ENTRY

Harris, Henry Clay (d. after October 5, 1905)

SUMMARY

Henry Clay Harris, a Black Republican, was a member of the House of Delegates (1873–1875). Over his life, he was involved in the Republican Party from the local to the national level. Born early in the 1840s probably in Buckingham County and perhaps into slavery, Harris went to Philadelphia and Ohio to be educated. When he returned to Virginia in 1867 he began participating in local politics. In November 1873, he won election to a two-year term for a seat in the House of Delegates from Halifax County. During his tenure in the House of Delegates and after he lost his election for the Senate of Virginia in 1875, Harris fought against attempts to restrict African Americans’ right to vote. With his nomination in 1899 to the House of Delegates by Republicans in Halifax, Harris became one of the last African Americans a major party is known to have nominated for the General Assembly until after World War II. He lost the election. The date and place of his death and burial are not known. The last known appearance of Harris is 1905 in the Halifax County records.

Early Years

Little is recorded about his personal life, but Henry Clay Harris was the son of a wealthy enslaver, John L. Harris, and Betsy Harris, who may have been enslaved at the time of his birth. Harris’s father sent him to Philadelphia about 1855 to be educated. In 1861 Harris moved to Ohio, where he reportedly attended Oberlin College. He returned to Virginia in the spring of 1867 to recover property that he was entitled to under the terms of his father’s will. In September 1869 the Buckingham County Chancery Court approved a settlement in a friendly suit between Harris and some of his relatives on one side and his mother and other relatives on the other side to determine how much each of several dozen heirs or heirs-at-law was entitled to receive. The court awarded each side one-fifth of his father’s estate to be divided among all the parties to the suit, with Harris and his mother each to receive about one-eighth of the one-fifth.

Political Career

Notice. The Registration of the Voters

Usually referred to as H. Clay Harris or as H. C. Harris, he quickly began participating in local politics and attended an October 1867 meeting in Albemarle County, where he was then living, to nominate candidates for the upcoming constitutional convention. He was appointed an assistant marshal in May 1870 to assist with taking the census in neighboring Fluvanna County. It is unclear whether he ever married or had children or when he settled in Halifax County, but he quickly rose to a leadership position among Republicans there. In November 1873, Harris and Matt Clark, who was also African American, and a white Republican won election to two-year terms for the three seats in the House of Delegates from Halifax County. Harris received 2,388 votes, Clark, 2,382, and John B. Stovall, 2,331. Their three Conservative Party opponents received between 2,014 and 2,070 votes each.

          Appointed to the lowest-ranking seat on the minor Committee on Public Property, Harris was fairly active for a first-term African American legislator. He nominated the Republicans’ candidate for doorkeeper and presented a petition on behalf of a defeated candidate to challenge the election of the delegate from Goochland County. Harris asked that House pages be provided with knives, perhaps for opening correspondence, and requested that the Committee for Courts of Justice inquire into and report on a recent judicial decision that affected African Americans’ service on juries. He introduced a bill that passed to pay for repairing the greenhouse at the governor’s mansion and another that did not pass to appropriate money to erect new buildings at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University).

Accomack County: All on Fire For Hancock and English and Garrison!

            At the opening of the session in January 1874, after the Conservative Party majority in the House adopted a resolution to condemn the civil rights bill then pending in Congress, Harris joined four other African American delegates to protest that action. They published a declaration that “the administration of justice and the rights guaranteed to certain citizens by the fundamental law of the land and the organic law of Virginia are ignored, and the only hope of our protection is the passage of the Civil Rights bill.” During the second session of Harris’s term, in March 1875, he voted against a proposal to amend the state constitution to require payment of a poll tax as a prerequisite to register and vote. The tax was intended to make it more difficult for African Americans to register. Voters ratified the amendment in 1876.

Readjuster-Coalition Ticket.

            Concerned that white Republicans were abandoning their interests, African American legislators held a convention in Richmond in August 1875. Harris was appointed to the resolutions committee, which proposed reducing interest payments on the state’s public debt and the establishment of a Laboring Men’s Mechanics’ Union Association to promote the economic and political interests of African Americans. He ran to represent Halifax County in the Senate of Virginia in 1875 but lost by a vote of 2,702 to 2,300 to the Conservative Party candidate. He remained active in Republican Party politics, including a speech at court day before the 1878 election in which he urged African Americans to support Republican candidates. Harris was living at Halifax Court House in 1880 when he was a delegate to the party’s national convention and a member of its Committee on Permanent Organization. He attended the March 1881 convention of African American Republicans in Petersburg that voted to affiliate with the new biracial Readjuster Party, which proposed to refinance the antebellum public debt to reduce the cost of debt service and increase revenue available for the public schools. During an investigation of possible irregularities in the 1882 congressional election, Harris was exposed as one of several Republicans at Halifax Court House whose poll tax party workers may have paid. The poll tax was repealed in that year’s general election.

