Rencher Nicholas Harris was born to Mary J. and James C. Harris on October 7, 1900 in Abingdon, VA. Harris came to Durham, NC in 1921 as an agent for the Banker's Fire and Casualty Insurance Company and soon became engrossed in the political and social climate of the city. A co-founder of the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs (now the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People), Harris appeared before the city council on behalf of many civil rights issues. He was a directors of Mechanics and Farmers Bank, the Mutual Savings and Loan Association, the Scarborough Foundation, and a secretary for Lincoln Hospital's Board of Trustees. Harris was the first Black person elected to the Durham City Council in 1953 and served from 1954 to 1958. In 1958, he became the first Black person appointed to the Durham School Board. While on the school board, Harris insisted on desegregation of public schools and opposed a major school bond in a segregated system.
Harris died in 1965, and to honor his legacy in the city, funds from the opposed school bond built a new school in 1967 named for him. In 1968, R. N. Harris Elementary School opened its doors as part of the Durham City Schools system. The school saw Harris' legacy in action when its office served as the headquarters for the "Save Our Schools" (SOS) community workshops in 1971. Ann Atwater and Claibourne Paul (C.P.) Ellis, concerned parents portrayed in the feature film Best of Enemies, along with other Durham leaders, enacted a 10-day Charrette to address the growing problems in the school. Despite Atwater being a civil rights activist and Ellis being an exalted Klu Klux Klan leader, they worked across the racial divide to help provide better schooling for their children. They answered phone calls, produced invitations, and distributed announcements to promote the Charrette. Committee meetings were set up in classrooms and community meetings were held in the gym, which also served as the school's auditorium.
In 1995 under the leadership of Gertrude Williams, R.N. Harris became a magnet school for integrated arts and core knowledge. It was remodeled in 2003 and again in 2023. To this day, the elementary school is still success-oriented toward serving marginalized residents of Durham and providing the best education for learners.
Adapted from an essay submitted with historical marker application by Esther D. Glenn
Committees Begin Study of Problems. Durham Morning Herald, Durham, NC. July 22, 1971.
Durham County: A History of Durham County, North Carolina by Jean Bradley Anderson, 2nd ed. Duke University Press. Durham and London, 2011.
R.N. Harris, Ex-City Council, School Board Member, Dies. The Herald Sun, Durham, NC. Tuesday, January 5, 1965. Page 2.
'Save Our Schools' Groups Opens Operations Center by Burwell Whittenton. Durham Sun, Durham, NC. Sunday, July 8, 1971.
(Photographs by Jim Thornton ) Durham Herald Co. Newspaper Photograph Collection #P0105, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Special Collections Library, university of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Tribute to R.N. Harris by George Watts Carr, Jr. Durham Morning Herald, Durham, NC. Tuesday, January 12, 1965. Page 4.