African American Studies


INTERVIEWERS: Mark Naison, Brian Purnell, and Charles Olsen


SUMMARY BY: Andrew O’Connell

Mrs. Claire Harris (b. May 29,1943) spent her childhood growing up in the Morrisania section of the Bronx. Harris’ parents, both immigrants from St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, arrived in New York at the beginning of the 20th century, married, and had five daughters, the youngest of which is Mrs. Harris. Foreshadowing Mrs. Harris’ career as a university administrator and educator, both of her parents took part in the adult education programs. Her father used his education to shift careers from to the post office to a position at the Department of Social Services and her mother went from being a domestic to a practical nurse.

Mrs. Harris gives some interesting insight into growing up in the Morrisania section of the Bronx in the 1950s. Coming of age in a period before crime and drug use became rampant in the community, Mrs. Harris tells of a time when the neighborhood felt like some sort of safe haven. Although she recounts an incident of burglary that could occur in any neighborhood in the city, she describes her block as being “my block,” giving the reader a sense of strong community in Morrisania.

Although she reveals that she had an awareness of the Civil Rights struggle brewing in the South, Mrs. Harris says that she never encountered any instances of overt racism growing up in the South Bronx, and that her West Indian family never really subscribed to any political affiliation or West Indian community groups. Instead, she tells of a childhood in which the only West Indian influences came through the way of dances held by members of the community.

The crux of Mrs. Harris’ interview lies in her description of St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church in Morrisania, a 150-year old parish known widely for its gospel choir. Attending St. Augustine’s Catholic School before heading to St. James High School and Syracuse University, Mrs. Harris tells of a time when, despite the neighborhood being almost exclusively black, whites still comprised over fifty percent of the student population at St. Augustine’s.

The remainder of the interview examines her personal experiences with St. Augustine’s, where she is still a member of the congregation. The interviewers discuss recent budget crises in the Archdiocese with Mrs. Harris, and they exchange ideas on what can be done to save the institution.

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