Civil Rights leader, former Hopewell mayor dies

Published: Dec. 13, 2017 at 11:30 AM EST|Updated: Dec. 13, 2017 at 6:37 PM EST
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HOPEWELL, VA (WWBT) - Civil Rights leader and icon, the Rev. Dr. Curtis Harris, died this week at the age of 93.

While he was Hopewell's first African American mayor, he was so much more: a hero in the Civil Rights movement.

Before Harris marched beside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or fought to desegregate Hopewell schools and shops, or became the first African American mayor of Hopewell, he was a janitor, husband and father.

Above all he wanted change.

"I think what drove him was the passion to help somebody, and I think passion sometimes overrides the fear," said daughter Karen Bradford.

His family says involvement in the Civil Rights movement started with his beloved wife Ruth.

Harris, also once the president of the Hopewell NAACP, led sit-ins at the segregated drugstore and was even arrested, not once, but 13 times and charged with civil disobedience. His two oldest sons even went to jail with him.

His oldest children were the first to desegregate Hopewell schools.

"There was never any discussion about can I do this or should I do this, it was always about how do we do this - that's what I remember," said Bradford.

Family says when Harris was trying to desegregate the local pool, the city of Hopewell filled it with cement and turned it into a tennis court. They say their father bought them tennis rackets.

And hate followed the family, including confrontations with the Klu Klux Klan and bottle bombs thrown at their home.

"I think dad always chose to help others above his physical personal safety," said Bradford. "I don't think he was trying to put us in danger, but I think it was a different time."

Harris became a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and that's where the friendship with King blossomed. History books show them side by side at the historic voting rights march in Selma. The shoes he marched in are even family heirlooms.

Now his family hopes, his legacy will continue in a new generation.

"I hope they learn that you should fight for what you believe in," said Bradford. "I hope that they learn that non violence is a more than sufficient way to fight for your beliefs."

Harris also served as pastor at Union Baptist Church for decades. Hopewell has named two streets after him and his wife. The library at the Carter G. Woodson Middle School is also named after him.

Hopewell Mayor Jackie Shornak released a statement on Harris' passing:

I received a call from the family of Reverend Curtis W. Harris notifying me of his passing on Sunday night.

Not only was Reverend Harris a past Mayor and City Councilor of the City of Hopewell, he was a preacher and civil rights advocate known throughout the City, State and Country. His iconic life made an impact on many lives. Let us pray for his family to have the strength that will carry them through this grieving process.

A public viewing will be held on Saturday, Dec. 16 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. outside of the Curtis W. Harris Sr. Library at the Carter G. Woodson Middle School, located at 1000 Winston Churchill Drive.

The funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Monday, Dec. 18 at First Baptist Church, located at 401 North 2nd Ave.

The open casket viewing will be held at 10 a.m.

Harris will be laid to rest at the Appomattox Cemetery, located at 703 North 21st Ave.

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