by Christopher Harter, Interim Executive Director
The beauty of music and the joy of teaching were two of the guiding principles in the life and career of Dr. Walter Harris, Jr., whose papers and book collection are now housed at the Amistad Research Center thanks to a generous donation by his wife, Dr. Henrietta Augustus Harris. Donated over the course of this previous year, Dr. Harris’ work with Amistad to preserve her husband’s legacy ensures that scholars, music lovers and students of gospel and spiritual music will have access to this important collection.
Born in Suttle, Alabama, to Walter Sr. and Arie Bailey Harris, Walter Harris, Jr. studied music at a young age, in public school and as a member of Ebenezer Baptist Church. His mother was his first music teacher; Harris was immersed in the spirituals and gospels of the African American Baptist Church throughout his childhood and adolescence, and the Harris Family Singers populated Ebenezer’s choir. In 1965, he began attending Knoxville College in Tennessee on a music scholarship. While there he studied choral conducting and performance under Dr. Nathan Carter, and classical piano performance under Authuro Rivituso. Harris was also a member of the concert choir and college choir and became immersed in the musical traditions of the Presbyterian Church. After completing his master’s degree from Michigan State University in 1969, Harris returned to Knoxville College, where he served various roles, including director of music at Knoxville’s McMillan Chapel and chair of the Department of Art and Music until 1980. From his time at Knoxville College, Harris would go on to be a Presbyterian minister of music for the next 56 years until his passing in November 2020.
While at Knoxville, Harris expanded his studies and completed his Ph.D. at Michigan State in 1979. He then moved to Arizona, where he became professor of music at Arizona State University in Tempe and minister of music and director of the chancel choir at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Phoenix, which was the first African American Presbyterian Church established in Arizona. After a brief time in North Carolina, Walter Harris came to New Orleans in 2003, where he became the provost and vice president for Academic Affairs and professor of music at Loyola University. He later served as Distinguished University Professor there until 2018.
The Walter Harris, Jr. papers document Harris’ professional work as a professor of music at Arizona State University from 1980 to 2000 and Loyola University New Orleans from 2003 to 2018. The papers mainly encompass course outlines and syllabi, with supporting research documentation for courses focused on African American music. The bulk of the collection consists of sheet music focused on African American gospels, but also more traditional classical religious music by composers such as Handel and Mozart. Additionally, the collection includes a large volume of books, dating from 1920 to 2018, about music and music history. Of note are books focused on African American music history and composers, and spirituals, blues, jazz and gospel styles, as well as how these relate to social, economic and racial factors.
Walter Harris Jr.’s lifelong passion for music, teaching and civic service is evident in his papers. “My husband had an extensive collection of African and African-American musical artifacts including a variety of hymnals, sheet music collections and academic research,” says Dr. Henrietta Augustus Harris. “I knew that we would not be able to keep such an important collection intact, and sought suggestions for where to house his collection to continue his legacy. My friend and Dillard University colleague, sociologist Dr. Freddye Hill, suggested that I offer Walter’s collection to the Amistad Research Center.” We thank both Dr. Harris and Dr. Hill for this wonderful contribution. The collection will soon be available for research. The collection is now open for research. To learn more about the collection, click here. To learn more about the life and legacy of Dr. Walter Harris, Jr. click here.
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