Natural-born Leader Ignored Race Barriers


February 08, 1991|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writer

When Mattie Harris moved to Severna Park, some of her neighbors skipped the usual welcome, the coffee-klatch introductions and homemade pies.

Instead, they blocked her driveway with two wagon wheels and vandalized the mailbox.

The year was 1969, a time of retrenchment after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. While civil rights leaders struggled to find a new order, many blacks like Harris focused on more quiet, personal battles for their rights.

A self-assured businesswoman, Harris had no qualms about moving from Baltimore to the outskirts of the predominantly white Round Bay community on the Severn River. Nor was she shaken by her neighbors' threats.

In her polite way, Harris quietly spread the word that she and her husband, Whit, bought their home "with good clean money" and didn't intend to leave.

"There were a few who seemed to think I was out of place," recalled Harris, now 76 and semiretired. "But they quickly settled down. We let them know that we had rights, too, and they got the message."

The granddaughter of a slave, Harris first discovered she was a born saleswoman and leader while growing up in North Carolina. Fromher childhood on, she always tried her best to beat the competition.

As a 7-year-old, she used to collect seeds to sell to doctors forherbal teas. In those days, doctors frequently would pass through Wilmington to buy ingredients for their special teas and remedies. Harris remembered that she "always tried to have more seeds and cleaner seeds than anyone else."

"I wanted the most pennies," she said, leaning back in her dining room chair with a big laugh.

The same determination led her to rise quickly in organizations, from teaching in a one-room North Carolina school at age 15 to being the first black woman in Maryland to head a Chamber of Commerce.

A top student, Harris was "more or less drafted" to teach school as a teen-ager. She hated the work. After four years, she left her parents and eight brothers behind and moved to Baltimore.

Harris wanted to go to Morgan State University, but her family couldn't afford to pay the tuition. So, she resorted to baking and selling sweet potato pies.

"My love was always selling," she said. "I don't know what it is, but I just love it."

After saving money from selling her home-baked pies, Harris opened a boutique in West Baltimore. She had a natural knack with the needle and sewed her first outfit as a child -- a zoot suit out ofa sheet.

Harris spent eight years sewing lingerie and women's clothing before she discovered Stanley Home Products, cleaning and personal products sold door to door.

"I'm still sewing some, though notlike I used to," said Harris, who likes to relax at home in hand-sewn shifts and casual dresses.

She was looking for a home with a first-floor bedroom to care for her ailing mother, Janie Powell, when she drove down Old County Road in 1969. She found a large, suitable house behind Jones Elementary School and overlooking the river. Tall trees and bushes now obscure much of the view, but Harris still can glimpse a streak of blue whenever she looks out her windows.

Two yearsafter she started selling Stanley Home Products in the mid-1950s, Harris was promoted to group leader and then manager. She moved her office to Glen Burnie when she packed her bags for Anne Arundel County. A few years later, she opened an office in Severna Park.

Harris was appointed as a delegate to the Greater Severna Park Council, an umbrella organization of 60 civic groups, in the early 1970s. She was elected vice present in 1980 and served a two-year term. During the same period, she headed the Greater Severna Park Chamber of Commerce, becoming the first black woman in Maryland to be elected president of alocal chamber.

"Being the type of person that she is, Mattie was extremely well-accepted in the business community," said Skip Carr, now president of the Severna Park business group. "She didn't dwell onthe fact that she was black and others were white, or anything like that. She was always very easy to deal with."

Asked how she alwaysrose to the top of organizations, Harris offered a simple explanation. She remembered being a natural leader as the oldest child and onlygirl in her family.

"As a little girl, I would play school in thebackyard and be the teacher," she said.

These days, Harris no longer is heading any organizations. But she's still on the go.

She finds time every fall to volunteer with Paddle for People, a fund-raising effort to assist low-income families with emergency fuel money. Harris agreed to serve on the county and state boards that organize the annual event because she "felt it was a worthwhile program to be associated with, another way of helping people."

She's also busy with her husband and family. Her four children, Blanton Scott Jr., Angela Scott Wise, Randolph Scott and Whit Anthony Harris Jr., are grown now, but Harris enjoys keeping in touch with them and her four grandchildren.

"My church, sewing, cooking two meals a day and my children, I guess that keeps me busy," she said.

Harris retired as manager, but still sells the Stanley Home degreasers, stain removers and deodorants. After all, she pointed out, it's hard to give up on your first love.

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