For Dr. Joseph Harris, education was always at the center of his life. As a young boy his family urged him to choose school over farm labor. He did and thus began his life-long love of learning, of history, and of teaching. He talks about it all in his interview with museum docent, Sheryl Washington. Click here for the video.
After high school and a year at Hampton Institute, he enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. As he says, that is where he discovered his "Africanity."
Dr. Harris went on to earn his PhD in history from Northwestern University. Several years ago, he donated his personal papers to the school.
In his long teaching career Dr. Harris became one of the pre-eminent professors in African History with a focus on the African diaspora.
His teaching career included Howard University, serving as Chairman of the Department of History from 1975 to 1981. He also held positions at Morgan State College, Loch Haven State College in Pennsylvania, State University of New York, Williams College, and visiting professorships at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Nairobi, Kenya.
Dr. Harris is the author of four books, and he edited five others on Africans, their history, and their global influence. He published more than 75 articles and chapters in other books on the diaspora. Many of those publications have been translated into Arabic, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. His research and writings impact higher education and international studies around the world.
He called his work on Global Dimensions of the African Diaspora his most important. He was the editor of the book.
The book includes two chapters that he wrote, describing, as he sees it, the importance of the movement of Africans around the globe. Multiple authors contributed to the book, writers from Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, as well as the United States.
Published in 1982, this graduate level textbook is still in use today.
His most popular textbook is Africans and Their History. It was first published in 1972. Now in its third edition, this textbook is also still in use today. You'll find it in classrooms in the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa.
Here is how one book seller describes the book: "The truth about Africa's heritage is as complex as it is elusive. This concise overview is a major step toward understanding the diverse societies on the African continent, and a documentation of the way Western writers have distorted images of Africa as far back as the Greco-Roman period. Incisive and authoritative, this invaluable work by a leading black scholar splendidly chronicles Africa's development."
Dr. Harris’ groundbreaking study focused on the African diaspora beyond Europe and the Western world, into the Middle East and Asia. He mapped out a very active slave trade in the east and north of Africa, well before the Atlantic Slave Trade emerged. For many decades, he was the “go to” professor on the African diaspora and the impact Africans and their descendants had across the globe, earning him the nickname of “Mr. African Diaspora.”
During his very active career, in 1979, he convened the first African Diaspora Studies Institute at Howard University where delegates from English- and French-speaking African nations met to discuss the development of educational programs and research in their respective countries. It was this conference that set the stage for the publication of the book, Global Dimensions of the African Diaspora.
A second conference was convened in Kenya a few years later as a follow up to the meeting at Howard University.
A third conference was convened in Colombia, South America in 1984, following the agenda of the previous conferences.
Beyond these conferences, Dr. Harris traveled to Africa quite often to speak at universities. Pictured below, Dr. Harris is greeting students at the University of Liberia where he spoke on African and African American relations.
Dr. Harris’ awards and honors are numerous, including being designated Distinguished Professor at Howard University in 1992 and receiving the President’s Gold Medal at his retirement ceremony in 2003. In 1999 he received a lifetime achievement award from the National Museum of American History.
More recently, in 2022, he received the Martin Luther King Legacy Award for Leadership in Education and History.
The award was presented in Washington, D.C.
It was in 2000 when Dr. Harris and his wife Rosemarie moved to Venice Beach, Maryland. Today, they are full-time residents.
The couple cherishes their family time and enjoys the relaxed pace of life on the water.
In his interview with docent Sheryl Washington, Dr. Harris reflects on his career, the choices he had to make along the way, the love of his life – Rosemarie, and his enduring legacy as an African history scholar. Their conversation took place at the Frederick Douglass Museum and Cultural Center.
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