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Wed, 09.28.1864

Richard B. Harrison, Stage Actor born

Richard B. Harrison

Richard B. Harrison was born on this date in 1864. He was a Black actor, teacher, dramatic reader, lecturer, and elocutionist.

Richard Berry Harrison's parents had escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad and made it to London, Ontario, Canada. His mother named him Richard after seeing a performance of Shakespeare's Richard III. Her interest in theater placed Harrison on the way to becoming an actor.

In his youth, he sold newspapers and managed to work near the local theater, where he would try to get to know the actors. Whenever he saved enough money, he would attend the plays. His talents were recognized early in recitations that he would give at school and in church.

After moving to Detroit, he began his dramatic studies at the Detroit Training School of Dramatic Art and privately with Edward Weitzel, British drama coach and drama editor for the Detroit Free Press.  From 1892 to 1896, Harrison traveled, performing as a dramatic reader.  Harrison’s repertoire included works from Shakespeare and poetry from his friend Paul Laurence Dunbar, including promotional tours for Dunbar's book Oak and Ivy.

He married Gertrude Janet Washington in 1895; she was the first Black person to graduate from the Chicago Conservatory of Music.  They had two children, Lawrence Gilbert and Marian Ysobel.

He became well-known nationally for his recitations in both black and white communities. In his tours, he became aware of a great desire for dramatic training among the people for whom he performed. After convincing the president of North Carolina A&T, James B. Dudley, of the need for a dramatic program of study, he began to offer summer courses there in 1922. At the same time, he moved his family to New York and began reading and teaching in churches and performing on stage.

Harrison's stage credits include Pa Williams' Gal at the Lafayette Theatre and The Green Pastures, which opened February 26, 1930, at the Mansfield Theatre on Broadway.  This show ran for 16 months, went on a national tour appearing in 203 towns in 40 states, and won the Pulitzer Prize.  Harrison's portrayal of "De Lawd" was essential to its success and won him additional acclamation.

Harrison also received the NAACP's 1930 Spingarn Medal for Distinguished Achievement and honorary degrees from several colleges and universities. On his 70th birthday in 1934, he received numerous congratulatory telegrams, including 14 from college and university presidents and seven from state governors.

On March 14, 1935, Harrison died of heart failure, having collapsed just before a performance. Fifteen thousand people of all backgrounds came to pay their respects at Harrison's home the night before funeral services.  He was buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago.

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