Chessie Harris was the oldest of
two daughters born in Tuskegee, Alabama, to John Thomas and Lillie Belle Walker
on January 16, 1906. Her father was a skillful carpenter and minister, and her mother a sometime sharecropper and homemaker.
When Chessie Harris was growing up
in rural Alabama, hungry children gathered around her lunch bucket at Pine
Grove School in Little Texas, Alabama.
"Y'all is rich,"
they'd whisper, seeing the cornbread pudding her mother made from the family's
She could not forget those
wistful faces. She wanted to do something to keep children from the unique suffering of hunger.
But how? She was the
daughter of sharecroppers, the granddaughter of slaves, the child of a family
barely surviving. Only through her mother's unrelenting economy and her
father's back-breaking labor in the fields could they scrape by. No money
or time was left over for anything else.
One afternoon, Chessie watched
the setting sun cast its rays across the cornfield and thought about the
meaning of her life. If God would let her, she vowed, she would get an
education and spend her life making children happy. For Chessie, the road
ahead was clearly marked. She was only eight years old.
Chessie convinced her parents to
send her to boarding school, knowing full well that she would have to help earn
the money. Her 14th summer was spent picking 200 pounds of cotton a day
and tying fodder faster than any grown
She enrolled at Tuskegee
Normal and Industrial Institute and lived on campus. Booker T. Washington was principal at the time and Chessie obtained a job working for
Margaret Washington at The Oaks, the family home, delivering messages to
various people, including notables such as George Washington Carver. Mrs. Washington was a
fastidious housekeeper who entertained a lot. She taught Chessie the culinary
skills and social graces that accompanied a privileged lifestyle.
By 1921, the Great Migration
had impacted the Walker family. The family was barely surviving after the
foreclosure on their home. Needing to escape the life of a sharecropper without
voting rights, and with the lure of better jobs in the north, John Walker
decided to move to Cleveland, Ohio, and have his family join him later.
They just could not afford to migrate together. Lillie Bell, Chessie, and
Gertrude moved into Dorothy Hall at Tuskegee on a temporary basis. To
make ends meet, they cooked meals for disabled soldiers who had returned from
World War I.
When her family was uprooted
by foreclosure of their home, she moved her mother and sister near the campus,
cooking for disabled soldiers to make ends meet. When the family moved to
Ohio to work, Chessie refused to leave the educational stronghold she felt
could empower her to change the course of children's lives
Eventually Chessie did move
north to be with her family. There she married George Harris, a
galvanizer, and raised five children of her own, while taking in many displaced
children during the Depression and War years.
When the Harrises came home to
Alabama, Chessie again saw raggedy, sad-eyed children, hungry for love as well
as food. Watching a little fellow cook meat scraps in a tin can one day,
she remembered her cornfield promise 40 years before.
Determined to help, she went
from one city official to another, hoping to start a home for neglected and
abandoned children. Many thought she was crazy. She would never be
able to get support for black children, they implied. Undaunted, Chessie
hurried from every closed door, certain the next would open.
Somehow, in Huntsville, Alabama, in
the 1950's, Chessie did find her dream. Initially she opened her own
doors to homeless waifs. They came by the dozens--mostly black,
outcasts of society. Her own house was so full of laughing, loving children
that she had to bed one baby in a trunk. Convinced finally by what they
saw, a few community leaders began to help, first from their own pockets and
then through their influence. At last, Harris Home for Children--the
only facility of its kind in Alabama --was born.
Chessie was "Mama
Harris" to more than 1,200 boys and girls, both black and white, between
1954 and 1980. Some of her "children," have become teachers, nurses,
and business owners, and have pursued varied professional careers. Honored with a myriad of state and national humanitarian
awards, Harris received the 1989 President's Volunteer Action Award from
President George Bush on April 11, 1989.
The beloved Chessie Harries died on June 6, 1997.
-Janet N. Bentley and Frankie Glynn