Remember Henry Harris
Lost Icon of a Revolution:
A Story of Hope and Self-Sacrifice in America
After the freedom rides ended, after the bus boycotts and sit-ins, the marches and protests, and long after the TV cameras and federal marshals packed up and went home, Henry Harris enrolled at Auburn University, alone in a dormitory of one hundred and fifty white southern males high on testosterone . . .
Chapters 1 | 2
The call to the campus police station came at 10:52 Thursday morning, April 18, 1974. Luann Reblin, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, sounded frantic. She was working the front desk at Green Commons, the cafeteria building that joined the three high-rise towers of UWM’s Sandburg Hall. She said a resident on the fifth floor had just called her and told her a body was lying on the roof “outside my window.”
Units 12, 26, and 38 of the Wisconsin-Milwaukee Police Department were immediately dispatched to Sandburg Hall. Twenty-year-old Patrolman Martin Studenec was the first one there. He hurried into the two-story Green Commons building and found Reblin at the front desk. She told him how to get to the roof. He ran up the stairs. On the roof, he quickly spotted the body of a young black man lying face-down near the south tower. He was wearing a brown suit coat, brown trousers, and a navy turtleneck. Studenec rushed to him and checked for a pulse. There was not one. He searched the body for identification. There was not any. Studenec saw that the man wasn’t much older than he was.
Within moments, Detective Richard Sroka was standing by Studenec and so was Sergeant Lyle Bliss. They checked the body as well. It was mid-April but still cold on the north side of Milwaukee. The sky was gray and the temperature in the upper 30s. A biting wind was blowing hard off Lake Michigan, only six blocks away. The officers stared down at the prone body. They wondered who the young man was and how he had gotten there.
At the police station, Captain James Breismeister alerted UWM Police Chief William Harvey. After hearing from the officers on the roof, Breimeister called the Milwaukee County medical examiner’s office at 11:05. He reached Warren Hill, deputy medical examiner. He told him that a student had “apparently leaped” to his death at Sandburg Hall.
When Chief Harvey arrived on the roof, Sroka was looking up at the south tower, at an open window, high on the north face of the twenty-story building. Its screen was missing. Harvey determined the open window was on the seventeenth floor. He and Sroka headed to the south tower’s elevators, leaving Studenec and Bliss with the body.
Upon reaching the seventeenth floor, Harvey and Sroka determined the open window was in Suite S1720. They tried the door, but it was locked. They got a dormitory employee to unlock it and then entered the three-bedroom suite. No one was there. They looked for evidence of foul play but saw none. They tried to open the door to Room S1720-C. It was locked. Again, the dorm employee unlocked it. No one was there. The room was messy, but they could see no signs of a struggle. The room’s sliding window, however, was wide open. The officers quickly found personal papers belonging to a student named Henry Harris. Harvey told Sroka that Harris was an assistant basketball coach at UWM. Harvey knew Harris because he attended UWM games. When housing department employees got to the room, Harvey asked them if S1720-C was Henry Harris’s room. Yes, they said, Henry Harris, age twenty-four, was the room’s legal resident.
Once Hill, the deputy medical examiner, arrived on the roof, he examined the body and pronounced the victim dead. He placed the time of death at approximately eight hours earlier, around 3 a.m. All Hill found in the victim’s pockets were $16.41, a key ring with six keys, and a picture of a young woman.
Harvey and Sroka had returned from the seventeenth floor by the time Hill rolled the prone body over.
“That’s Henry Harris,” Harvey said.
Harris’s body lay nineteen feet from the north wall of the south tower. He lay on a square-shaped section of roof that covered the walkway between the south tower and Green Commons, named for William T. Green, a local civil rights activist who worked as a janitor in the Wisconsin state capitol before earning a law degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1892.
At 11:55, Hill told ambulance attendants Greg Kamens and John Skipchak to take Harris’s body to the Milwaukee County morgue for examination. He then went to Harris’s room and met the police department’s other detective, Lieutenant Robert Kowalski, a 37-year-old former state patrol officer.
Hill saw that Room S1720-C was a typical high-rise dorm room, only nine by eleven feet. A single room, it had only one bed. A chest of drawers was on the wall next to the door, and a desk was in front of the window. A deflated basketball sat on top of the desk. It was as an ashtray, cradling the butts of several cigarettes as well as the very small butts of what Kowalski was certain was marijuana. Four empty Budweiser cans were on the floor, about three feet in front of the door. An empty wine bottle was on the floor next to a book case adjacent to the desk. Another empty wine bottle sat on the floor in front of the chest. On top of the chest of drawers was a Master Barlow pocket knife, a bottle of decongestant, and two undated white envelopes from the UWM Dispensary. Two words were written on the envelopes, “penicillin” and “Henry.” In a drawer were three plastic bags of what the men believed to be marijuana. In a leather duffle bag on the desk, they found a bag containing a pipe and more of the substance they assumed to be marijuana. A scented candle in a red glass container burned in the middle of the floor—to disguise the odor of marijuana, Kowalski assumed.
