Sunday Night Reflections: The Legend of Luther Harris
September 9, 2018
My family is not native to this country, they came here as captives. But by no means were they weak. In fact if I am a representation of them, I have every reason to believe that they were a mighty lot. That doesn’t mean I can ignore that as a descent of slaves I won’t ever know the date my ancestors arrived here. I won’t ever know the sea port they first set their eyes upon when they reached this land or stories of their home on our continent.
Not having those details may not matter to some people. I’m sure there are people that don’t even think about their associations to past relatives. They rather attach themselves to the work they do, their school alma maters, religious institutions or whatever else satisfies a connection that represents home.
There are details I don’t know, but I want for nothing. How could I? I was shown if I wanted something I could go out and get it. That wasn’t a direct lesson from my childhood, but it was proven through the Legend of Luther Harris.
Luther was born in Prescott, Arkansas in 1913. At the time the town had about 2700 people. He came into the world just 50 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and during a time when several discriminatory laws were passed by the state legislature that would become known as Jim Crow, which were designed to suppress black political and economic power.
He was born in a small town, but it was rich in values that promoted self-reliance, family and faith in an all-powerful creator. He met a woman, fell in love and they had six children together. In 1943 at the age of 30, he left his wife and children to take a job at the Richmond Shipyard to help build naval ships for World War !!.
He moved to Richmond, California with a sixth-grade education. Once he got established he sent for his wife and children to move west with him. In 1947, he bought a home on Oak street in a run-down area of San Francisco that would become known as Hayes Valley. He paid $6,000 for the home, a sum that scared many of this friends at the time. No one taught how he would keep a job long enough the stay on top of the loan payments, but that didn’t stop his progress.
Eventually, he started taking night-school classes at Mission High School to get his high school diploma. He worked briefly for MUNI and went on to get a job with the California Highway Division building highways across the state. He became a Deacon at Olivet Baptist Church. Outside of his work, church service and duties as a father, he spent his time acquiring properties throughout the bay area. His goal was to buy a home for each of his children.
He also felt a sense of unfinished business in his hometown of Prescott. After the country passed laws banning Jim Crow, he went back and purchased over 200 acres of property of mostly timber forest. He started a sawmill, which wasn’t a successful venture, but that property is still in my family today.
The oldest of his children is Dorothy Cook, my grandmother. She moved into his home on Oak Street in the mid 1950s with my grandfather Alvin Cook. Luther Harris and his wife moved into another property that they owned. My grandmother has lived in the home ever since.
What does it mean to build a legacy?
When I was growing up we called my great-grandfather, Luther Harris, Medea’s Daddy. I remember him being a quiet man, often in a three-piece suit with a timepiece that hung from his suit vest. He was kind, but I can’t say we were especially close. He didn’t tell me many stories or share lessons about life or business. He did something even more meaningful. He gave me a legacy that truly inspires me. A legacy I can be proud of.
Luther Harris has no schools named after him, plaques in his honor or scholarships in his name. But he is the most important figure in the history of my life. I consider what it means to stand on his shoulders and I get excited about the days ahead. I don’t have the final say of what my time will be like before I die, but my hope is 100 years from now my great-children will look back as fondly at me as I do today at him.
Sunday Night Reflections is a column by Commissioner Stevon Cook