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Curtis W. Harris

Born:     July 1, 1924
Birthplace:    Chester, VA
Died:    December 10, 2017

Zodiac Sign:  Cancer

Career and Life

Curtis West Harris was an African-American minister, civil rights activist, and politician in Virginia.

Harris' civil rights work began in 1950 with his stint as president of the Hopewell, Virginia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1960, he was arrested and sentenced to 60 days in jail for his role in a sit-in staged at segregated Georges' Drugstore in Hopewell. Later that year, he initiated a protest against the city's segregated swimming pool that culminated in the closure of the pool. In 1966, Harris led a peaceful demonstration to dissuade the city from building a landfill in Rosedale, a Hopewell African American community; and was confronted by the Ku Klux Klan on the steps of city hall. Harris was arrested 13 times for civil disobedience during his years of involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1960, Harris helped to organize the Hopewell Improvement Association, an affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and was elected Vice President. He was named to the Board of Directors of the National SCLC in 1961 while Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was president. Also in 1961, Harris was cited for contempt by the Boatwright Committee of the Virginia General Assembly for not revealing the names of individuals associated with SCLC and not responding to the questions asked by the committee. On March 29, 1962, Dr. King along with more than 100 Virginia ministers and laymen accompanied Harris to his contempt trial (Boatwright Committee) in Hopewell. He worked with Dr. King on multiple civil rights initiatives, including the March on Washington in 1963 and the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965; and considered him as one of his mentors in the Civil Rights Movement. Harris served as president of the Virginia State Unit of SCLC from 1963–1998, and was elected the National SCLC Vice President in 2005.

In 1968, Harris was appointed to the Virginia Advisory Committee to the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights. In 1987, he led a march against discrimination in Colonial Heights, Virginia. He filed a racial discrimination complaint, in 1996, against the Fort Lee Army Base. In 2007, Harris demonstrated against a proposed ethanol plant being built in Hopewell with support from the national SCLC.

Harris was employed as a janitor at Allied Chemical and Dye Company when he was ordained a Baptist minister in 1959. First Baptist Church, Bermuda Hundred in Chester, Virginia was where he first served as a pastor and remained there until 1969. In 1961, he was called to pastor at both Union Baptist Church in Hopewell and Gilfield Baptist Church in Ivor, Virginia. Harris retired from Gilfield in 1994, and on December 16, 2007, he delivered his final sermon at Union Baptist after a 46-year pastorship. Harris was also president of the Hopewell Ministerial Association, Moderator/Executive Director of Bethany Baptist Association and Allied Bodies, and affiliated with Lott Carey Foreign Mission.

As early as 1964, Harris ran for a seat on the Hopewell City Council. After seven attempts to be elected, he and many other like-minded residents moved the city of Hopewell to replace its longstanding at-large system with a ward system in 1983. Harris was finally elected to the 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. After 26 years of service to the city as well as to his constituents in Ward 2, Harris retired from his seat on the Hopewell City Council on March 1, 2012.

On February 11, 2014, the Hopewell City Council voted to rename Terminal Street, "Rev. C. W. Harris Street." For 57 years, Curtis and Ruth Harris lived at 209 Terminal Street, the street in Hopewell which now bears his name. The council also voted to rename Booker Street (which intersects Rev. C. W. Harris Street), "Ruth Harris Way" in honor of Harris' late wife, Dr. Ruth J. Harris. The Street Sign Ceremony, hosted by the Hopewell City Council, was held at Union Baptist Church on June 15, 2014, to pay tribute to Curtis and Ruth Harris. Herbert Bragg, Hopewell's Intergovernmental and Public Affairs Director was master of ceremony, music was rendered by the Harris Connection Singers (Harris' children and grandchildren) and statements were made by Union Baptist Pastor Dr. Anthony Nutt, Hopewell Mayor Michael Bujakowski, Hopewell Vice Mayor Jasmine Gore, Hopewell City Manager Mark Haley, Hopewell Councilwoman Brenda Pelham, Hopewell Councilwoman Jackie Shornak, Virginia State Senator Henry Marsh, and Dr. Joanne H. Lucas (Harris' daughter). Letters were read from Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, U.S. Senator Mark Warner and U.S. Senator Timothy Kaine.

On July 1, 2017, Harris celebrated his 93rd birthday with family and friends at a program,"The Life and Legacy of Rev. Dr. Curtis West Harris," hosted by Union Baptist Church where he was Pastor Emeritus. He died in Chester, Virginia at The Crossings at Ironbridge on December 10, 2017, at the age of 93. Source.

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