Sergeant Bliss came up to take measurements. He drew a diagram of the room and marked the location of each item found. The window was twenty-seven inches wide and fifty-seven inches high. It was a sliding window, with a four-inch-wide windowsill inside and an outer window ledge of seven inches. The bottom of the window was three feet above the floor. Hill concluded Harris had to step up on the desk and then onto the window ledge to land nineteen feet from the building.
The investigators looked for Harris’s wallet but did not find it, only a picture ID from New Cumberland Army Depot in Pennsylvania, issued April 24, 1973. They searched for a suicide note but didn’t find one, only some of Harris’ writings, the more recent ones expressing how much he missed his girlfriend.
After all items were inventoried, Kowalski told the housing department to keep the room locked until Harris’s family had a chance to recover his property, and Hill headed back to the medical examiner’s office in downtown Milwaukee, when he began returning phone calls. Medical examiner employee Paul Danko had already performed an examination of Harris’s body in the presence of Kamens and Skipchak, the ambulance attendants. He found compound fractures of the upper left arm and a fracture of the left leg just below the knee. He did not find any gunshot wounds, or stab wounds.
Sroka was meanwhile tracking down people to interview. He went to the fifth-floor room of Ben Evans, the student who called the front desk when he saw a body outside his window. When Sroka walked into the room, he could see out the window to the roof where Harris had landed. Evans said he called the front desk as soon as he looked out and saw the body.
“Did you know Henry Harris?” Sroka asked.
Evans told Sroka he heard a strange thump outside his window during the night, around four o’clock. He figured it was the room’s heater starting up and went back to sleep.
Sroka went to find assistant basketball coach Tom Sager. Sager said he had seen Harris the previous day, Wednesday, about 10:30 a.m. He said he had not sensed that anything was bothering Harris. Sager explained that Harris was a student assistant coach but that his position had been terminated in January, effective July 1. Sager told Sroka that UWM basketball player George Tandy had talked to Harris by phone around 11 Wednesday night, four to five hours before his death, and Harris had not said anything to indicate suicidal thinking or personal problems.
Once back in his medical examiner’s office, Hill returned a call from Bill Klucas, UWM’s head basketball coach. Klucas told him he wanted to tell Harris’s family in person at their home outside Birmingham, Alabama. Hill’s office had planned to notify the next of kin, but he agreed that doing so in person would be preferable. Klucas told Hill he last saw Harris three days earlier, on Monday. He explained that Harris had experienced “ups and downs” and was depressed at times but he had never heard Harris talk of suicide. He said Harris had still held hopes of playing professional basketball.
After Klucas hung up, he headed to the airport, but news of Harris’s death would precede him to Alabama. As word slipped out of Wisconsin over the course of the afternoon, the death of Harris would be a shocking story in Alabama. The strong, lean young man whose body lay on the roof was a hero back home. He was the first black American awarded a scholarship by any of the Southeastern Conference’s seven Deep South universities. He had been captain of Auburn University’s basketball team just two years earlier. He was at the center of the first Alabama-Auburn recruiting showdown for a black athlete, after decades of both schools refusing to sign African Americans. He was that good, that brave. He was so talented he drew interest from the Dallas Cowboys as a punt returner and so respected by his teammates that theyvoted him captain unanimously.
Harris was working on a book on his experiences at Auburn, but the end of his very public life was as overlooked as his obscure Black Belt childhood in Boligee, Alabama, his body lying unseen for eight hours on a compact urban campus, seemingly discarded and not discovered until midday. Harris had vanished into the darkness of a long, miserable night. After going one-on-one with old Jim Crow for four years, of overcoming the odds again and again, he died unnoticed in a nation he had tried to redeem.
His very presence for four years at Auburn was an act of rebellion, whether walking on to a basketball court, into a dormitory, or into a classroom. He had changed the South just by showing up every day, just by going out every night they tossed a ball up, a lone dark body in a sea of white. In the end, though, he wasn’t able to show up for one more day. The same black body he had rendered into a bridge for others to cross—from a black world to a white world in order to create a new world—lay sprawled on a tarred rooftop eight hundred miles from home. An American revolutionary had finally succumbed to his wounds.
