Dr. Janette Hoston Harris, the District’s first “city historian” and founder of the Hall of Fame Society, was remembered Friday as a civil rights activist, educator and historian who worked hard to preserve the history of a people who left the segregated South to blaze a trail of opportunities for generations to come.
John Wesley AME Zion Church was packed with people and significance Thursday night and Friday morning as hundreds came out to pay their final respects to Harris, a resident of the District for 56 years who leaves behind a rich legacy of service, friends and memories.
Family members, friends and those part of the many organizations that Harris was part of remained at John Wesley AME Zion long after the tributes were over.
“She was always about education and history,” said Harris’ daughter Junie. “And when she combined that she always taught young people what they could do and not have any limits. She was enthused by young people and she told them, ‘don’t let society tell you what you can’t do.’”
In her life, Harris worked with presidents, several mayors and thousands of ordinary people through her clubs, classrooms and associations. She was campaign manager for the Carter-Mondale presidential re-election campaign, directed the Mayor’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations under former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, served as the first-ever appointed historian for the District of Columbia and was appointed by Mayor Muriel Bowser to the D.C. Commission to Commemorate and Recognize the Honorable Marion S. Barry Jr.
“She had a wealth of knowledge and was part of the struggle,” said former D.C. Councilman Vincent Orange. “She was a public servant who was always giving back, organizing at Southern University, hooked up with Thurgood Marshall, worked for Charles Wesley, she worked with all the giants.”
Harris also founded the D.C. Chapter of National Hook-Up of Black Women, D.C. Chapter of the Red Hat Society, and the Washington, D.C. Hall of Fame Society, which honors and showcases the rich history of Washington through its citizens. Harris owned J.H. Harris & Associates, LLC and was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., The Links, Inc., Continental Society, Inc., and the Alpha Wives, to name a few.
“The loss of Dr. Janette Hoston Harris, an outstanding civil rights leader and my friend, will be felt throughout the District of Columbia,” said D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. “At the same time that Dr. Harris built a reputation as a distinguished educator [and] she pursued many activities that rendered great public service to the community.”
Born Sept. 7, 1939, in Monroe, La., Harris’ mother was a homemaker and her father was a printer and businessman who opened the first shoe store in Louisiana for African Americans, Hoston’s Shoes and Bootery.
In 1956, Harris earned her high school diploma from Carroll High School in Monroe, where she was a member of the English and spelling bee clubs and the basketball team. From 1956 until 1960, Harris attended Southern University, where she was active in the Methodist club, a co-founder of Gamma Sigma Sigma sorority, and captain of the drill team.
But she put her college career on hold for a greater battle. She was arrested and expelled for leading a sit-in at S.H. Kress Lunch Counter on March 28, 1960. As a result of the incident, the governor of Louisiana prohibited her from attending any school in the state, spurring the Hoston family to move to Washington, D.C.
In 1960, Harris’s case challenging segregation, “Hoston v. the State of Louisiana,” went to the Louisiana Supreme Court. The case became part of a larger court challenge, “Garner v. Louisiana,” that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961 where it was argued and won by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in 1962.
Harris was determined to complete her education. She enrolled at Central State University, under President Charles Harris Wesley, in Wilberforce, Ohio, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1962. This same year, she wed Rudolph Harris, with whom she had two children, Rylan and Junie Harris.
Harris went on to earn a doctorate in history (1975) from Howard University. She worked for the Peace Corps and the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. She taught history in D.C. Public Schools, Afro American History of Women at the University of the District of Columbia, Bowie State University, and at Lorton prison, among others.
It was not an accident that during her two services that many of Harris close friends were people with doctorates and advanced degrees because Harris came from an era where education was the key that unlocked the door of success.
“Jeanette was the model of what my mother wanted me to be,” said Hilda Tippet. “She was a trailblazer, she was into civil rights and she was into people and she was into education.”
“She is a founder and the things that she started, continue,” added Tobey Horn.
Jeanette Mobley, former chief of staff for D.C. Councilman Kenyan McDuffie, called Harris “an icon.”
“We already know that she was a civil rights activist who started the sit-ins in Louisiana, but she just didn’t stop there,” Mobley said. “[She was] a wife a mother but she also found the time to give back to others.”
In 2004, Harris and the six other students who took part in the sit-in during the civil rights movement were invited back to Southern University where they received the degree that they were denied in 1960.
“The Southern University family expresses our deepest sympathies to the loved ones of Dr. Harris,” said Ray L. Belton, president of the Southern University System and chancellor of the Baton Rouge campus. “While a student here, she bravely participated in one of the most prolific sit-ins here in Baton Rouge as part of this nation’s civil rights movement. For this and her many contributions nationally, we will always salute her.”
In 2018, Harris was honored as the first inductee in the Southern University Alumni Hall of Fame and received the Washington, D.C. Hall of Fame Society’s Founders’ Award.
“When the Lord made Janette, he broke the mold,” said Orange’s wife Gwendolyn. “No one was like Jeanette Hoston Harris.”