Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of Dr. Valda Harris Montgomery
Dr. Valda Montgomery Talks About Harris House, A Safe Haven For Activists During The Civil Rights Movement
Black History Month is an opportune time to reflect on our struggles and triumphs as a people, and if you’re interested in visiting specific sites connected to the Civil Rights Movement, consider Harris House in Montgomery, Alabama.
It was the residence of Dr. Richard Harris, a veteran, pharmacist and activist, who made it a site of refuge for civil rights icons and others, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in spite of the dangers. As the hostile shadow of segregation loomed, Harris House embraced those weary of racial strife with open arms.
Dr. Harris and his wife Vera raised four children at the house, Adrian, Valda, John and Richard III. Dr. Valda Harris Montgomery, spoke with Travel Noire about her father’s work and the role of Harris House in Black history.
“This is not just for Black history but for American history,” she said. “During segregated times and periods of social unrest, Harris House was a safe house for activists and leaders similar to the necessary locations for the Underground Railroad. It played an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Rides, and the Selma to Montgomery march. Major decisions were made there that have affected the course of history.”
Black struggle is as much at the forefront now as it was all those years ago; a frustrating reminder that the fight for equality is ongoing. The presence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and less famous names connected to the Civil Rights Movement is palpable the moment you enter Harris House. Visitors, as well as Dr. Montgomery herself, feel it.
“It is hard to tell what any individual might feel,” she said. “But most of the visitors stated they feel the presence of the young activists and the leaders struggling throughout the Civil Rights Movement to make a positive change. I feel that as well. I also feel the spirit of my parents, and the courage that it must have taken to provide a safe place for the activists to rest, recreate, energize and strategize.”
Before starting his civil rights-related work, Dr. Harris was called to military duty during World War II. He enrolled in the Tuskegee Airmen Pilot Training Program and once he completed his service in 1946, he earned his pharmacy degree from Xavier University. Upon returning to Montgomery, he oversaw operations at Dean Drug Store, a family-owned establishment which was the oldest Black-owned drug store in the city.
But there was much more happening at Dean Drug Store than filling prescriptions. When the Montgomery Bus Boycott happened, Dr. Harris utilized the drugstore as a command center to aid those involved. In May 1961, he went one step further and opened his home to the Freedom Riders, a group of thirty-three students who came from Nashville to protest interstate bus segregation. Shortly following the attacks on the Freedom Riders at Greyhound Bus Station in Montgomery, the riders required protection from the National Guard as they returned to the station for their journey to Jackson, Mississippi.
Dr. Harris didn’t brag about being in the presence of civil rights heavyweights like Dr. King and John Lewis. “To him, it was nothing special,” said Dr. Montgomery. “It was simply everyday life, meeting with his friends. The only stories that I would hear from him were related to being a Tuskegee airman with the 99th squadron. Other information I learned from my mother, people that knew my father well, and civil rights books and documentaries.”
Dr. Harris remained committed to advancing civil rights until his death in 1976. A number of years later, Harris House became part of the Alabama African-American Civil Rights Heritage Consortium.
Dr. Montgomery has her own recollections of at least two civil rights giants, which she writes about in her book Just A Neighbor: A Child’s Memoir Of The Civil Rights Movement.
“I was six years old in 1954 when Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King moved into the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage, which was two doors from my home,” she said.
She also witnessed some harrowing scenes that would have been distressing for an adult, let alone an impressionable child. “I was an eyewitness to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, endured the bombings that occurred on my block, and saw the magnificent solidarity of my people for justice,” she said. “When I was thirteen, the bloodied, battered and exhausted Freedom Riders, including John Lewis, were brought by the National Guard to my home in the wee hours of the morning for safety. I watched as they made plans with Dr. King and others to continue the rides to Jackson in May 1961.”
In high school, Dr. Montgomery participated in the Civil Rights Movement as a Freedom Army Recruit led by members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). There, she learned non-violent tactics and discipline. She took part in the Selma to Montgomery marches when she was eighteen. While at Fisk University, she learned the tragic news that Dr. King, the man she revered as a leader and uncle figure, was assassinated.
Has American society made any meaningful advancements related to civil rights since these events? In some ways yes, but not nearly as many as there should be. It brings to mind the saying, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’ How is it that we are having practically identical conversations about systemic racism to the ones our parents and grandparents had? Will it ever be extracted from the American fabric? And what would Dr. Harris say on this issue if he saw the US today?
Dr. Montgomery believes he would be despondent. “I think he would be offended, disgruntled, and disappointed with the erosion of the civil rights of people of color. We are losing the strides that were gained due to the rise of white supremacy. Strides toward the freedom for people to vote, attend particular schools or even read a book are setbacks reminiscent of our past.”
The pursuit of civil rights must be relentless, and this is where in-depth discussion is so valuable. It’s crucial to talk about the uniqueness of the Black struggle in America and where it intersects with the struggles of other demographics. “Open and honest discussions between white people and people of color is a powerful way to learn about others and address the problem of racism,” Dr. Montgomery said.
If you’d like to visit Harris House, tours are available Tuesday through Saturday by appointment only. You can support the house by donating on the website, or you can purchase a copy of Just A Neighbor: A Child’s Memoir Of The Civil Rights Movement, here.