Harris As An African American Last Name

There were 264,620 black Americans with Harris as their last name in the 2010 U.S. Census. This was 42% of the total number with that name in the country.

This article looks at:

  • 19th and early 20th-century black census numbers for the name
  • notable African American people named Harris
  • early black military records and how to find them

Harris Before The Civil War

The 1850 census was the first to record all free members of households together. Before this, people who were not white were not named in the federal census.

In 1850, there was a box to enter color on the census. It was left blank to denote white, b for black, or m for mulatto. The third term is the language of the time. I will use mixed in the rest of this article.

If you are researching your black Harris ancestors in census archives, be sure to search under both categories. Do not rely on the census taker getting the category right.

1850 Federal Census

There were 2,183 people named Harris who were recorded as black in the 1850 census. 952 were recorded as mixed.

Because they are in the main federal census, these are free citizens.

There was a total of 46,180 free citizens named Harris that year.

1860 Federal Census

The 1860 federal census recorded 2,295 people named Harris as black, and 1,159 as mixed.

That is out of a total of 54,584 free citizens.

Of course, census-taking would change after the Civil War.

After The Civil War

Newly freed family in Richmond, Virginia in 1865

The 1870 census was the first after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. At last, all African Americans are included.

Those who were omitted in 1860 because they were enslaved are now in this census. Here are the numbers.

27,867 people named Harris were recorded in the 1870 census as black and 4,459 as mixed.

The increase is clear. The overall total (all Americans) was 99,308.

The 1880 census recorded 40,999 as black and 7,375 as mixed out of a total of 128,472.

Now we jump to the end of the 19th century – or the beginning of the 20th.

Harris In The 1900 And 1940 Census

In 1900, the mixed category was dropped. However, not all enumerators followed those instructions. I have found a small number of records where “m” was still used in the box for color.

I will focus here on the black numbers.

The 1900 census recorded 70,595 people named Harris as black within a total of 190,618.

There were 102,265 people named Harris recorded in the 1940 census as black within a total of 314,610.

Historic Black Figures With The Harris Surname

Here are some notable figures in history with Harris as their last name.

Catherine Harris

  • Born: 1809
  • Died: 1907
  • From: Meadville, Pennsylvania

Catherine Harris was widowed in 1830 and moved with her child to New York. She married a barber and worked as a maid and cook.

Her husband, John Harris, grew a successful business. He was able to buy a house in Charlestown in 1838.

Slave hunters were rampant, and Catherine hid fugitives in the attic of their house. She turned it into an active station on the underground railroad.

The Underground Railroad was a vast network of secret routes and safe houses organized by many abolitionists and rights activists. It helped thousands of enslaved people escape from the South.

Mary Richardson Jones was another wife of a successful businessman who turned their home into a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Nathan Harris

  • Born: before 1830
  • From: Anne Arundel County, Maryland

William Still was a member of the Underground Railroad committee in Philadelphia. He kept substantial notes on fugitives who they helped. He published the notes in a book in 1872.

Nathan Harris appears in the book as part of a duo who escape together from Maryland. It was his friend Robert Fisher who first made up his mind to flee from bondage.

But Nathan didn’t need much persuading.

The book doesn’t reveal their age but explains that they didn’t believe they would be freed when they reached twenty-five, which was the current law in Maryland. It may have been the law, but many owners didn’t observe it.

The two men found their way to the Underground Railway committee in Philadelphia who helped them on their way further north to safety.

You can read the full account in our excerpt on two fugitives from Anne Arundel and the Underground Railroad.

John Harris

  • Born: 1859
  • From: San Francisco, California

John Harris was denied entry to a swimming complex in San Francisco in 1897.

Harris sued the mayor and the pool’s owner. Local black leaders backed Harris with financial assistance.

Despite hostile media coverage, Harris won his case. The jury awarded the lowest damages that they could, but it was still an important milestone in the history of Civil Rights in America.

Bernard Harris

  • Born: 1956
  • From: San Antonio, Texas

Bernard Harris studied biology at the University of Houston and earned an MD (medicine) at Texas Tech University in 1982. He joined NASA’s AMES Research Center in Silicon Valley in 1987 and trained as an Air Force flight surgeon a year later.

Harris moved to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to research measures to protect astronauts’ bodies during extended space flights.

Like many teenage boys, the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 had made the young Bernard Harris want to become an astronaut. This aspiration came true in 1991, when he was selected by NASA as a mission specialist for the Space Shuttle program.

His first mission was flying on the Columbia in April 1963 when he conducted biological research as a member of the payload crew. Harris was payload commander on STS-63 in February 1995, the first joint American-Russian mission.

On that flight, Bernard Harris became the first African American to walk in space. This picture (credit: NASA) shows the historic event:

Other black astronauts

Harris In Black Military Records

You may be surprised at the amount of genealogy information available from military records.

Here are some examples of the Harris surname from three different military services:

  • Civil war soldiers
  • Civil war sailors
  • Tuskegee airmen

Black Civil War Soldiers

Five regiments for black soldiers were formed during the Civil War. They were often known as Buffalo Soldiers.

The army records are part of the national archive of military monthly returns. The information includes the year and place of birth, where they enlisted, their occupation, and their height.

If you want to do your own research, there is a free index of these military records on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org.

Here are just two Civil War soldiers named Harris.

James Harris

James Harris was awarded the Medal of Honor, which is the highest American military award. The citation was for “gallantry in the assault” and it was for his actions at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm.

James was born in Maryland and enlisted in 1864 in the 38th Colored Troops regiment. Starting as a private, he had been promoted to Sergeant by September.

That month, his regiment attacked the Confederate Texas Brigade. The first assault was rebuffed, but Harris was one of three men who headed the second attempt.

The trio breached the defenses and fought in fierce hand-to-hand combat. With their comrades joining from behind, they routed the Confederates.

Harris was given the Medal of Honor in 1874.

James Henry Harris, 1828-1898

Willis Harris

Another early military record in the archives for Harris appears in 1867. Willis Harris was a Recruit in the Tenth Cavalry, which means he enlisted after the Civil War.

Willis was stationed in 1867 at Fort Riley, Kansas.

Black Civil War Sailors

The National Parks Service has a free archive of African American sailors during the Civil War.

The information includes their age, height, rank, occupation, and where and when they enlisted. It also includes every ship that they served on.

You can search the database on the National Parks website.

Abraham Harris

One of the earliest entries for the surname concerned Abraham Harris from Princeton, New Jersey. He enlisted in 1861 aged 21.

His occupation before enlisting was as a Cook. His naval rank was Ordinary Seaman.

An ordinary seaman in the Navy is an apprentice who serves on the deck.

Benjamin Harris

One of the later entries was for a sailor who enlisted in 1864. Benjamin was aged 27 and was from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

His occupation before enlisting was as a Barber. His naval rank was Landsman.

“Landsman” was the lowest rank at the time and was given to recruits with little sea experience.

Tuskegee Airmen

The Tuskegee Airmen were military personnel who served at the Tuskegee Army Airfield or related programs.

Nearly one thousand black pilots graduated from the Tuskegee Institute. They flew single-engine fighter planes or twin-engine bombers. 352 fought in combat.

This photograph is from the Library of Congress archive. It is thought to be classroom training for the pilots.

Archie Harris graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant from the Tuskegee Institute in 1944. He qualified as a bomber pilot. Archie was from Ocean City, New Jersey.

Richard Harris came from Montgomery, Alabama. He trained as a fighter pilot and graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1943.