Durham City Council with Rencher Nicholas “R. N.” Harris, First African-American City Council Member

Durham City Council with Rencher Nicholas "R. N." Harris, First African-American City Council Member

May 6, 1953 swearing-in ceremony of newly elected city council members, left to right: Floyd Fletcher, Mayor Emanuel “Mutt” Evans, Clarence Whitefield, Watts Carr, Jr., Justice of the Peace S. O. Riley, R. N. Harris, E. R. Williamson, and J. E. Strawbridge.

In 1953 Rencher Nicholas Harris (1900-1965), third from the right, became the first African American elected to the Durham City Council. Characterized by a “quiet resistance under pressure” and possessing a “genuine desire to find common ground with whites,” he was able to implement policy changes that accelerated school desegregation, housing equality, and improved race relations in Durham. In addition to serving on the city council from 1953 to 1957, in 1958 Harris became the first black man to sit on the Durham City Board of Education.

The May 9, 1953, edition of The Carolina Times celebrated his historic victory, proclaiming:

It finally happened. After nearly a decade of fruitless attempts by several Negro candidates to obtain seats on Durham’s City Council, a Negro was at last elected to serve on the government body. In an unprecedented show of liberality, Durham’s voters went to the polls Tuesday and elected R. N. Harris, affable insurance executive, to the Third Ward seat.