TALKING WITH JOAN HARRIS
Joan Harris knew from the time she was ten years old that she wanted to work with children.
“I decided I wanted to work with children. I knew that I didn’t want to be a teacher or a nurse. At that time, especially for black women, there didn’t seem to be many possibilities. I didn’t know exactly what working with children would mean except that I wanted to help them in some way.”
By the time Mrs. Harris was in high school, she was aware of the profession of social work.
“Once I learned there was such a thing as social workers who worked with children, I set the goal of becoming a social worker for myself.”
Mrs. Harris graduated from Morgan State College (It became a university several years after she graduated.) in 1954 with a major in sociology. To become a social worker she had to continue her education. Mrs. Harris had a tuition scholarship for her four years at Morgan State and she also needed help for graduate school.
“There was no school of social work in Maryland at that time… so I applied to the only two black schools where I could get a social work degree, Howard University and Atlanta University. I also applied to the University of Chicago, School of Social Administration… I did not receive anywhere near the warmth of response and receptivity from Atlanta and Howard as I did from Chicago. I wrote to the University of Chicago asking them if they would give me a tuition scholarship because I had no money. I had wanted to be a social worker a long time. I actually wrote them a very long letter telling them something about me and about my ambition and so forth. I told them that I had an uncle there and that I was going to ask him if he would help me with living expenses, and books. So both the University and my uncle knew I wanted each to help me and unbelievably they did! That was back before there was such a thing as financial aid. The aid was a merit-based kind of thing based on my educational record.”
Though not directly involved in Brown vs. Board of Education, Mrs. Harris remembers being a “colored” person and then a Negro.
“There were only three high schools that African Americans could attend in Baltimore, but my parents moved to Anne Arundel County after my junior high years… I was bused quite a distance to a high school in Annapolis… In high school and college, we were aware of racial problems because we had black teachers whose values mimicked the values of that time (1950s) – that education was important and that was the only way for a black person to get ahead. We, as students, were kind of indoctrinated in that.”
Though she was aware of the struggles and confrontations taking place in the South, she felt detached from it.
“I had been aware of some of the fights that were going on in the South, some civil rights activities. I was aware of their concerns, but I didn’t consider myself a Southerner, I was born and raised in Maryland and Maryland is a border State.
I was not a confrontational type of person, so I would not be sitting at a lunch counter or walking in marches. My way of approaching prejudice and discrimination would be to work behind the scenes. I see value in having diverse personalities because of how different people express themselves. For example, I wrote an essay and won a trip to Little Rock, Arkansas. I remember when we got on a streetcar down there, I just plopped myself down in the closest, empty seat, which I was accustomed to doing in Baltimore. Some of the persons who accompanied the group approached me and said you can’t sit here. You’re going to have to move further back …then it became something that I had to face. What I am trying to say is that I will not necessarily fight openly, but I would maybe feel more what was happening. I did not seek out opportunities to rectify injustices in the way that a lot of the students do. I lived some things, accepted some things and lamented some things, but my mind was elsewhere in terms of my thoughts and what I was going to be doing in the future.”
When given the opportunity to choose between an integrated or segregated environment, Mrs. Harris always chose an integrated situation believing it would provide her with a richer experience.
“The diversity of population at Chicago was not a problem. It was something that I embraced because I stayed at the International House. I wanted to be in an environment where I could meet people from all over the world. I identified with people and their circumstances, not their race. It is surprising, I felt very comfortable with people of all races because until I went to the University of Chicago I had lived in a segregated environment.”
After graduation from Chicago, Mrs. Harris again chose an integrated environment.
“I think that one of the reasons I wanted to go North instead of coming back to this area (Maryland) was that I wanted another kind of experience and if I had returned to this area I was afraid I might not get it, so I went to Milwaukee to work.”
Working in a white agency or with white clients was not an issue for Mrs. Harris.
“I was always open-minded and thought for myself, that kind of thing. I did a lot of reading. One of the books I read that was very influential in my life was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It is the story of a little white girl who lived in a rather dysfunctional family and the interesting experiences she had struggling to grow up in Brooklyn. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is an analogy for the difficult time that many people have growing and being nurtured in certain environments. A tree in an urban area struggles to survive, but can thrive and triumph over adversities such as smog, lack of water and everything else. I identified with the little white girl. I thought it was so sad that people treated each other the way that they did because of their color and religion.”
During her time in Milwaukee, Mrs. Harris worked primarily with unmarried mothers, foster parents and foster children, and adoptive children. As such, she was very aware that racism was a factor in regard to the number of black children placed in foster care and the placement of black children with adoptive parents.
“I know that racism was a factor in regards to the placement of children. Society was looking at how children grew up in African American, foster homes in the 1960’s. The agency was very sensitive to this…”
In the beginning of her career, black children could only be placed with black adoptive parents. Later, in the 70’s, white people were allowed to adopt black children. It was rare for a black family to adopt a white child though it did become relatively commonplace for black foster parents to have white foster children.
Mrs. Harris relayed, “It was dependent on the area of the country you lived in.”
Joan Harris attained her goal to work with children. As a school social worker with Baltimore City public schools, she impacted the lives of many children white and black. She is well aware that the black children she worked with had many more opportunities for a decent life than they would have had if Brown vs. Board of Education had not been passed.
“I had no involvement in getting the law passed, but I definitely saw a need for the policy in my experience with my clients subsequent to that time. Even prior to that. Basically I feel that it is so very important for persons of all cultures to go to school together because it is important that they get to know each other as people and dispel the myths about superiority as far as intelligence and values are concerned. People don’t recognize that everybody is the same and that what makes the difference is in how they are brought up, the environments to which they have en exposed. This is one of the most important reasons in my mind for having integrated schools. The other is that there is a tendency for funds to be spent or used inequitably if there are separate schools. It’s just in the nature of things unfortunately. So I really feel funding is inequitable. In fact, I worked in terms of policy issues. I was an active member of the Maryland Education Coalition that seeks equitable funding for schools in all the State’s counties regardless of the wealth or race of the population. That group and others like it are still working on this. It’s a never ending problem as far as funding for the school system is concerned.”
Mrs. Harris’ life bridges the decades between segregation and integration which gives her a different perspective and a more profound appreciation of the impact of Brown vs. Board of Education.
“There are quite a few Black Americans who believe that if we had not integrated, and we still had segregated schools that we would be better off. They believe this because they remember that black teachers were very invested in their students at that particular time (prior to Brown vs. Board of Education), but then families were also invested in their children’s educations. Sometimes they see things from a rosy point of view. Black teachers then were really good teachers and were determined that in spite of out-of-date books, few teaching materials and run-down schools, they were going to see to it that the children were educated. There was a basic relationship between the student and teacher. I’m just saying that there are some distortions because things are so bad now that people begin to think about the good ole’ days – not realizing that if there hadn’t been all the advances they wouldn’t be where they are now.”
Mrs. Harris was interviewed by Kimberly Goldstein