In memory of Grace E. Harris, Ph.D.
Dear social work community,
The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work was founded on the ideas of building community and addressing the inequities and social injustices of the day. Few people have embodied these values as perfectly as Grace E. Harris, Ph.D. (M.S.W. ‘60/SW).
That is why her death on Monday, Feb. 12, at the age of 84, is a loss for not only the School of Social Work, but for the larger university and the Richmond community.
Grace was a dedicated servant leader. She looked for those in need, and connected them with the supports, resources and guidance necessary to succeed. And, above all else, Grace was an amazing friend to all, inspirational colleague and a symbol of positive change for all social workers.
Her spirit of generosity is exemplified in her service to VCU, which she helped transform into a nationally recognized urban research institution. Grace’s dedication is even more extraordinary when I think about her earliest interaction with the university. After persevering in a segregated school system in Halifax County, Va., and attending Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, Grace was one of five African American students to spend a semester at Grinnell College studying interracial understanding in school systems. However, when she applied to Richmond Professional Institute, a predecessor to VCU that was then part of the College of William and Mary, in 1954, she was denied admission on the basis of race. She instead enrolled at Boston University, where Martin Luther King Jr. was her classmate.
While many would have understandably forged a different path, much to our benefit, Grace’s connection to RPI — and later VCU — did not end with this moment. She returned to RPI in 1959 and earned a master’s degree in social work, and later joined the School of Social Work faculty. Her nearly 50-year journey at VCU eventually led her to become the first African American woman provost, and later acting president of the university.
Grace began her journey with VCU as a faculty member of the School of Social Work. While I did not have the honor to work with her while she was at the school, I did have the opportunity to learn from Grace as a participant in The Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute.
As I recount Grace’s educational and professional paths, I am humbled by her fortitude and perseverance. She was steadfast in her personal dedication to education and supporting the university that she loved. For so many of us at VCU, Grace illustrated the meaning of compassionate leadership and a passion for those we serve.
For those who would like to remember and recognize Grace’s many gifts to VCU, and to the School of Social Work, her family has requested contributions be made to the VCU School of Social Work Dr. Grace E. Harris Scholarship. For information about the scholarship, the communities it supports or how to give, please contact the School of Social Work at firstname.lastname@example.org. Written remembrances may be sent to the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute at Millhiser House, 916 W. Franklin, Suite 102, Box 842028, Richmond, VA 23284.
I will always remember Grace speaking about the importance of listening, and she challenged all of us to think about the greater impact of our actions. I am grateful to have had the chance to learn from her, and I am grateful for the opportunity carry on her legacy of justice and equality by serving all of you.
Tim L. Davey, Ph.D.
CU School of Social Work