EDGE OF AMERICA
Wes Bizilia got the first glimpse. It was January 1968, and Bizilia, a graduate assistant at Auburn University, was earning $45 a week teaching physical education and assisting the Auburn basketball team by scouting prospective players.
“We got a game for you to go see,” Rudy Davalos, an Auburn assistant coach, had told him. “There’s a kid named Henry Harris we want you to look at. It’s in Boligee.”
Bizilia had graduated from Livingston State, just sixteen miles from Boligee in west central Alabama “You’ve been over in that area,” Davalos said, “so you’ll know where it is.” But Bizilia had no idea where Boligee was. “I didn’t even know Boligee existed,” he said.
Bizilia left Auburn in plenty of time for the 180-mile trip across Alabama. He was excited but anxious. The grandson of Ukranian immigrants, Bizilia grew up in Pennsylvania and had never gone into an all-black high school and expected to be the only white person there. When he finally arrived, he couldn’t believe it. “Boligee was a God-forsaken place. You drive in there, and you didn’t even know it was a town. It was as rural as it gets,” he remembered.
Once he found Greene County Training School, Bizilia headed straight to the office of the principal, having called him ahead of time. A. W. Young was expecting him. “Coach, you’re going to sit with me,” Young told him.
They walked down the hall and into a tight gymnasium. Chairs, not bleachers, lined the court. This would be basketball in the raw, Bizilia thought, nothing but the ball and players and who wanted it the most. A buzz started as soon as Bizilia walked in—the excitement was palpable. Everyone knew why Bizilia was there. He had come for Henry Harris, the pride of the people and the promise of a new day.
Young led Bizilia to their chairs at mid-court. When the Bobcats finally came out to warm up, Bizilia spotted Harris immediately. He was leading them. “When they get to midcourt,” Bizilia said, “Henry puts the ball on the floor and goes in and shoots a lay-up.”
Bizilia turned to Young and said, “He has a scholarship to Auburn right now.”
“But, Coach, you haven’t seen him play.”
“I’ve seen enough. He can play.”
Young looks at Bizilia in disbelief. “You mean it?”
“I mean it. He can play.”
Henry Harris could play. “That first time he shot a layup, just the way he went in, the control of the ball. He exploded when he went up,” Bizilia recalled. “He was 6-foot-2, but he had an explosion and quickness about him that you just didn’t see every day.”
Bizilia was living a recruiter’s dream. He could hardly contain himself. Deep in the outback of west Alabama, in the midst of cotton fields and crushing poverty, Auburn had unearthed a marvelous talent. No other recruiters were there. Bizilia was getting a private showing, and the more he watched the more excited he grew. Good body control, he thought. Good control of the basketball. Good shot balance. Tremendous leg spring.
After the game, Young introduced Bizilia to Harris.
“I like the way you play,” he said.
Harris smiled, his grin was quick and easy.
“You didn’t disappoint me. We’re interested. We’ll be in touch with you.”
Reporters had discovered Greene County before college recruiters did. Three years earlier, Newsweek’s Joseph Cumming said he felt he was traveling back in time when he drove into Greene County, calling it “rural, dark . . . out of the mainstream.” He described the forty-five miles from “the neon-gaudy highways around Tuscaloosa into lonely and uncluttered Greene County” as a trip from “Technicolor into black and white.” But this was the nest from which Henry Harris would fly, a land where large farms were still called plantations and today was always yesterday.
Established in 1819, even before Alabama was a state, the county was namesake of Nathaniel Greene, the Revolutionary War general who drove the British out of the Southeast. Half the county’s population had fled since 1900, but its 1869 courthouse and columned hillside mansions still stood tall in the county seat of Eutaw—shrines to the county’sonetime cotton kingdom built by enslaved Americans. Blacks in Greene County outnumbered whites eight-to-one, and in Harris’s rural postal district, the ratio was much higher, approximately 3,000 blacks to only 169 whites. Greene County was the blackest county in Alabama and one of the six poorest in the United States, its ruling class having turned away industry because it would pay better than farm work, leaving a century-long status quo in place and black Americans still in the fields.
Greene County lay on the western edge of Alabama’s Black Belt, a swath of the American South still wrestling time and struggling to catch it. The name—Black Belt—originally came from the soil, a sticky clay that turned to obstinate mud when wet and an impenetrable surface when dry. Once planters figured out how to work it, cotton plantations and slaves followed, creating a density of black dots on population maps from Virginia to east Texas.
