Former slave to Fisk University’s first Negro trustee
Richard Harris, Sr. descendants gather for reunion

Richard Harris, Sr.

Richard Harris, Sr.

Harris’ family members will convene, from all over the country, for the first Harris family reunion honoring patriarch Richard Harris, Sr., a former slave who became one of Nashville’s first Black business owners and Fisk University’s first Negro Trustee.

The reunion will kick off at the Jubilee Day service at Fisk Memorial Chapel, on the campus of Fisk University, on Friday, October 6, at 10 am, followed by a nearby portrait unveiling ceremony in Richard Harris’ original house, now known as the Harris Music Building. In addition to Harris’ notable Nashville contributions, he was a direct descendant of Captain Thomas Harris, one of the first settlers of the Jamestown colony in 1611.

In 2015, great granddaughter Dr. Sandra Harris and great, great granddaughter Tracey Hughes Royal visited the Harris Music building during Fisk’s Sesquicentennial celebration.

“I was surprised to see no pictures of Richard and Lavinia on the wall,” said Dr. Harris, a Nashville-based orthodontist. “I offered to donate a portrait of my great grandparents to hang in their original home. That idea led to organizing the first family reunion.”

Born in Hanover County, Virginia in 1832, 18-year old Richard Harris, Sr. was permitted to work to purchase freedom for himself, mother and brother. After settling in Nashville around 1850, he learned to read and write from Adelle ‘Ma’ Tate, later marrying her daughter Lavinia, sister of original Fisk Jubilee Singer Minnie Tate. Seven of Richard and Lavinia’s nine children attended Fisk University, including son Eugene Harris, one of Fisk’s first Black professors. More than a century later, nearly 35 Harris descendants, five generations, finished Fisk University.

“For the past nine years, I’ve been tracing my Harris family roots,” said great-great-granddaughter Tracey Hughes Royal, principal of Tracey Royal Communi-cations. “Luckily my great aunt recorded key family events, folklore, and important dates. Those dates turned into little bread crumbs, leading me to Richard’s original birthplace, parents’ names, business address, death certificate, all the way back to Jamestown and England.”

On January 9, 1866, Harris, Rev. Nelson Merry, Gov. William G. Brownlow, General Clinton Bowen Fisk and Fisk founders John Ogden, Rev. Erastus Milo Cravath, and Rev. Edward P. Smith delivered addresses during the school’s dedication ceremony. In the 1870s, he opened the Harris Furniture Company on Cedar Street.

In 1876, his Italianate structure home was built on the future campus of Fisk University. He became Fisk’s first Negro Trustee in the 1880’s.

In addition, Harris served as a trustee of Howard Congregational Church; board member of the Tennessee Industrial School Orphanage and Old Folks Home; and a Tennessee delegate at the 1884 Republican National Conference in Chicago.

His death in 1912 was announced in glowing memorials in the Tennessean and Nashville Globe newspapers.

In 1991, his former home was rededicated as the Harris Music Building.

Additional reunion weekend activities will include a bus tour of Harris family landmarks, Harris history unveiling presentation by Mrs. Royal and the Afro-American Genealogical Society of Nashville, and a farewell service at Howard Congregational Church, the family’s church for more than a century.