Imogene Harris cultivated generations of Black talent and character

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Vernon A. Williams

By Vernon A. Williams

The single greatest influence in my writing career is Imogene Harris. While I developed the instinct to capture words on paper before meeting the Gary Info Newspaper guru in my junior year at Gary Roosevelt High School, her allowing me to launch the column, “On the Teen Scene” laid an unshakeable foundation for my aspirations.

The consummate role model, she made me learn by doing. In giving me the creative space to generate ideas for topics and approaches to coverage, she raised my level of maturity in areas of concept organization, decision making, presentation and responsibility as a journalist.

Perhaps most importantly, Mrs. Harris and her soulmate James T. (J.T.) Harris taught me that writing style might be enough to engage readers but purpose and substance in writing were far more compelling and fulfilling. The Harrises taught generations of fledgling young journalists to be unapologetically Black and to write with principle.

When I graduated, Mrs. Harris wondered if “On the Teen Scene” could be sustained – if I knew a student with similar energy and resourcefulness. I introduced her to Robin Marcus (now Vasquez) at Horace Mann High School.

On the transition of our mentor, I reached out to Robin in Washington D.C. and asked her to share this Imogene Harris retrospective. These are her warm reflections:

I have far too many fond and still vivid memories of my years with James and Imogene Harris down in that basement print shop on Broadway that housed Harris Printing and Gary INFO. It’s impossible to isolate any one or two above the others. I remember late Wednesday nights when we put the paper to bed and I’d drag myself home in the wee hours after measuring column inches, learning how to edit, chatting with my adult colleagues as they contributed their work sometimes at the last minute.

As I recall, Vernon called me out of the blue to tell me, in that sonorous, preacherly baritone of his, that he’d decided I should be his On the Teen Scene column successor, expected to take over when he graduated in 1969. I heard it as a fait accompli, a done deal. And listen, maybe he had the voice of God, but I could have said ‘no.’ Like many teenagers I didn’t always make decisions that were in my best interests and certainly not the kind that would have the kind of life-long impact that saying “yes” to that anointing has had.

Turning my column in was always one of the highlights of my week. Incorporating my incubating ideas about radical/revolutionary activism – views that have matured and evolved but never dimmed – made me believe that I was a part of larger, dynamic conversations around race and justice that were exploding paradigms across the nation. It was my entrée. I signed off my column with “Free Angela” for a time and Mrs. Harris never blinked. She was an editor who was your partner, not your co-writer or over-writer as some editors can be. She encouraged a writer’s growth, if that was what they desired, or helped them sharpen their voice and fully occupy their lane, if staying on a beat was their preference.

I look at my time with them, and under their mentorship, as the beginning of my learning writer’s discipline and how to indulge my curiosity, particularly in the journalism/reporter phases of my writing life. In fact, she set me up as an On the Campus Case reporter when I left for Howard University and on summer break between freshman and sophomore years, gave me a press pass then, trusting my very green chops, sent me on assignments covering local politics and city events.

What are even more vivid are the emotional memories, the feelings that are stirred by remembering this nurturing and remarkable couple who were so approachable (in spite of Mrs. Harris’ take no BS persona) and their generosity. Their encouragement conferred a kind of confirmation that all young artists need, it wasn’t always easy but they were always fair. Because of them I was recognized as a writer by my community, people listened to me and responded to what I wrote.

Mrs. Harris was exacting; her expectations were high and I tried not to ever disappoint her. She in turn, treated our work with respect: she paid me on time, $14 a week, (I think) every week, when that was a nice piece of change. I’ve written for other Black publishers since then; publications you would recognize if I revealed them. Both treated paying their writers like an afterthought, a chore to be completed when other debts had been covered.

As their daughter Temple-Jene and I became close friends, I would see the Harrises (and meet Gaylyn), away from their professional lives, in their homes, when both seemed equally relaxed. They were just as deferential to each other, supportive of each other and committed to providing a home where not only their daughters but all visitors felt embraced, as they were to making INFO an incubator for writers. They were two of the finest people I’ve ever known. Having lost my mother four years ago, this subject tugs at a grief that will likely never leave – nor do I expect it to. Grieving morphs from one manifestation to another, I’ve learned, but is one of the ways that “mommie” remains with me.

An event like the passing of Mrs. Harris revives it a bit and I understand in my bones how Temple and Gaylyn feel. There’s no pain like this loss and no one will feel it as deeply as they will. But it’s also a loss for all of you who knew them as well. I would never be able to properly thank the Harrises for their confidence in me and their presence in those earliest and wild years. But I hope that I have loaded some of their ethic inside my pens and keyboards over the years, that my writing has served Black people and our collective liberation. And I’d want them to know that I loved them. – Robin Vasquez

CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: vernonawilliams@yahoo.com.

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