Early Years and Education
Joseph Dennis Harris was born free around 1833 of mixed-race ancestry in Cumberland County, North Carolina, and was the son of Jacob Harris and Charlotte Harris. His brothers included Cicero Richardson Harris, who became a bishop of the, and one of his sisters became the mother of civil rights activist . After his father’s death in the 1840s, the family moved to Ohio early in the 1850s, eventually settling in Cleveland. Late in November 1858, Harris joined antislavery activists, including , at the Convention of the Colored Citizens of Ohio, held in Cincinnati. Harris served as a secretary of the convention and was named to the executive board of the newly organized Ohio State Anti-Slavery Society, for which he served as a lecturer in 1859 and vice president in 1860.
Later that year he traveled to the Caribbean in search of sites suitable for settlement by African Americans who wished to leave the country. In 1860, under the name J. Dennis Harris, he published A Summer on the Borders of the Caribbean Sea, which described his trip to Haiti and nearby islands and advocated the establishment of a settlement forHarris was described in a friendly article in a Cleveland newspaper in 1860 as “quite an intelligent and enterprising slightly colored gentleman” and in an unfriendly article in a Richmond newspaper in 1869 as “a bright mulatto” whose “intelligence cannot be denied.” He knew at least some French, and by November 1860 had become an agent for the Haytian Bureau of Emigration for the State of Ohio. He traveled around Ohio and Canada advocating emigration before settling in Haiti in 1861. Desiring to learn more about the fevers that plagued residents of the West Indies, he returned to Cleveland in 1863 to study medicine, first at Western Reserve College (later Case Western Reserve University) and afterward at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Keokuk, Iowa, from which he received his MD in 1864, with a thesis examining fevers of the South. with the support and protection of the American government. The book received a long and favorable notice in the New York Evening Post on October 9, 1860.
Arrival in Virginia and Political Career
In June 1864, Harris became an acting assistant surgeon assigned to the U.S. Army’s Balfour Hospital in Portsmouth. During his tenure there his responsibilities increased from managing one ward with 100to managing three wards. After the (1861–1865) ended Harris moved to the army’s Howard’s Grove Hospital, near Richmond, which treated and freed people. On October 1, 1865, Harris joined the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau), and began working at its Fredericksburg hospital in December 1865. He remained there until November 1867, after which he became acting assistant surgeon at the Freedmen’s Bureau hospital at Fort Monroe, in Hampton.
On May 13, 1868, Harris married Elizabeth Worthington, who was the daughter of a white Presbyterian minister and may have been an American Missionary Association teacher inin eastern Virginia and North Carolina. They had one daughter, who under her married name, Worthie Harris Holden, published a volume of religious poetry, and one son, Thoro Harris, who published numerous hymnal and gospel songbooks.
While in Virginia Harris became active in politics, beginning with his signature on the call for a national convention of African Americans published in the Boston Liberator of September 16, 1864. The meeting was held three weeks later, although he did not attend. Harris probably attended some of the local and state conventions that African American men in Virginia held in the years immediately following the Civil War, and he attended and briefly spoke at a Richmond conference of black and white Republicans in August 1867.
Harris attended the Republican Party state convention in Petersburg on March 9 and 10, 1869, which nominated candidates for statewide office. The general election, scheduled for July 6, 1869, was to be the first in whichfor statewide officers and members of the General Assembly. The convention nominated for governor , who had been serving as provisional governor under , and for attorney general the young incumbent elected to that office in the Restored government of Virginia in 1863, . , one of the African American delegates who had served in the Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868, proposed Harris for lieutenant governor. Several other African Americans, including , who served in the convention as well, also endorsed Harris as loyal, well educated, and well qualified. The prospect of having a black candidate on the ticket appealed strongly to the black delegates and to some of the radical white Republicans, and these supporters united to defeat a white man and give Harris the nomination.
Many Republicans strongly opposed having a black nominee and feared that the nomination of Harris doomed the ticket. A few days after the Petersburg convention, railroad executive and former Confederate brigadier generaland other moderate Republicans joined together to select an alternative slate of candidates under the banner of True Republicans. In order not to split the opposition to the radicals and allow the Wells-Harris-Bowden ticket to win, the Conservative Party candidates resigned from their ticket, tacitly endorsing the True Republicans.
Harris’s race instantly became one of the most-discussed aspects of the campaign. He acknowledged in an address to a state convention of African Americans on May 28 that some white Republicans would refuse to support the ticket as long as he was on it. Harris also advised black men to rely on themselves and not trust white men who had not clearly demonstrated their devotion to the interests of African Americans. Opposition newspapers condemned Harris because he had married a white woman, with the implication that if the radical ticket prevailed, interracial marriage would be part of Virginia’s future. Those opposed to the ticket also raised the possible scenario that if the radicals won the election, the General Assembly could elect Wells to the, leaving Harris to succeed him automatically as governor.
The True Republicans won all three statewide offices, with each candidate receiving between 54 and 55 percent of the votes. Harris lost by a vote of 120,068 to 99,600 to John Francis Lewis, who had been an outspokenin 1861. Harris trailed Wells and Bowden by only about 1,600 votes. Each received between 45 and 46 percent of the votes cast, and all three certainly received votes from many white Virginia men.
An advocate of equality between the races, Harris faced discrimination outside of politics, too. In June 1869 he and his sister were refused permission to travel in the cabin of a steamboat to Norfolk. Having suffered similar discrimination on other vessels, he filed suit against the steamboat company early in August. He also encountered racial prejudice after he left his medical practice in Hampton early in 1870 to work at the South Carolina Lunatic Asylum, in Columbia, which treated both white and black patients. After he lost that job in November 1870, he complained that the reason was “solely and purely because of the prejudices which exist against my color and race. On these terms I can afford to be relieved; on these terms I can afford to suffer both insult and injury. But whether any one can afford to insult and injure another on account of color, is a question which time will determine.”
Harris returned to Virginia and during 1871 attempted without success to establish a medical practice in Petersburg. By May 1872 he was working as a physician treating the poor in Washington, D.C. From April 1 to August 1, 1873, he served as ward physician at Freedmen’s Hospital at Howard University and thereafter maintained a private practice in the city. In the summer of 1876 he had a mental breakdown and in September 1877 was declared of unsound mind. Harris was admitted to the Government Hospital for the Insane (later Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital), in Washington, D.C., where he died on December 25, 1884. He was buried in Graceland Cemetery, in Washington, and reinterred in the city’s Woodlawn Cemetery in January 1898.
- A Summer on the Borders of the Caribbean Sea (1860)