Rev. Curtis W. Harris, civil rights activist, 1st black Hopewell mayor, dies at 93

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 12/15/2017, 7:05 a.m.
The Rev. Curtis W. Harris Sr. devoted his life to battling the racism and bigotry that oppressed African-Americans in Hopewell ...

The Rev. Curtis W. Harris Sr. devoted his life to battling the racism and bigotry that oppressed African-Americans in Hopewell and across Virginia.

Rising to become the first African-American mayor of a Hopewell that he helped to change, the longtime pastor of Union Baptist Church in that city fearlessly battled the status quo of segregation during the Civil Rights Movement with dogged persistence, unyielding dignity and an unquenchable faith in the righteousness of the cause.

As the leader of the Virginia Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for 25 years, he continued the fight for equality by speaking out, leading protest marches and regularly filing complaints with federal authorities over voting rights and discrimination in schools, housing and employment.

He was a champion for public housing residents and also fought against Hopewell’s decision to place landfills and polluting factories in African-American sections of the city.

He was arrested 13 times for leading sit-ins and other protests against segregated public places and private businesses despite death threats and even an effort to firebomb his home.

Rev. Harris was unfazed, said his son, Michael B. Harris of Fort Washington, Md. “I don’t recall seeing him afraid of anything.”

The freedom fighter who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and became Dr. King’s top lieutenant in Virginia died Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017, at an assisted living center where he had lived in recent years. He was 93.

Family and friends will celebrate his life 11 a.m. Monday, Dec. 18, at First Baptist Church of Hopewell, 401 N. 2nd Ave.

His body will lie in repose from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 16, at Hopewell’s Carter G. Woodson Middle School, once the high school from which he graduated. He will be placed in the atrium of the school, outside of the library that is named for him.

In a resolution honoring him, the General Assembly described Rev. Harris as “one of Virginia’s most celebrated … leaders for his unselfish and unrelenting efforts to pursue and defend the rights of others.”

Former state Sen. Henry L. Marsh III described Rev. Harris as “a warrior for civil rights” at a 2012 banquet celebrating the minister. A longtime civil rights lawyer, Mr. Marsh recalled that Rev. Harris would come to him following his arrests, and “I would tell him, ‘You know, Curtis, you could go to jail.’ He would look at me and say, ‘Well what do you think I want to do?’ ”

A full-time minister, Rev. Harris later ran seven times for the Hopewell City Council before winning a seat on the governing body in 1986, becoming one of the council’s first African-American representatives. He would hold the seat for 26 years, with the council electing him mayor in 1998. He gave up his seat in 2012 after suffering a stroke.

Born in Dendron in Surry County, he grew up in Hopewell, where his mother moved to find work after his father deserted the family.

He began working in a cotton plant, left to study at Virginia Union University, but returned to Hopewell after a year and married his high school sweetheart, Ruth Jones, with whom he had six children.