate eco-activist. Thanks Mr. Harrison!

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