Dr. Jean Harris, physician and politician

Jean Harris
Tue, 1931-11-24

On this date in 1931 Dr. Jean Harris was born. She was an African American politician, physician, and administrator.

Harris was raised in a second-floor apartment above a drugstore in a segregated neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia. Her family was considered something of a first family within the city's East End, where Jean's father was the neighborhood doctor. Douglas Wilder, the former Virginia governor who was the first Black elected to lead any state, used to ride each day to a segregated preschool in Richmond with Harris. "They were more affluent than other families in the ghetto, and Jean's parents were determined that she had the best," Wilder said.

The only way out of the ghetto was via the back seat of a streetcar headed downtown. "There were drinking fountains for Whites and drinking fountains for Blacks, and my mother made us drink from the white fountains," Harris remembered. "She'd stand by us and just glare at anyone who stared at us as we drank." Harris' mother also took her children to the sandy public beach used by Whites, spurning the designated Black beach, the one paved with jagged rocks and broken glass. And when her children were given used books with tattered bindings and scribbles in the margins, Jean's mother would castigate the school board and demand new books.

After graduating from Virginia Union University, Harris applied to the Medical College of Virginia, knowing that no Black student had ever been accepted there. For years she was driven by haunting words, words that she never heard directly but saw daily in the eyes of those who knew her as the only Black student at Virginia Commonwealth University's Medical College of Virginia. "'You're not good enough,'" Harris remembered recently. "Nobody ever said it to me, but I know they were all thinking it." In 1951 she became the first Black student admitted to an all-white school in Virginia. "Many of the students had never associated with a Black person before," she recalled. "And those who had were the ones who had maids, gardeners and chauffeurs. I always felt I had to prove I was good enough."

Eventually she earned the highest grade ever on a neuro-anatomy exam at that time. Harris became an internist, married and had three daughters. But she never stopped trying to help others who hadn't escaped. She became chief of the Bureau of Resources of Development in Washington, D. C., which was responsible for implementing the Medicaid and welfare programs. Under President Lyndon Johnson's administration, she was a consultant to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, the U. S. Agency on International Development and to Congress. She later became executive director of the National Medical Association Foundation, dedicated to providing health-care access to inner-city residents. Feeling the need to spend more time with her family, Harris returned to the Medical College of Virginia, becoming the first Black faculty member. "You can imagine the pressure she was under, but she's never had a bitter word about anyone," said Dr. John Witherspoon, professor of medicine at the college.

Harris loved the medical world, but politics seemed a better match for her need to reach large numbers of people. She accepted positions as co chairwoman of President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on Alcoholism and Alcoholic Disorders and his Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives. Harris was married in 19xx and had three daughters. She continued to serve under President Ronald Reagan and met William Norris, the former CEO of Control Data Corp., who offered her a job as the company's vice president for state government affairs in Minnesota.

He left Control Data and established the Ramsey Foundation, and was elected to the Eden Prairie City Council. In 1995 she became the cities mayor, a job that she called the most satisfying she ever had. Jean Harris died on December 14, 2001 at age 70.

Star Tribune
Associated Press
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Harris, Dr. Jean