Margaret Harris is dedicated to serving Yazoo

By CATHRYN CARTWRIGHT,

The word "Dedication" is defined as the quality of being committed to a specific task or purpose, and a feeling of strong support or loyalty to someone or something.

Margaret Harris is the true definition of this word after devoting nearly three decades of her life as a school teacher and administrator.  Today she still continues to support her community after her retirement, as she enters into her tenth year as treasurer for the Yazoo County Fair and Civic League.

Harris was born on March 2, 1946, in an area of Yazoo City once known as "Gooch's Quarters."  This collection of orange houses was located on a plot of land adjacent to a sawmill and lumber yard owned by the Gooch family, in the area of 12th Street and Grady Avenue, where Willow Wood and Valley View Apartments, and Thomas Christian Academy stand today.

Growing up, Harris said that she and her mother Velma Harris, lived with her grandfather Wyatt Harris and her great-grandmother Pinkie Harris.

It was a happy time for Harris, she said, because there were always lots of children to play with and always plenty of activities to keep them busy, such as making mud cakes, playing hopscotch and baseball, and also building houses from the scrap wood they found lying around the lumber yard.

"My biggest thrill as a child was when we got a TV in the fall of 1954," she said. "I came home and saw that big antenna on top of the house, and I was just too thrilled."

Harris said that when she wasn't reading or outside playing, she was helping around the house doing chores or keeping the hot water reservoir filled next to their old wood-burning stove.

Harris began her education at the age of four when her family sent her to kindergarten at St. Stephen's church.  She was five years old when she started first grade at the Yazoo City Training School, which was originally located where Woolfolk Middle School is today.

"My time at school was beautiful to me because I had some wonderful teachers," she said.

In 1963, at the age of 17, Harris graduated from Yazoo City Training school with the title of class Salutatorian.

"Because I was Salutatorian, I had many academic scholarships offered to me," she said. "I had one to Jackson State, Valley offered me a scholarship, and so did Alcorn.  But I turned them down because I wanted to go up to Chicago."

Harris managed to convince her mother to let her travel to Chicago for one year, and after attending classes at a local trade school, she landed a job doing data entry work on early-model computers for the city of Chicago.

For the next nine years, Harris worked with early computers and machines the size of a classroom, making punch cards with data that would be fed into the huge machines and processed.

"I went to computer school for six months to get that training," she said. "You worked on a little machine making those punch cards, and then they would be run through a bigger computer which would read the cards and check the work."

Harris lived in Chicago for 10 years before she decided that she and her 8-year-old daughter Bonita needed a change of scenery.  It was a turbulent time back then in Chicago, and she thought it would be best to return to Mississippi.

"I came back to Mississippi in 1973," she said. "I just couldn't see my daughter growing up in Chicago.  At that time with the gangs and everything, it was turning bad. So, I brought her back to Yazoo City to live with my mother, and she finished school here."

With her daughter in the care of her family members in Yazoo City, Harris took her nine years of data entry experience with computers and met with a representative of the Kelly Girls job placement agency in Jackson.

"They immediately sent me to work at the Commerce General Corporation, which was located inside of the Standard Life Building in Jackson," she said. "We did computation work for some of the banks who didn't have their own computers.  They would bring their work to us and then we would send it out or do whatever else we needed to do."

It was around this time when Harris started her new job in Jackson, that she made the decision to go back to college and get a degree.  With the help and support of her former teachers at the Yazoo City Training School, she enrolled as an undergraduate at Jackson State University in the fall of 1973.

"I went to class all day and worked sometimes eight or nine hours a night," she said. "I did that for four years, but I finally graduated with my degree in Special Education in 1977."

With her newly obtained college degree, Harris soon made her way back to Yazoo City in 1978, working at a daycare center during the summer months until the school year began.

"That fall I began working at the Yazoo County Schools office under Mr. H.A. Scott, who was the Federal Programs Director," she said. "I was the program director for special education, so I traveled to all of the schools in the county which was Holly Bluff, Satartia, Gibbs, Bentonia High, Benton, and Linwood."

Harris worked as a special education administrator for the Yazoo County Schools until 1987, when she made the decision to move into the Yazoo City School system to work with handicapped children at Webster Elementary.

"I had a room of 18 children and two assistants," she said. "Some of the children were in wheelchairs, and some had such emotional or behavioral problems that all you could do was hold them and rock. But I did that at Webster for about two years."

It was not long before the Yazoo City Schools discovered that Harris had experience as a special education administrator, and she was quickly asked to move into a new position where she could handle paperwork and work on a resource basis.

"They knew I had a background in administration," she said. "They wanted me to be more or less where I could handle a lot of the paperwork. I still had a class, but it was more on a resource basis for the children who were learning disabled, which means they would come to me for help from the other rooms and then go back, so I still had time to do the paperwork."

Harris worked in this capacity as a resource teacher at Annie Ellis Elementary School until 2003 when McCoy Elementary School was built.  She continued her work at McCoy until she retired from the Yazoo City Schools in 2007.

"Between the county and the city schools, I had 29 years total when I retired, but I also had those many years prior to that in data processing," she said. "I said to myself 'It's time to go home,' well that's what I thought anyway."

Though retired from full-time teaching, Harris said that she still used her skills as a psychometrist to test students for the gifted programs in the area schools.  While this got her out of the house every now and then for two years, Harris said it still wasn't enough to keep her busy.

Thanks to her close friendship with Mr. H.A. Scott, Harris had become a member of the Yazoo County Fair and Civic League in the 1990s.  She was not long retired before the League came calling for her to join their efforts to support the elderly and disabled of the community, and cultural preservation.

"I came to this office and started working for the League in 2009," she said. "I work as the treasurer, managing the funds, and Edith Myles works with me as the secretary.

The mission statement of the Yazoo County Fair and Civic League is "to provide affordable housing alternatives for the very low to moderate income populations including the elderly and/or disabled, and cultural enrichment to the overall Yazoo Community."

As far as community housing is concerned, Harris works alongside the League Management Team to not only keep up with funding and paperwork, but also do site visits and checks on both tenants and apartments in the complexes they sponsor in Yazoo City, Clarksdale, and Meridian.

"The cultural enrichment includes the Oakes House on Monroe Hill that we are trying to get going again," she said. "We recently got a grant through the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to do some repairs on the house, and we have partnered with an architect to do some ground work and leveling over there."

Harris said that this home, which was originally built by a prominent African American family, is now called the Oakes African American Cultural Museum, and houses a great deal of Yazoo City's cultural history.

The Yazoo County Fair and Civic League is always accepting new members, and dues are only $20 per year, Harris said.

"We really need more members," she said. "The more membership we have, the better it is. We need volunteers for programs that we do during the year."

Harris said that the board of directors meets once a month, and members are welcome to sit in during the meetings to learn how the organization works, or what they are doing in the community.

"We have an annual meeting for all members in the fall, usually in November," she said. "And in the summer we have the Oakes Banquet which raises funds to help preserve the Oakes House."

The Yazoo County Fair and Civic League office is located inside of the L.T. Miller Community Center on Lamar Avenue in Yazoo City.  Harris said that anyone with questions can call during their regular office hours from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. by dialing 746-7984.

Though Harris said she has been working for the League for the last ten years, she enjoys having a place to go every day to stay busy and keep her mind sharp.  She encourages other retirees to start volunteering as a way to get out of the house and stay active.

"It makes me feel good to have something to get up and go do every day." Harris said. "If I can help somebody or be of some kind of service or something to somebody, in some kind of way, I feel like it's worthwhile."