Diversity activist got his start in segregated schools

Career path led from Louisiana to Minnesota

Whitney Harris
Whitney Harris

With many civil rights battles under his belt and greater diversity in higher education to his credit, Dr. Whitney Harris’ long journey from the segregated schools of Louisiana to Minneapolis Community College is about to take another turn as he retires from the school this year. The MSR asked Dr. Harris to share some of his journey with our readers.

After working at the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system office for eight years, Harris was offered the opportunity to come to Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) in the summer of 2013 to support the institution’s diversity work. He is currently its director of diversity.

His intended one-year commitment providing services to the Office of the Chancellor during the course of that year led to an invitation, by then-President Phil Davis, to continue in the position on a permanent basis.

When Dr. Avelino Mills-Novoa was named interim president a few months later, Harris agreed to continue until the end of his two-year appointment. In July of this year, however, he will retire.

Harris, a life-long activist, was involved in the Civil Rights Movement. He was born in 1952 in Lafayette, Louisiana two years before Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.

“The illusion is that Brown vs Topeka immediately changed things,” says Harris. “That absolutely did not happen.”

Whitney attended a segregated school until august of 1969. He spent the first 11 years in a school of all Black students and teachers. “Schools were not officially desegregated locally until 1969 because of resistance locally. Segregation was enforced — not a harsh kind of enforcement, but it was enforced.”

Whitney lived in an all-Black community that he describes as a sub-division just outside of town. He attended school with approximately 160 students in a school with grades one through 12.

“I remember walking over to outside of the White school to get used books and text books and bring them back to our school,” says Harris. “Since the town was small [3,000-3,500 people] we would see the names of White students who we knew.”

His dad worked on the railroad as a Pullman porter and also ran an auto repair shop. “I knew a lot of the Whites because they would come to my dad’s auto repair shop for various things.”

Whitney spent the last year of high school in the desegregated schools. “There was really no comparison between the segregated Black school and the White schools. For example, my sixth grade teacher [in the all-Black school] didn’t have a college education. She had what they called an ‘anomalous’ school certificate.

“At the all-Black school, teachers gave it their best shot! Many of them were well-educated, many of them were good at teaching.”

The desegregated school “had initially been established through the generosity of a White man [Julius Rosenwald]. He was the vice president of Sears,” explains Whitney. “He helped establish 5,000 schools around the South for Black children. He would put up some of the money, and then the local communities would put up the rest.”

The first year at an integrated school did not go smoothly for Harris. “It was a rough year because, even though many of the White students were welcoming, it was mostly the parents and some of the teachers that didn’t want us there.” He says that he was physically attacked at times in school.

“For 11 years I went to a school that didn’t have any air conditioning,” Harris says of the all-Black school. “And the last year, I went to a White school that had been air conditioned for years. In Louisiana, when the temp is 90-110 degrees, it’s much easier to learn in an air-conditioned school.” Harris says that though the curriculum didn’t differ much between the two schools, the integrated schools offered more resources to support the curriculum.

Whitney left high school to pursue a career in teaching, attending a regional college 20 miles away to major in special education. At the predominately White school in Louisiana, he was the first African American to serve as student body president. “I was able to work with White and Black students, and it gave me a great chance to learn to work collectively.”

After he graduated, he was a special education teacher in a middle school for a few years. He then went to Louisiana State University and completed a master’s degree. He also went to graduate school at the University of Toronto.

“I completed my master’s [and] then came back and worked in church ministry as a church chaplain before going to Africa, where I was a principal in Cameroon at a college that went from sixth grade to 12th,” Harris explains. “I did that for five years before coming back to Louisiana, where I was an administrator.” After staying there for 12 years, Harris went to Eastern Michigan University, where he was the diversity officer and taught men’s studies.

“I was involved in many demonstrations,” Harris says. “One time I was leading a demonstration against a store that had discriminated against Black people, and I was shot with a .22 caliber rifle by a White guy who was the store owner’s son. He shot me in the arm.”

Harris was also active in the gay rights movement. “I have been involved in the GLBT movement since my high school and college days. In the early ‘80s, I helped to found a GLBT organization in Lafayette, Louisiana. I’ve done research and writing on GLBT issues for many years.”

Besides being on the political action committee of OutFront and a longtime member of the Human Rights Committee, Harris has also done a number workshops and seminars on GLBT issues. “I was very active in the same-gender marriage work that was done in Minnesota and at the national level.”

After building an impressive 40-plus year career, Dr. Whitney Harris will retire from MCTC on July 19 this year.


Chris Juhn welcomes readers’ responses to chrisjuhnphotography@yahoo.com.