Harrison was born on January 11, 1907, in Alberta in Brunswick County. His father, Albertis Sydney Harrison, descended from the elite Harrison family that included two U.S. presidents. He and Lizzie Goodrich Harrison raised Albertis Jr. on a tract of land that Harrison’s ancestor Henry Harrison had received from King George II in 1732. They were not wealthy, however; his father was a farmer and his mother was a teacher who emphasized the importance of a good education.
After graduating from Lawrenceville High School at sixteen, Harrison matriculated at the University of Virginia in the fall of 1923 and received a law degree five years later. During his final year he served as president of the Jefferson Literary Society as well as on the editorial board of the Virginia Law Review. He subsequently returned to Lawrenceville and opened a legal practice. In 1930 he married Lacey Virginia Barkley, whom he had met at Lawrenceville High School, and they went on to have a son and a daughter.
Early Political Career
Harrison made his political debut as a candidate for commonwealth’s attorney in 1931. His father was a first cousin of Emory Elmore, clerk of the Brunswick County Court and a local agent of the Democratic political organization headed by former governor Harry F. Byrd, thereby connecting Albertis to the state’s powerful political machine. Harrison defeated his opponent, also a Byrd loyalist, and remained in office for sixteen years, interrupted only by stateside service in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II.
In 1947 the voters of Brunswick and Mecklenburg counties chose Harrison to represent them in the Senate of Virginia. Along with newly elected members Harry F. Byrd Jr. and Mills E. Godwin Jr., Harrison was part of a phalanx of young conservatives who served as reinforcements for the senior legislative leaders.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision prohibiting racial segregation in public schools provoked a strong reaction in Virginia. Governor Thomas B. Stanley appointed a thirty-two-member legislative commission, the Gray Commission, to . Harrison served on the commission and initially supported its recommendation that localities have the power to assign students to schools. But Senator Byrd rejected this “local option” because it might result in limited desegregation in some areas.
Following Byrd’s lead, conservative leaders then adopted the Stanley Plan, named for the governor, which called for defiance of the Supreme Court. The plan included laws creating a statewide Pupil Placement Board to block assignment of Black pupils to white schools; mandated the closure of any public school under court order to integrate; cut off funding to schools that did integrate; and provided tuition grants to enable parents to send their children to private segregated schools. Harrison, which became known as Massive Resistance, privately attributing the change to his constituents’ strong opposition to local assignment.
In the spring of 1957, Harrison had no plans to seek statewide office, but circumstances dictated otherwise. In June, the Byrd Organization’s choice for attorney general, Howard C. Gilmer Jr., a former U.S. district attorney, withdrew from the race after facing charges of influence peddling. Organization leaders turned to Harrison, who was known as a person of integrity. Years later, Harrison explained that he did not want to be attorney general but knew that if he refused, the Byrd Organization would not support his political career in the future.
As attorney general, Harrison was tasked with defending Virginia’s Massive Resistance laws in court. Acknowledging that the Brown decision was the law of the land, he, nevertheless, insisted that Massive Resistance sought “to avoid the strife and mob violence” that had arisen after school integration took place in other states.
In September 1958, a federal court ordered Warren County High School to desegregate, prompting Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. to order its closure. Almond and Harrison initiated a case, Harrison v. Day, in the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to test the constitutionality of the school-closing and fund-cutoff laws. A decision upholding the laws would allow officials to continue fighting desegregation; however, if the court struck down the statutes, white Virginians would see that the state had done all it could to prevent integration. Senator Byrd, who viewed the suit as a needless concession, was not pleased.
Almond subsequently closed six Norfolk public schools facing desegregation, and twenty-six white residents sued in federal court to block the closures. In early January 1959, Harrison advised Byrd that there was “no doubt but that the Federal court will declare unconstitutional the automatic school closing law and any other laws that have been enacted to maintain our public school system on a segregated basis.” Harrison also predicted that the Virginia Supreme Court was unlikely to uphold the laws. These predictions proved accurate; both courts invalidated Massive Resistance on January 19, 1959.
Addressing a special session of the General Assembly, Almond conceded defeat and proposed the creation of what became known as the Perrow Commission to develop a plan to restrict integration as much as possible while complying with the law. When an outraged Byrd demanded that Harrison devise more resistance legislation, the attorney general responded that as long as the Brown decision remained in force “we cannot write a state law that will wholly avoid its effect.”
The Perrow Commission’s recommendation that Virginia adopt a freedom-of-choice approach to desegregation divided the Byrd Organization ahead of the 1961 gubernatorial race. Although Byrd and Harrison had differed on continuing Massive Resistance, the senator preferred Harrison to his opponent in theprimary, Lieutenant Governor A. E. S. Stephens, who as presiding officer of the Senate had made a ruling that assured passage of the Perrow Plan.
In a spirited campaign, Harrison projected an image of calm judgment and stressed the desirability of industrial growth, improvements in education, and continuing Almond’s relatively moderate approach to school desegregation. After defeating Stephens in the Democratic primary, Harrison easily overcame hisopponent, H. Clyde Pearson, in the fall.
In his inaugural address, Harrison acknowledged the need for change, declaring, “We may have erred in some areas by attempting to fit twentieth-century problems to the Procrustean bed of eighteenth-century solutions.” Virginia’s chief goal over the next few decades should be “the expansion of the minds of our people.” To that end, he called for “a renaissance of education in Virginia.”
