Harris `ran faster’ to achieve more

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Staff Reporter

LAPLACE – Dr. Henry Yale Harris was born in 1920 to parents enrolled in a Booker T. Washington School in Huntsville, AL.

“Booker T. taught them (blacks) how to use their hands,” said Harris. “Because he said they were not quite ready for technical training.”

Shortly after his birth, his parents moved to St. John the Baptist Parish where he went to school until the eighth grade, the highest grade offered to black students at the time.

He had to go back to Huntsville and eventually McDonough 35 High School in New Orleans to finish his high school education, but he made sure he finished.

“They have a very good academic program there. I studied the French program. Then they had algebra,” said Harris. “That is how I set up Second Ward High School.”

Now 84, Harris became one of the most respected black educators in the region for his work in the River Parishes, beginning Second Ward High School in Edgard in 1956.

However long before that, just about the time he got out of school the country entered World War II.

After two tours of duty in Northern Africa and Europe, Harris made it to Asia just in time for the nuclear bomb attacks crippled the Japanese military.

Harris came home in 1946 and immediately enrolled in Southern University on the G.I. Bill.

This would be his first stop in the secondary education system, his last being as a Phd. student at Walden University where he said he became the first Phd. in St. John Parish with the dissertation “The Effectiveness of Motility Training upon Word Recognition of Culturally Disadvantaged College Students.”

Harris knew a lot about being culturally disadvantaged. He was a black man in the Jim Crowe era, as well as the first principal of the segregated Second Ward High School in Edgard. He also knew that he had to keep trying though.

Harris said he kept a quote close throughout his time in school that seemingly contradicts what Washington had thought about his parents.

“He who starts last in the race of life must run faster or forever remain behind,” said Harris. “That is how I got those five college degrees. Naturally, we came out of slavery…we had to run faster.”

And fast was just how he operated.

When Harris began his tenure as an administrator in 1950 he taught in a hastily set up aluminum barracks building where the highest level of education blacks could attain on the West Bank was 10th grade.

Harris quickly established connections with the community by building a good athletic program. Naturally he used the interest the community showed in the athletic program to build the academic program of the school.

By 1956 Harris’s success had necessitated the building of a new school. That school was Second Ward High School, and it offered the first high school diploma for blacks on the West Bank of St. John.

“I was well prepared because I was up there (in college),” said Harris. “Those authors, I didn’t just read their books… I was in their classes.

“They helped me out a lot. There were many concepts I had been taught. I brought that back to Second Ward High School.”

Harris’s attention to the academic landscape of Edgard showed itself years later in 1968 when all schools in the area were evaluated in preparation for mandatory desegregation.

Harris said Second Ward received a better evaluation than the Edgard High, the white school on the West Bank. He said the evaluators wanted the students from Edgard High to attend Second Ward.

“They weren’t going to have that,” said Harris. “That was an insult to them (whites).”

In the restructuring, desegregation caused Harris to became the principal of Fifth Ward Junior High in Reserve, a white school.

He said as his first duty he had to bridge the gap between the races.

“We had the white citizens council. They were very nice in talking to me. I listened to what they had to say. In due time they began to overcome that fear,” said Harris. “I told them my position is to give the best education to all concerned. I am going to do everything I can to help the whites as well as the blacks.”

In 1973 Harris retired from education, and received a certification in substance abuse. For over 20 years after his retirement from the public school system he worked with addicts and alcoholics trying to help them.

Although active in both St. Joan of Arc and Our Lady of Grace Catholic Churches as a Eucharistic Minister and an occasional Sunday school teacher, Harris has completely retired.

Vibrant as ever when looking back on the accomplishments of his life, and the path it has taken, Harris said his main concern now is preparing himself for death.

“I am just waiting for the good Lord to take me when He sees fit,” said Harris.

One can only be sure his funeral will be well attended.