The Black Belt was the South’s underbelly, a subterranean land for African Americans, who survived under a feudal, caste-like economic system and a self-serving, bully political system that denied them the most basic rights of U.S. citizenship. It was a place of dirt roads and long walks into town, of never looking a white man in the eye and never looking at a white woman at all, a place where white people still owned land and black people worked it, and, in 1968, still a land of outhouses and training schools.
In the Black Belt, rural black high schools were called “training schools,” the rationale being African Americans were not educable—they could only be trained—or, perhaps, were not to be educated, else they might attain the acumen to flee the plantation. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation in 1954, and yet, fourteen years later, Harris—the basketball prodigy and high school valedictorian, surviving on the margin in the richest nation in the world—had never sat in a classroom with a white student.
Larry Chapman was the next Auburn recruiter dispatched to see Harris,. “Man, he’s a good player,” Bizilia had told Davalos when he returned from Boligee.
“So Rudy [Davalos] sends me down there,” said Chapman, Auburn’s freshman coach.
Harris’s next game was at West End High School in York, almost to Mississippi, so Chapman and his wife left early for the 185-mile, two-lane trip on history’s highway, U.S. 80. They drove through Tuskegee, training site for the black pilots who would quell Americans’ doubts about blacks’ courage and valor under fire in World War II. They drove through Montgomery, where Rosa Parks birthed the civil rights movement by remaining in her bus seat in 1955. They went over the patch of highway where civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo was shot dead by the Ku Klux Klan. They drove into Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the bloody confrontation less than three years earlier that propelled Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Selma and Montgomery were the seminal bookends of a crusade that had thrust open the gates Chapman was hurrying to find a young man to walk through. His spirits were soaring. He knew Auburn was moving ahead of the other SEC schools in the Deep South. Not one of them had given an athletic scholarship to a black athlete, and now it appeared Auburn could be the first. As the miles dragged and winter twilight approached, Chapman wondered, “Lord, will we ever get there?”
The site of the game was seemingly scripted out of destiny. York was in Sumter County, where Harris’s family had struggled to survive for decades and where his mother, pregnant, had to drop out of school at fifteen. Now, a coach was coming to Sumter County hoping to offer her son a college scholarship.
“We go to the high school,” Chapman said, “and they let us sit up on the stage. The boys teams come out to warm up during halftime of the girls game. I watch them warm up, and I know this guy is kind of special. And then they start playing, and he is [special]. I don’t remember how many points he got; I just know he dominated and was an incredible basketball player. He just instinctively reacted to whatever happened on the court, and that’s what basketball is.”
Chapman was getting a tinge of the exhilaration major league scouts felt when they found seventeen-year-old Willie Mays playing center field at Rickwood Field for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948. They had stumbled upon a natural in a closeted, segregated sub-culture most Americans ignored or didn’t even know existed. Chapman couldn’t believe his luck, couldn’t believe Auburn’s luck. He sensed he was watching a “basketball icon” in the making.
“Henry had the ability, because of the grace that had been afforded him and because of practice, to do stuff that other kids could only do a little bit then, because they did not have the quickness and jumping ability,” said Chapman. “. . . There was no doubt that, from a basketball perspective, this guy was like someone you would see in a ballet.”
But Chapman also saw a larger story—“a story about a black kid in the Deep South who loved basketball. Who was poor. Who lived in a cinder-block home in a part of the state that was pretty desolate. Out of that, rose Henry Harris. It’s like he took a wrong turn. He wasn’t supposed to be there. But there he was.”
In the foreboding dark days when the Nazis were rolling through Europe and the Japanese were building ships of war and slaughtering their neighbors, a hero arose from the thin pages of an American comic book. He came to slew evil, to vanquish the villains. It was 1941, and he was hope for a threatened nation. He was Captain America.
Three decades later, for black Americans sitting by radios across Alabama, for the black custodians and groundskeepers huddled at the corner of the court, and for all the people who needed him and had awaited him so long, Henry Harris—his black skin stark in Auburn’s white-white uniform—was Captain America. He had come to slew notion of white superiority, and like Robinson, Owens, and Louis, would shoulder the dreams and validation of a race, as the struggle for freedom through sports marched on.
