Catherine Harris – Bicentenial Biography No. 20

Bicentennial Biographies is a not-for-profit radio project designed to raise awareness and increase interest in local history. It is brought to you as a public service by the Chautauqua County Historical Society throughout 2011 to celebrate the county’s 200th birthday. To learn more, visit www.McClurgMuseum.org or contact your local historical society.

Catherine Harris (Image courtesy of StarNewsDaily.com)

Catherine Dickes Harris was born on a farm near Meadville, Pa. on June 10, 1809.  Her father was a free black man and her mother was a white woman of Dutch decent. In 1828 at the age of 19, Catherine married for the first time and moved from Meadville to Buffalo, N.Y. Her husband died, leaving her with one daughter, and together they moved to Jamestown, N.Y. in 1831, becoming the first black residents of the growing community.

In 1835, she married her second husband, John Harris, and they moved into a small house at 12 West Seventh Street. More African-Americans began moving to the area around the Harris home and by the 1849 it was referred to as Africa, with nearly 100 blacks living in that part of town.

It’s not known when Harris began serving as a conductor of the Underground Railroad, but it is know that she was one of the few black in the entire United States to maintain a station. It’s said that she could hide as many as 17 runaway slaves at one time in the attic of the original house. In 1852, John Harris passed away. In 1881, her home became the site of the A.M.E. Zion Church in Jamestown and in time it served as the church’s parsonage.

The historic marker noting the home of Catherine Harris

In the last years of her life, she was known as Jamestown’s oldest citizen and was known throughout the community for her kindness and happy disposition. Catherine Harris died of pneumonia on February 12, 1907 at the age of 97. In appreciation and in honor of Mrs. Harris’ contributions to the history of Jamestown and to blacks of generations past and present, the church erected a monument marking her grave in Lakeview Cemetery in March 1976.

Ref: African American History of Western New York; B. Dolores Thompson –  “The Circle Of Distinction Welcomes Catherine Harris,” Post-Journal, 10 March 1984; Obituary of Catherine Harris, Jamestown Evening Journal, 13 Feb 1907

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– J. Sample

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