Educator tries to keep King's dream alive through tireless civic service BLACK HISTORY MONTH -- A CELEBRATION

February 27, 1994|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Sun Staff Writer

The summer of 1966 changed Eleanor Harris.

Nine years after Congress passed the first civil rights bill for blacks since Civil War Reconstruction, and two years before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Dr. Harris ventured from Annapolis and traveled south. "A team of black and white administrators went to West Virginia University for a summer course," remembered Dr. Harris, an assistant to the Anne Arundel County school superintendent who at the time was an elementary teacher studying early childhood education.

Born in Ohio but raised in Annapolis, Dr. Harris was used to segregation as it had been practiced in Anne Arundel County. But it could be dangerous to assume that it was the same in Morgantown, W.Va.

"You had to be careful who you visited and where you sat down," Dr. Harris said. "I had to decide before going somewhere whether I'd be humiliated or thrown out. I loved the university, though, and we were accepted there. But I never got over that experience.

"When you go away, you don't know where the stops are. At home, people tended to look out for each other and you could go anywhere. Black people who needed a shoulder to lean on or needed support to make it had that support in our community."

Perhaps that is why she has devoted her career to working with people -- for which she recently received the Martin Luther King Jr. 1994 Drum Major Award. The award was given by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dinner Committee, an organization created to recognize "ordinary men and women performing extraordinary public service" in Anne Arundel County.

Dr. Harris serves on a multitude of civic committees: the Junior League, the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Human Relations commissions, Chrysalis House, the Greater Annapolis Chamber of Commerce, the Women's Commission, the Washington Post's office of public relations, the United Black Clergy of Anne Arundel County, The Links Inc. and the National Association of Female Executives.

At one point, she was so inundated with requests to serve on committees that she began rotating her memberships, contributing what she could to a project, then moving on to the next. Once, when she was hospitalized, then-Gov. Harry Hughes sent someone to get her to sign up for a committee. She didn't mind.

"I like to act what I believe in. If I say I believe in people working together with the community, the best way to show that is by demonstrating appropriate behavior," Dr. Harris said. "You yourself have to be pretty much together to be able to move lTC people in a direction to keep the King dream alive."

That dream, she said, is changing. "We cannot sit back and be so upset about the past that we lose sight of the need to press ahead," Dr. Harris said.

Eleanor Harris hasn't changed since she was a child in Sunday school, said the Rev. Leroy Bowman, pastor at the First Baptist Church in Annapolis.

"She was a very apt child. Very disciplined. We talk a lot now about family values -- well, she was raised in one of the homes that had family values," Mr. Bowman said. More than that, he said, "She has a kind of quiet wisdom, and all the personal characteristics necessary to make a good contribution toward making this world a better place to live. Yes, I do think she keeps the dream alive."

Her career as an educator, though, did not grow out of her beliefs. As a child, she wanted to be a medical doctor. But when it came time to go to college, she reassessed the situation. With one sister and three living brothers, she knew her parents couldn't really afford to send her to the high-priced college in Michigan that she wanted to attend.

"I had been sick with a heart condition as a child, and I thought, 'I may get so I can't work. I must make it,' " she said. "Then I decided I could go to Bowie State and transfer later if I still wanted to."

Before she knew it, she was teaching in a classroom at Lothian Elementary. Later she taught fourth grade at Adams Park Elementary and Germantown Elementary. In 1975, she was chosen to participate in a special program in which potential administrators were trained for new jobs; she became the county school system's coordinator of human relations.

In the meantime, she earned a master's degree from Bowie State University and a doctorate from Nova University.

Working her way up through the school system, she was named an assistant to the superintendent in 1979, where she now does "a lot of trouble-shooting."

"I handle the complaints that come in -- everything from sex discrimination in hiring, to a teacher who feels an evaluation wasn't what it should be, to how we handle snow removal," Dr. Harris said.

All school policies go through her hands, and she gives up evenings to serve on committees for the school system as well as committees in which she has a personal interest.

An Annapolis civic organization, The Links Inc., is where Doris Knight first met Dr. Harris.

"She's a most fantastic person," Mrs. Knight said of Dr. Harris. "She's a person who's for people. She's not a person who is pushy or who gets hung up on power. She's a behind-the-scenes person who can push those who have potential. She doesn't have to be in the limelight. And as for interaction with other people -- I don't know anyone who can surpass her."

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