From humble beginnings on the plantations of Louisiana to a senior position in one of the most highly-respected historically black universities in the USA, Professor Aaron Harris’ story is as unconventional as it is inspirational. It’s the tale of a true pioneer; encompassing entrepreneurship, the early development of space travel and the civil rights movement.
For many creole families, the plantations surrounding the Bayou Courtableau were unforgiving. With no electricity, inhospitable accommodation and unscrupulous plantation owners, life was never easy from the onset for many a sharecropper – but in a remarkable life, which has encompassed standing as a civil rights advocate, working towards the space travel and teaching at one of the most respected historically black institutions in the United States, it’s fair to say that Professor Aaron Harris used his early hardships to learn about the world and develop his skills to become one of the most progressive individuals of his time.
Born in 1935 in a house built from rough cuts of cypress wood in rural Washington, Louisiana, Professor Aaron Harris was the second of thirteen (13) children born to a sharecropper father of African descent and a Creole mother, who would stay at home and tend to the homestead, as was tradition. Harris’ formative years were spent in a form of modern nomadism, moving from plantation to plantation throughout the Bayou Courtableau district of Louisiana – moves which were, in part, due to Harris’ father’s insistence on receiving receipts for his crop in order to avoid being plunged into debt by underhanded plantation owners intent on enacting a stealth form of slavery.
“After I grew up, I found out, one of the reasons why we had to move so often was because my father believed in getting a receipt for [his own] crop. Most of the plantation owners would never allow that. Being the son of a sharecropper was the closest thing to slavery. You see, the boss man would tell the tenants at the end of the year, ‘You didn’t come out this year.’ We knew what that meant. We had to stay another year to try and catch up to pay the alleged debt that was owed.”
It’s precisely this sort of steely determination – the desire not to be subjugated and to succeed on his own terms – that has influenced much of Harris’ career. A self-made man, he even returned in 2002 to one of the plantations his father had worked so hard on to purchase a 105-acre plot: the son of a sharecropper was now the master of the land.
“That tract of land went through several different owners. The gentleman who sold it to me was Dr. Baker who was working at the local hospital. He was right around the corner from where I live here. He had cows and every time I would see anything going wrong in his pasture, I would let him know about it.”
“I once told him that if he would ever sell this tract of land to let me know. One day, I’m sitting in this chair, and had put my feet on the table. I don’t know why I did that. Then the phone rang. It was Dr. Baker. He asked me if I was still interested in that land. I said, ‘Call me if the price is right.’ He said, ‘I’m trying to move all of what I have on the other side of Opelousas, so I’m going to take $100 an acre less than what I paid for the property.’ I said, ‘You got it. Consider it sold.’”
Ever modest, Professor Harris purchased the land out of a sense of pride and more out of a sense of restoring his innate connection to the area. Having spent his early years fishing and hunting with his father on the grounds, it seems only fitting that the acreage is now under his control – particularly because part of the sense of responsibility instilled by his parents involved the desire to achieve stability by purchasing property.
“I’ll always cherish that,” opines Harris. “My father was the one who made us want to own a piece of land because we moved around to so many different plantations. Every three or four years we moved because my father was the one who, as I mentioned earlier, required a little more, and the landlord didn’t like that. I assumed that the plantation owner saw that as a problem and thought that my father would influence some of the other tenants to do the same thing.”
One of the properties that Harris acquired in the late 60’s was formerly owned by a plantation owner in the area. The first change Professor Harris made to the land was to pull down “the boss man house” with his own fair hands, instructing the workers he had employed to tear down the tenant houses, but to leave the plantation master’s house for himself to dismantle in a symbolic gesture of freeing himself and his family from the metaphorical chains of the white oppressors who once owned the plantations.
While education undoubtedly begins at home, any chance to be formally schooled in the days of segregation was an opportunity not to be missed – particularly for a child from rural Louisiana. When the chance finally arrived, Professor Harris grabbed it wholesale with both hands, despite the obstacles he faced as a black child in a segregated Louisiana.
A family move to a plantation near Opelousas provided the young Harris with the opportunity to attend a school in Washington, some three miles away from the family home. By modern standards a six-mile round trip might not seem much, but on foot it could be a tiring excursion, particularly in the extreme weather conditions in South Louisiana.
Washington Colored School provided an education of sorts, but in the days when people of colour were looked down upon as second-class citizens by racist ruling classes (and by extension, white school children); it was a case of “hand-me-downs” for young black pupils.
“One of the amazing things, when I was in school, I never, ever recalled being able to write my name in the back of the textbook, because every textbook that I had was passed down from the white school to the black school,” remembers Harris.