Harrison requested and obtained from the General Assembly unprecedented levels of funding for Virginia’s public schools and institutions of higher learning. Teacher salaries improved, and school construction and vocational education moved ahead, as did foreign language instruction. In 1962, he secured the independence of the branch colleges of the College of William and Mary in Richmond and Norfolk. He created the State Board of Technical Education, which established technical colleges and thus laid the groundwork for the statewide system of community colleges created by his successor, Mills E. Godwin Jr.
Further educational improvements would require new revenue sources. Harrison consequently appointed a tax study commission and in his January 1966 farewell address to the General Assembly supported the group’s recommendation that the state institute a sales tax.
Harrison’s most important achievement as governor was his recruitment of new industry. In his first speech to the General Assembly, he requested the “transfer of the functions of industrial development and planning, advertising, and public relations from the Department of Conservation and Economic Development to the Governor.” He appointed an executive assistant to lead the new Division of Industrial Development. While accelerating the planning and construction of both interstate and arterial highways, he also led the effort to modernize state banking laws. His emphasis on industrialization met with spectacular success. In December 1965, Harrison reported that an expenditure of $3 million had brought a return of “more than $900 million in new manufacturing plant investment, 150,000 total new jobs, $750 million in new payrolls, over 300 manufacturing plants, and more than 325 major expansions.”
Harrison’s relations with the national Democratic Party were complicated. Although he did not emulate Senator Byrd’s “golden silence” and withhold support from Democratic presidential nominees, Harrison’s support could be quite muted, as in the case of John F. Kennedy in 1960. Four years later, however, Harrison not only endorsed President Lyndon B. Johnson but also rode Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson’s campaign train, the Lady Bird Special, from Richmond to Norfolk. This enraged segregationists, especially in Southside Virginia, and could not have pleased the aging Byrd, who had tried in vain to keep the Virginia Democratic Party from supporting Johnson. But Harrison did not break entirely with the organization. When ill health forced Byrd to resign from the U.S. Senate in November 1965, Harrison appointed Byrd’s son,, to the seat.
Harrison’s record on civil rights did not mirror his energetic leadership on industrial development. In 1962, after Harrison appointed several African Americans to state boards and commissions, the Norfolk Journal and Guide, a leading Black-owned newspaper, saw reason for optimism, asking, “Is This a New Trend?” The answer was “no.” Even the conservative Richmond Times-Dispatch expressed frustration with Harrison’s lack of action on civil rights.
In 1962, as Congress debated the Twenty-Fourth Amendment banning poll taxes in federal elections, Harrison reaffirmed his support for the poll tax in Virginia’s state and local elections. When it became apparent that the amendment would be ratified, he called a special legislative session to enact a law to circumvent the ban by requiring voters who refused to pay the poll tax to file a certificate of residence six months prior to the election. A federal district court struck down the law in May 1964, and in 1966 the U.S. Supreme Court banned poll taxes in state elections.
But Harrison did not countenance the kind of overt violence that accompanied civil rights efforts elsewhere in the South. When police attacked civil rights demonstrators in the Southside city of Danville in June 1963, Harrison stated that he was sure police brutality would not be “condoned” by city officials and dispatched a state police contingent to “maintain law and order,” according to an aide. He denounced renewed activity in Virginia in 1965 but asserted that “other organizations”—referring to civil rights groups—“also contribute nothing to the state’s well-being.”
The overriding civil rights issue of Harrison’s term was the closing of the Prince Edward County schools to avoid desegregation. Although the Virginia Constitution guaranteed the maintenance of “an efficient system of public free schools throughout the State,” the state had chosen not to get involved when Prince Edward County closed its schools in September 1959. At first Harrison tried to avoid the crisis, saying at a press conference that the local people “know what to do” without any “gratuitous advice from the governor.” The school closures, however, attracted the attention of President Kennedy and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. During the summer of 1963, after the Kennedy administration had decided to create a privately financed “model school system” open to all Prince Edward County students, Harrison acknowledged that children’s education was a state and local responsibility. Presidential assistant William vanden Heuvel, who directed the model school project, obtained the support of Harrison and local officials, who consented to the use of public-school buildings. Harrison also persuaded the highly respected former governor to chair the biracial board of trustees of the Prince Edward Free School Association, which provided remedial education for the displaced students until May 1964, when the U.S. Supreme Court finally ordered the county to reopen and fund its public schools.
When the fifty-nine-year old Harrison left the governor’s office in January 1966, the Richmond Times-Dispatch predicted that he would “be called upon to perform many more constructive services” for Virginia. In September 1967, Governor Godwin appointed Harrison to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals (which was renamed the Supreme Court of Virginia in 1971). Editorials praised Harrison’s legal knowledge and “judicial temperament.” Among his notable opinions while serving on the court were a freedom-of-speech dissent in Fleming v. Moore (1981) and his majority opinion in Doe v. Doe (1981), which prevented the termination of a lesbian mother’s parental rights. In January 1968, Godwin chose Harrison to chair the Commission on Constitutional Revision, which replaced the antiquated Constitution of 1902 with a streamlined document appropriate for the times. Harrison made in-person and televised speeches urging voters to support ratification. Approved by the General Assembly and the voters, the new constitution took effect on July 1, 1971.
Harrison took senior status, a form of semi-semiretirement, on the Virginia Supreme Court at the end of 1981. He subsequently served on an ethics advisory panel for the Senate of Virginia and on several gubernatorial commissions, among them the Governor’s Commission on Virginia’s Future and the Commission on Transportation in the Twenty-First Century.
In 1969, Albertis and Lacey Harrison relocated from Lawrenceville to Saddletree Farm on the Meherrin River, which was part of the original Harrison land grant of 1732. Harrison died there of a heart attack on January 23, 1995, and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Lawrenceville, where Lacey Harrison joined him after her death in 2006.