Harris was the tip of a spear heaved by his forebears—the kings and queens his mom talked about, all the slaves who had lived and died between them and him, the fieldhands who persevered in the South for decades, waiting for a chance to prove themselves. It was as if they had ushered him out of the cotton fields, a basketball in hand, to meet this appointed hour. He was an ideal face of the revolution because he represented the abject rural poverty that had imprisoned blacks across the Deep South. He was the Old South. But he symbolized African Americans’ ability to compete with whites on a level playing field, and thereby, in life itself. He was a young black man playing free on a basketball court in Alabama with young white men—no wonder he was always smiling. It might have been just a basketball game to his teammates, but Harris was playing the enemy every game. A year into the experiment, he knew what was at stake. The South needed him. America needed him, especially at Auburn, deep in the Heart of Dixie, where some children had grown up and never heard a positive word about a black American, a family tradition shoved down through the ages. Harris was taking all that on, changing one mind at a time with his composure and competitiveness, possibly transforming a family for generations forward. By applauding Harris, Auburn fans did not have to take a stand on school desegregation or interracial dating. They were just cheering their team, their guys. Using his God-given talent, work ethic, and countenance, Harris enabled southerners to see what black and white cooperation looked like.
By simply wearing the Auburn uniform five times during the first fifteen days of December of 1969, standing side-by-side with white players, Harris became part of history. Not the history he was making, but all the history that had gone on so long. Auburn history, significant southern cultural history. The uniform did that. When black Americans marched to war for their country in the 1940s, their uniforms were more celebrated by black communities than by the soldiers and sailors themselves. They were a badge of being good enough, of making the team. On April 15, 1947, before his first game in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, Jackie Robinson stood looking at himself in the mirror, looking to see if the uniform fit, really fit. It was a challenging view even for him to accept. Now, a basketball uniform that had excluded, embodying racial purity, suddenly included. Henry Harris, in Auburn navy and orange, was the New South.
ONE-ON-ONE WITH RACISM
For four years, Henry Harris went one-on-one with racism, the Old South colliding with a New South in the life of one brave young man out of Alabama’s Black Belt. Every night he stepped onto the court for Auburn he wasn’t challenging the Wildcats, Bulldogs, or Crimson Tide but the hardened, dogged beliefs of a centuries-old civilization. Harris would blow up all of the era’s stereotypes of black athletes, and he did with a dignity and courage that would have made Jackie Robinson proud. And then, when he had played out his role, he exited the stage, dead at twenty-four. Yet, his shadow lengthens each year.
His story, Shakespearean in breadth and power, has gone untold too long, for it represents an essential chapter in U.S. history. It is a story of hope, tragedy, redemption, and—ultimately—hope.
Segregation stunted lives, vilified an entire race, and endured on American indifference. How it was finally overcome by one brave soul at a time is one of the most undocumented chapters of the American twentieth century. Society progresses through human sacrifice, so how Harris and other daring young African Americans used their lives was as vital as it was valiant. Their stories cannot slip into obscurity.
Henry Harris helped drag the South into tomorrow. Basketball in hand, he marched forward when his state and country needed him to change the South. You cannot change what you will not confront, so someone had to stare down old Jim Crow. “God always sends the best men into the worst times,” said T. D. Jakes on the day of Barrack Obama’s inauguration. For Auburn to be “integrated with Henry Harris,” said one of his coaches, “was God’s work.”
The assignment was more grueling than Harris could have imagined when he graduated from Greene County Training School in Boligee, Alabama, in 1968, the script bigger than he and the other pioneers of southern sport could ever dream. They were pawns in an epic and historical drama, sport’s ultimate role players. Their assignment was to kick down a heavily guarded gate to fair play and the American dream.
Harris was only eighteen, a country boy who had never left home. Living in an abandoned store with his mother, brothers, and sister, he moved onto a campus that was never home. If he embodied hope to some, he was a harbinger of dreaded change to others, and few could understand the pressure he was shouldering. But Harris persevered, kept moving forward. He knew if he misstepped, integration would stall. He was a young man carrying a grown man’s responsibility, trying every day to do the right thing, trying to make not only his family proud but a whole race of people that he was carrying on his back.
“Henry gave to me and every Auburn University black athlete, and every black athlete since in the state of Alabama, a chance to play ball on a level that had been denied before,” said actor Thom Gossom, Auburn’s third black athlete. “There were good days and bad ones for Henry but not many happy ones. . . . But he bore it for those of us who followed.”
Harris often told Gossom he integrated Auburn and the SEC for “the old folks,” the ones back home who told him that it would be “a good thing.” “It’s time. Someone has to do it,” they said. Henry Harris became their hero. Their savior. Their hope for years to come.
The Story in Pictures
It was 1968 and the spring Martin Luther King was murdered—only two weeks after speaking at a rally in Greene County. It was an extraordinary time, and Harris decided to make his life matter by going to Auburn. He was the seeming quintessential candidate for integration, but nothing could have prepared him for the next four years.
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Lost Icon of a Revolution: A Story of Hope and Self-Sacrifice in America
Occasional news, events, and book news.
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