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History is on James Harrison’s side

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James Harrison

James Harrison, Instructor

Many people know Frederick Douglass as a former slave who became an American abolitionist, editor, orator, author, statesman and reformer. But many don’t know he was also a social justice activist who not only stood up against slavery, but traveled to Europe to discuss the treatment of the Irish and was a tireless activist for women’s rights.

“People didn’t know much about him,” said PCC History Instructor James S. Harrison. “He tried to see humanity as the most important issue. He’s my main hero.”

It’s these little twists on history, hidden gems about African-Americans that Harrison loves to tell people. If you are a staff member at the college, you may know that during the month of February Harrison emails the community with short passages on unknown historical figures, events or little-understood twists and turns.

His foray into the historical emails started about nine years ago when he wrote them for a diversity initiative at the Cascade Campus. During one MLK holiday, his email covered what African-Americans have done and achieved that most were not aware of. The interest in his history lessons grew and now every February, in honor of Black History Month, Harrison discusses these stories.

Harrison writes about people like Jo-Ann Robinson, an English professor from Alabama who helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott leading up to Dr. Martin Luther King’s most heralded speeches and marches.

“You think of him as the hero,” Harrison said. “But there were women who organized the marches and protests before him. There are so many women who never got the credit they deserve. These are things that happened that they didn’t teach in mainstream history books.”

Harrison himself was born in South Carolina and he moved with his mother and brother to Harlem when he was seven. He recalls that they were part of the great migration of African-Americans from the South to the North that populated large sections of the industrial North. However, he noticed little change at first.

“I went to segregated schools in Harlem,” Harrison recalled. “The difference was that all of the teachers in South Carolina were black while all of the teachers in Harlem were white.”

A decade of living in New York City opened him up to America as a multicultural society and opened his mind to a wider world. Harrison graduated from Hunter College in 1967 and volunteered for the Peace Corps. He lived in Sierra Leone, West Africa for two years.

“I taught in a secondary school there,” he said. “It was actually a life changing experience.”

Harrison taught and counseled in New York colleges and schools for many years following his return from Africa. After he became established there, Harrison wanted to move on and see the country so he took a road trip that eventually landed him in Portland.

“I thought that Oregon wasn’t such a bad place,” he said.

Once here he taught social sciences at three Portland Public Schools for 18 years and even served as the principal of a Catholic grade school. But in 1993, Harrison was looking for something more stimulating. He was hired as a part-time history instructor at the Cascade Campus and made full time status in 1995.

“I was looking for another challenge,” Harrison explains. “I found PCC as a challenge worth taking. It’s the longest I have been at any one place. And it’s still a challenge.”

His most prized part of teaching?

“It’s the students,” Harrison said with a smile. “The main thing is that they want to learn something and will ask questions. When they do that they discover a lot of things that were told them in school were only half the story. I want to open their minds. My goal is to have them think critically and think of what they can do to make the world a better place.”

Harrison will open more than just his students’ minds. February is almost upon us and Harrison already has his emails ready to go to open the minds of the PCC community at-large.

“I focus on topics that didn’t make it into the history books,” he said. “They are events that history has glossed over because in the past, textbook editors didn’t want anything controversial in the books.”

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, is the Public Relations Manager at Portland Community College. A graduate of Portland State University, James has worked as a section editor for the Newberg Graphic, Wo... more »