But Jesus said unto them “A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, among his own kin, and in his own house.” This verse from the book of Mark asks us to look deeper at those who walk among us and to rethink whether we have given sufficient honor to those we see every day for their contributions, work and service. On each and every chance —whether through a call, visit or an email — there was no doubt that this “Prophetess” in the person of Andrea Harris held a place of honor and reverence in my life.
This tribute is sorrowfully written to honor the life and work of the late Dr. Andrea L. Harris, retired president of the NC Institute of Minority Economic Development (Institute) and senior fellow at Self-Help Credit Union, and offers a point of reflection, celebration and honor on behalf of the collective — those who loved and adored Dr. Andrea L. Harris.
She was one of Vance County’s most important public servants who was never elected to office. However, her office was all over the state of North Carolina and her constituents were those who were underrepresented, marginalized, and those who didn’t have a voice or a seat at the table.
She was a part of our story and our history and we are a part of her story and legacy. She brought honor, dignity and respect to this corner of the world that we call Henderson. Thus we pause for a moment to recognize a life well lived in service to others.
But we the living are tasked with moving forward and finding ways to express our grief in this “new normal.” My hope is that these words will bring into perspective the life and narrative of one who was flesh and blood and one of us “Hendersonites.”
Today, we reclaim this mournful hour that we call death. Truth be told, the African-American community has had a hard time saying someone has died, so we say “Home Going” or “Celebration of Life,” because many think that death is the end. But many of us we believe Andrea has received a new beginning and that we can be thankful, so I shall say she has merely fallen asleep.
As I near 50 years old next month I have been looking back over my life. One learns to connect the dots and look back at the struggles and encouragement that you received along the way. One cheerleader in my life was and has been Andrea, who was always sending emails or calls of encouragement along this life’s journey. It is hard to image a Henderson or even the state of North Carolina without Andrea Harris as she was so necessary and vital as a mentor, life coach, and warrior.
One thing is for certain: 50 years from now one curious soul will look to these pages in The Daily Dispatch to find out more about life during the COVID-19 pandemic and I know for certain what did we say about Andrea L. Harris. Yes there has been a lowering of the flag in the state of North Carolina, letters, editorials, Zoom programs and interviews all done to stop and note that this native daughter has departed from our midst after 72 impactful years in this community.
Andrea was born in Sumter, South Carolina, and was reared in Henderson and was the first child born to noted dentist Dr. Andrew L. and educator Geneva S. Harris.
Her family has strong ties to Vance County through Andrea’s grandparents Peter and Beulah Eaton Harris from the Flat Rock community in Vance County. Peter Harris was a successful farmer, landowner and storeowner who educated all of his children, and this impacted her life greatly.
Andrea’s passion for excellence and business acumen was inspired by her grandparents and parents, who modeled for her to dedicate her life professionally and in civic and community affairs. They emphasized the “3-B’s”: books, ballot, and bucks as an avenue to progress during the Jim Crow era of segregation and post desegregation. Her success was possible because of her experiences growing up in Henderson and a desire give back to a place that had such an impact on her life.
She completed her education in Vance County and graduated valedictorian of her class in 1966 at the segregated Henderson Institute, where she saw black excellence modeled by the faculty, staff and community that instilled pride and self-awareness.
She attended Bennett College in Greensboro under Dr. Isaac H. Miller Jr., the last man to date to serve as president of the college. In 1970, she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the college, where she was a scholar and student leader. She returned home to Henderson as she called it “radical” with a new view on life and with a determination to bring about change. That desire initially led her to teach, but later she changed course and was in the vanguard of addressing the social ills that plagued the community.
In the 1970s, she worked with the Franklin-Vance-Warren Opportunity, where she served as the three county agency’s first senior citizens program director and its executive director During her tenure, a healthy housing program was initiated to perform major rehabilitation of housing for low- to moderate-income homeowners as she worked to improve the human condition. In leading the senior citizens program, an elderly transportation program was established that serviced four counties helping older adults get back and forth to basic services, as well as to medical facilities in Durham and Chapel Hill. It was the first rural transportation program funded by the Catholic Church and the first in a rural region.
Through her leadership, youth programs, a weatherization program, and community garden projects were established and Head Start and employment programs significantly enhanced and expanded.
In the 1980s, after leaving FVW, Andrea served as director of the North Carolina Senior Citizens Federation — a multi-state project that advocated, trained, and helped build resources to meet the needs of the south’s growing older adult population. Her work included increasing the participation of the low-income and minority elderly in the White House Conference on Aging tenfold. Later, during her work with the N.C. Department of Commerce in the mid 1980s she was instrumental in establishing the first statewide Community Reinvestment Steering Committee to address the banking needs of low- to moderate-income and minority citizens.
In 1982, Andrea joined the Minority Business Development Agency of the North Carolina Department of Commerce as a management and information specialist. She served as chair of the first statewide Community Reinvestment Act steering committee. Her efforts resulted in minority businesses becoming a priority to the North Carolina banking community.
During her tenure at the Department of Commerce, Andrea developed a deep commitment to the growth and development of minority business enterprises. This commitment led her to co-found the North Carolina Institute of Minority Economic Development (the Institute) in 1986-in an attempt to establish a research and policy base to expand the economic strength and resources of traditionally underrepresented communities in an effort to influence public policy. It was the only organization of its kind in the country focused on business and economic development through effective business diversity.