            Harris had moved to or near the town of South Boston by 1892, when he was elected an alternate delegate to the party’s national convention. He was probably the Henry Clay Harris who was appointed a messenger in 1891 at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., where he later served as a watchman until about 1896, although it is unclear how long he lived there. He retained his Halifax County identification and in 1899 the county’s Republicans nominated him and another African American for the House of Delegates. The Democratic candidates for the two seats from the county won with almost 2,400 votes each; Harris received 501 and the other African American, J. B. Owen, 314. Two other candidates received 159 and 334 votes, respectively. Harris and Owen were among the last African Americans a major party is known to have nominated for the General Assembly until after World War II.

Later Years

On May 3, 1893, Harris paid $250 for a twenty-four-acre farm in the Banister district west of Halifax Court House and sold it for $300 on October 5, 1905. This is the last known appearance of Harris in the Halifax County records and the date and place of his death and burial are not known.

MAP
TIMELINE
Early 1840s

Henry Clay Harris is born probably in Buckingham County and perhaps into slavery. He is the son of a wealthy enslaver, John L. Harris, and Betsy Harris, who may have been enslaved at the time of his birth.

About 1855

Henry Clay Harris's father sends him to Philadelphia to be educated.

1861

Henry Clay Harris moves to Ohio, where he reportedly attends Oberlin College.

Spring 1867

Henry Clay Harris returns to Virginia to recover property that he was entitled to under the terms of his father's will.

October 1867

Henry Clay Harris attends a meeting in Albemarle County to nominate candidates for the upcoming constitutional convention.

September 1869

The Buckingham County Chancery Court approves a settlement between Henry Clay Harris and some of his relatives on one side and his mother and other relatives on the other side to determine how much each of several dozen heirs or heirs at law was entitled to receive. The court awards each side one-fifth of Harris's father's estate to be divided among all the parties to the suit, with Harris and his mother each to receive about one-eighth of the one-fifth.

May 1870

Henry Clay Harris is appointed an assistant marshal to assist with taking the census in Fluvanna County.

November 1873

Henry Clay Harris, Matt Clark, and a white Republican win election to two-year terms for the three seats in the House of Delegates from Halifax County.

January 1874

Henry Clay Harris joins four other African American delegates to protest the Conservative Party majority in the House adopting a resolution to condemn the civil rights bill then pending in Congress.

1875

Henry Clay Harris runs to represent Halifax County in the Senate of Virginia but loses.

March 1875

During the second session of Henry Clay Harris's term, he votes against a proposal to amend the state constitution to require payment of a poll tax as a prerequisite to register and vote. The tax was intended to make it more difficult for African Americans to register.

August 19, 1875
About 100 African Americans representing more than forty counties and cities attend a three-day meeting in Richmond to discuss statewide issues and their impact on Black Virginians.
1876
Virginia's Conservative Party (which soon becomes the Democratic Party) succeeds in amending the state constitution, for the first time denying the right to vote to men who had not paid the state poll tax.
1878

Henry Clay Harris gives a speech at court day before the election in which he urges African Americans to support Republican candidates.

1880

Henry Clay Harris is a delegate to the Republican Party's national convention and a member of its Committee on Permanent Organization.

March 1881

Henry Clay Harris attends the convention of African American Republicans in Petersburg that voted to affiliate with the new biracial Readjuster Party.

1882
The Readjusters (a coalition of disgruntled Democrats, Republicans, and African Americans committed to refinancing the state's public debt and preserving the new public school system) amend the Virginia state constitution to remove payment of the poll tax as a prerequisite to voting.
1891

Henry Clay Harris is appointed a messenger at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

1892

Henry Clay Harris is elected an alternate delegate to the party's national convention.

May 3, 1893

Henry Clay Harris pays $250 for a twenty-four-acre farm in the Banister district west of Halifax Court House.

1899

Halifax County's Republicans nominate Henry Clay Harris and J. B. Owen for the House of Delegates. They both lose.

October 5, 1905

Henry Clay Harris sells his twenty-four-acre farm for $300.

FURTHER READING

Jackson, Luther Porter. Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895. Norfolk, Virginia: Guide Quality Press, 1945.

CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. Harris, Henry Clay (d. after October 5, 1905). (2021, July 22). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/henry-clay-harris-d-after-october-5-1905.
MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. "Harris, Henry Clay (d. after October 5, 1905)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (22 Jul. 2021). Web. 27 Oct. 2021
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