“There’s only one thing they didn’t pass down to us. The white folk kept the school bus. They never passed the school bus down to us.”
It was during these years that Professor Aaron Harris encountered the hardships and humiliation of racism that would help form his conscience for social justice.
“The bus carrying the white students would pass by and they would throw all the trash at us out the window, and all kinds of things, actually. The bus driver would just keep going.”
Nevertheless, the would-be Professor persisted, graduating from high school in 1953 at the age of 17. With no guidance from teachers or counsellors at his school, because he was a sharecropper’s son, Harris decided the best course of action would be to continue his education. With barely a cent to his name, he hitch-hiked to Baton Rouge and met with Dr. Leon Netterville at Southern University, who provided him with a job in the school’s dining hall so that he could afford to study.
Although today we think of college campuses as hotbeds of social engagements, life wasn’t quite so easy for Professor Harris at Southern. With no scholarship and no funding, Harris was forced to spend all of his free time working in the dining hall to pay his way and make ends meet – and had to manage without luxuries afforded to wealthier students.
One incident which sticks in Professor Harris’ memory is the time he was asked to leave the freshman dance – because he wasn’t wearing a suit. “I think it was the second week when we were there; it was known as the freshman dance. I didn’t have a suit, so I went to the dance with my shirt, just like I am now, shirt and no tie. Dr. Harvey who was the dean of students came in. He said, ‘Follow me to the door.’ I followed him to the door, and stepped outside, and he said, ‘We men at Southern never attend a dance unless we have a coat and a tie – I know you didn’t know that, but you go and get your coat and your tie, and you come back and we’ll let you in.’” Professor Harris never returned to the dance, retiring instead to what he refers to as “the barracks” – military-style accommodation for the poorest students which featured bunks and very little in the way of privacy.
However, it was during his stay at the barracks when Aaron Harris turned his hand to a new money-making scheme: barbering.
After convincing a room-mate, Barney, to be the guinea-pig for his haircutting venture, Harris soon found himself in high demand. His entrepreneurial spirit eventually led him to a local blind school where the dean agreed that Harris could cut the hair of all the students at 50 cents a head, once a month – netting him approximately $7 each time. Ever the businessman, Professor Harris invested wisely in a set of electric clippers to make the job easier.
At one point, the Dean of the dormitory threatened to confiscate the clippers from Harris, until he explained that without the source of income he would have to return home.
“I said, I was working in the dining hall and I don’t have any other funds, and I’m working in the dining hall just to get something to eat. That’s all. He looked at me and said, ‘I didn’t see you. Go ahead and keep your clippers, I didn’t see you.’”
A man of conscience, Harris had in fact been sending money home to his father, in order to help feed his younger siblings, many of whom were attending school and needed money for lunch – something which staff at the college admirably picked up on. One of the workers in the finance office once remarked that whereas most students would enter her office to collect money from family members, Harris was the only one sending money back home.
Math and the making of the man
Professor Aaron Harris had enrolled in mathematics in college as it was a subject he had excelled in while in high school. His undergraduate diploma took three and a half years to complete, at which point Harris returned home. Despite his ambitions to attend graduate school, the sad reality for
Harris was that no grad school in Louisiana would accept people of colour.
With an idea to enrol at UCLA, that was discouraged by his parents, Harris instead took a teaching position in his parish, teaching math to high-schoolers. While not a small accomplishment, his ambition and entrepreneurial longing continued to tug at his heartstrings, leading him to eventually to enrol in law school. Inspired by the integration movement of the time, Aaron Harris was determined to learn the letter of the law to right some of the wrongs he felt were pervading society in 60s America.
As he puts it: “I had perceived the wrongs when I was a boy, being a sharecropper’s son. I wanted to come back and kick some rear ends and make it better for black folks.”
Work hard, he did! Taking advantage of his GI Bill, he enrolled in law school in 1968 and graduated in May of 1971. During his senior year in law school he was recruited to join the faculty. That following August of 1971, he joined the faculty and within three (3) years he became the associate dean of the law school – something he attributes to his “energetic” and “aggressive” attitude.
“Everywhere I went, you knew I was there, because I didn’t settle for just being the ordinary person. I was always out front.”
Aiming for the stars
Although he might have made a name for himself in law, Professor Harris was responsible for groundbreaking work of a different kind. Before enrolling in law school, Harris was drafted into the army in 1959 and remained until 1961. While the bayous of Louisiana offer a fantastic view of the night sky, the young Aaron Harris had not likely anticipated that as a young adult he would be an integral part of a military project which would eventually become the blueprint for space travel and sending a man to the moon.