I count myself lucky to have had Andrea Harris in my life. When I was around 12 years old my father, Cecil Vann, adored and respected her and made sure that I got a civics lesson by going out with her to all corners of Vance County to register African-Americans to vote in neighborhoods outside my community. These actions helped to lead to an increase in voter registration and the election of people who look like you and me. She understood that the right to vote was sacred and had come at a cost paid by a generation before.
I last saw Andrea in February when she attended the 75th Anniversary of the Vance County Branch of the NAACP where I was the guest speaker and she and I saw each other as she was making her way in and said, “You know I came because of you.” I cling to these words today because it would be the last time we would see each other. I had the good fortune less than two weeks ago to have received first an email and later a call to work on a project to honor Rep. Mickey Michaux Jr., and I agreed that I would.
We talked for almost 40 minutes as we then chatted about history, which she loved, and the role that she and her dear Aunt Maggie H. Davis who headed the Life Membership Program of the Vance County NAACP and had a tremendous impact on Andrea’s life. She recalled in our most recent call that as a young lady her Aunt Maggie said, “I have a Christmas gift for you,” and she couldn’t wait to see her, and to her surprise the gift was a Life membership to the NAACP, which she cherished, although she said being young “I would have appreciated the cash!”
No matter what position Andrea held, she always called Henderson home and would return daily to care for her mother in her later years. She was not idle as she was still a force for good and fighting the good fight, but equally willing to find common ground for all.
Having lived in Durham for 32 years I was considered a junior member of what became known in Durham as the “Henderson Mafia” that included Abdul Rasheed, Isaac Green, Andrea and myself, who all just happened to be from Henderson, but were a part of the fabric of the civic, educational and business community in Durham.
Andrea was comfortable with the rich and powerful and even the famous, but she was at home with the sick, the poor and the marginalized among us. She was not just concerned, but was committed to solving problems in inequality and social justice. She was intentional in her pursuits.
She had the community on her mind and understood that “leadership was total forgetfulness of self” and helped to make this community what it is today. As a pioneer she built expectations for others to follow. She knew that the tenets of group politics and group economics were necessary, and like the leaders a generation before her she saw possibilities where others saw obstacles by bringing people together. Remembering the adage that the south was “all about relationships” and if you didn’t understand that, you didn’t understand the south.
She was like “E. F. Hutton” — when she talked presidents, senators, congressmen, business executives, bankers, college presidents and chancellors and young
She knocked on doors and truth be told she kicked in a few and broke a few glass ceilings in places and spaces previously closed to women and African-Americans. She used the privileges that she received to better the condition of those who didn’t have access as we came to know when she walked in we all walked in and lives were changed for the better.
She was dedicated to the cause of civic improvement, and gave willingly of her time and energy throughout her life to enhance the growth and leadership of black entrepreneurs, women and young people. Andrea believed it started at home.
In 1988, she was among the founders of the Gateway Community Development Corporation (CDC) and served as chair of the board. This organization, which provided needed support and assets to residents of Vance County, constructed more than 40 units of affordable housing in two different subdivisions, which were the only two developments in the city limits of Henderson in more than 30 years.
On Oct. 1, 2014, Andrea L. Harris stepped down and became a senior fellow at the Institute and later a senior fellow at Self-Help Credit Union. She spent a lifetime toiling, unselfishly speaking truth to power and encouraging generations of others to do the same.
She helped to usher in a “Second Reconstruction” and lived to see much of Dr. King’s unfinished task of economic justice fulfilled and come to fruition by advocating for equal rights, civil rights, “silver rights,” and justice for all regardless of race, class or economic status. Her life offers a new narrative on the role of active black women and the culture of race in the market place.
She was a fierce advocate for the disenfranchised and helped people like you and me find our voices to overcome barriers.
Andrea’s faith guided her daily as she served as a steward at Kesler Temple-African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. This historic denomination is known as the “Freedom Church” and is recognized for “inspirational worship, educational excellence, social justice, and economic and community development,” which suited her well. She understood clearly “to whom much is given, much will be required.”
Andrea, served on the boards of Bennett College, Vance-Granville Community College, the North Carolina Economic Development Board, the National Board of the Institute for Emerging Issues at NC State University, the Minority Business Research Advisory Group of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Vance County Economic Development Commission and the Gateway Center of Henderson.
She was a Life member of the NAACP and served two terms as president of the Vance County Branch of the NAACP. She also chaired the Economic Development Committee for the NAACP State Conference. She recognized that each generation had a duty to maintain the gains made by the previous generation as she understood that civil and human rights was an ongoing struggle.
She held active membership in her beloved Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and in 2016 was the namesake of the chapter’s “Andrea Harris Social Action Award” that recognizes individuals instrumental in leading social change in the chapter’s area. Andrea exhibited her leadership skills as she served as president of the Oxford-Henderson Alumnae Chapter (Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.) from 1991-1993.
She was a multiple recipient of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the state’s highest honor, honored in 1995 and 2009. Also, her alma mater honored her with an honorary doctorate.
As I close I am reminded of a quote by Erma Bombeck that states “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, I used everything you gave me.” We can truly say she gave all she had and we are the better for it and so I ask you to join me in helping ensure that the name of Andrea L. Harris is remembered and will live on in the lives of those present and those yet to come.
Andre D. Vann is a Henderson native and archivist and historian at North Carolina Central University in Durham.