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.
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, 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 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).
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.
Concerned that white Republicans were abandoning their interests,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 , which proposed to refinance the 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. Thecandidates 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.
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.