Explaining his role in one of the greatest engineering feats in US history, Harris somewhat modestly plays down his input: “I got drafted in the military. When I was drafted, I went to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for basic training. While being at Fort Leonard Wood, they’d run you through this battery of exams, and so on and so forth. Apparently I did well, because I was sent to Huntsville, Alabama, to work on a rocket project. It was called the Army Rocket Guided Missile Agency”.
After his discharge from the military in 1961, Harris would return to teaching math – and it was this experience that would feed Harris’ desire for equality and equity. Frustrated with not being treated on the same level as his white peers, his appetite for fighting injustice grew and grew.
“Let me tell you when the trouble first started. It must’ve been in the year of 1965 or 1966. The St. Landry Parish school board started the construction of the new high school in Opelousas for white folks who were segregated, and one in Eunice. Mind you, those two schools were air conditioned. A letter was sent from the central office through the principal, and the principal read the letter in a meeting that evening, asking all the teachers to raise money to buy fans for our classrooms.”
“I held my hand up, and I said, ‘I’m not going to raise money to buy a fan.’ Everybody looked at me like I was crazy. I said, ‘I’m not going to buy a fan.’ I said, ‘Now, if the school board can build an air-conditioned school in Opelousas for white folks, and an air-conditioned school in Eunice for white folks, they sure can buy fans for us. I’m not buying a fan.’ Then the problems started.”
After this outburst, Harris began to feel targeted by the powers-that-be.
“That caused me to have some problems in that high school. The supervisor of mathematics decided he was going to observe my class. He sat in the back of the class with the principal, and he nodded off. When I finished, I’ll never forget – I was doing the quadratic equation – and I solved it in three ways, I factored it and completed the square, and then used the quadratic formula.”
“When he woke up, he said, ‘Yeah, but you didn’t do what you said.’ That just got to me. I said, ‘Apparently, you weren’t paying attention. I’m going to go over this again. Now, you pay attention this time.’ A couple of students snickered. I went over it again real fast, and when I finished, I said to him, ‘Now, did you understand it?’”
That afternoon, the principal of the school told Harris that he had been “a little hard” on the supervisor. Harris disagreed, which led to further conflict and problems. However, just as his father had fought for receipts on the plantation, Harris fought for his own inalienable rights – by enrolling in the Southern Law School program, passing the bar exam and becoming Associate Dean.
Raising the bar for education
As Associate Dean, one thing was troubling Professor Harris – the lack of student recruitment at his alma mater.
“They [the council of deans] were talking about recruiting students, and strange as it was at that time, most of the deans had their children attending other universities. I held my hand up and the chairman recognized me, and I said, ‘You know what bothers me, I said, some of you in here have your children going to other universities. How are you going to convince other people to send their children here and you don’t send yours here and you work here?’ It was a radical statement – but it was true.”
At the same time, Professor Harris was advocating for black graders to be implemented at the Louisiana State Bar Association, as he felt that the lack of diversity meant there was too much possibility for discrimination. At the time, students who failed the bar exam were not afforded the opportunity to review their exams. In order to rectify this, Harris and members of his class sued the LSBA in an attempt to force the body to revise its guidelines to include all races in the grading process, as well as provide graduates of Southern University Law School the right to review their exams. As a result of the lawsuit, while exam failures were still not allowed to review their exams, minority examiners were included in the grading process.
With justified anger, Harris is still in disbelief: “In order to succeed in the United States during my time of working in the Civil Rights Movement, if you were a Caucasian male, you had what it took. That’s all that was required. A lot has changed, but unfortunately – [white privilege] still exists.”
“White male supremacy is a thing that seems to be highlighted. I think its society. I don’t think there are enough of us as blacks who are still as active as we were back in my younger days. You see, we accept things and say this is the way it is. I even have a problem trying to convince some of my grandkids that there’s a real degree of racial discrimination existing today.”
It’s clear that the spectre of racial segregation continues to haunt Professor Harris.
“A police officer pulled me over not long ago, and I thought about how I should respond. Because you just don’t know. I thought, I don’t know what to expect, because of the way they are shooting now, I’ve never seen it like this before.”
Always moving forward
Despite reservations about the current political state of affairs, Professor Aaron Harris remains optimistic about the future, and continues to be passionate about young black people with regard to spurring them on to educate themselves – both on a formal level about their history and the world around them.
“I strongly advocate to all young blacks that I get a chance to talk with, to get as much education as possible, and earn as much money as possible. I try to drive the point home to them, I’ll say, look, I have yet to have anyone tell me that I have too much education or that I have too much money. Get it all – you can have both of them, and then set your priorities right.”
Harris’ strong work ethic undoubtedly remains front and center, a throwback from his days of cutting hair and serving meals in the college dining room while sacrificing social functions: “Business before pleasure, because pleasure is going to be there always. The more money you get, you’re going to have more possibility for pleasure. You need to get education and money. Now, money includes property, because if you don’t have any of these things you call property here in the United States, you don’t have power, per se.”
It’s hard to disagree with Harris’ sentiments. In this information age where entertainment and distractions are all around us, perhaps the most important thing is to focus on the real, tangible life altering goals in order to affect and sustain change today.
The Approach and Accomplishment of Marriage and Family
Seeking and finding a wife was quite challenging because Harris was adamant about living on a farm. Unfortunately, most African American women, during his college years, wanted to live in the city or in a subdivision.
“Having a discussion with my father about marriage, I recall saying to him, ’If I could just find a woman who was willing to say yes to my ideas, together we could have a successful venture in life.’ So, I set out to find that woman.’”
“In doing so, I became acquainted with my wife to be, Rosa Mae Bertrand. She is the daughter of sharecroppers and had experienced some of the same oppressions I had experienced. Convincing her that together we could extricate ourselves from some of the perils of a segregated society was not too difficult. After a short courtship period, we were married and this was the beginning of a long journey from poverty to prosperity. Through this journey, Rosa and I have learned that it is not where you have come from that matter, but where you are striving to go that matters the most. We were blessed with three children Alonzo, Antonio, and Vanessa.”
The Harris’ decided to send their children to public schools in St. Landry Parish. “During their elementary and high school days, my wife made most of their school clothes using the sewing talent she had learned from her mother.”
“All of our children attended and received their undergraduate degrees from Southern University in Baton Rouge. I influenced Alonzo and Vanessa to attend Southern University Law Center where I had the honor of teaching them various courses and provided them with the guidance necessary to become lawyers.”
Antonio took a different route and was awarded a fellowship to attend a graduate program at the University of Connecticut and he received a Master’s Degree in Nutritional Science. He is currently an instructor at Southern University in the Agricultural Department and he serves as the Director of the Southern University Sustainable Agricultural and Rural Development Institute. He has personally recruited a countless number of students from St. Landry Parish to pursue degrees in agriculture at Southern University.
Once Alonzo became licensed to practice law, he and I established the first African American father/son law firm in St. Landry Parish. Upon Vanessa joining us, she too enhanced the status of making history in St. Landry Parish.
After six (6) years of practicing law, in 1993, Alonzo was elected as the first African American judge on the 27th Judicial District Court, where he now serves as the Chief Judge.
“My wife and I were very proud of his accomplishment. But what impacted me most was a comment made by my father, Edward Harris, Sr. who said, ‘You know, at one time I could not enter the court house building, but now I have a grandson who is a judge in that same court house building, thanks to the Lord.’ That statement caused me to understand the psychological trauma of a segregated society and the oppressed conditions of being a sharecropper.’”
“Fifteen years later, we were further blessed and rewarded for our hard work when Vanessa was elected as the first African American female judge in St. Landry Parish, and, the first African American and female judge elected to serve at Opelousas City Court. That put the icing on the cake for the contributions that the law firm of Harris and Harris has made to the legal system.”
“As I reflect back, when I attained the qualifications to practice law in the State of Louisiana, I was denied membership to the St. Landry Parish Bar Association because of my race. But through the Blessings of our Creator, I have been able to make great contributions to the St. Landry Parish Bar Association.”
While Harris proves that you’re never too old to be an active advocate for equality, he’s currently taking a well-earned break from more strenuous physical activities: “Right now, at this age, I feel good.” Harris attributes his vigor to two things – blood pressure pills prescribed as a preventative measure by a doctor some 40 years ago and vegetable-rich Creole cuisine. He refrains from eating sweets and benefits from a non-starchy diet. “I don’t try to do the things I used to do physically, because at one time, I would just pick up a crosstie, put it on my shoulder and go put it in a hole fixing the fence. I’m not going to try that now.”
Given a life filled with personal and professional achievements most can only dream of, nobody can chastise Professor Harris for taking it easier in his retirement years. After all, when you’ve contributed to the landscape of space travel, changed the landscape of equality, even changed the landscape of the land of former plantation owners by purchasing it, and becoming an independent person, it is the ultimate well-deserved accomplishment!