Remembering An Unsung African-American Hero

A Personal Perspective

Southeast Queens is home to countless African Americans who grew up in the Jim Crow south, and I am proud to say that I know many of these wonderful people.

I recently received an email forwarded from one such resident. Lemuel Copeland, a retired New York City social worker who grew up in segregated Virginia and is a treasure in our community.

I am often reminded during Black History Month, in particular, of how fortunate those of us who did not live the Jim Crow experience are to have him and so many others in our midst.

So, the reason for Copeland’s email this week was to share an announcement from the president of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), his alma mater. The president, Dr. Michael Rao, released a lengthy statement following the death of an alumna and stalwart social work professor, Dr. Grace E. Harris. The life-long educator was 84 years old.

As it turns out, Harris had been an important mentor to Copeland while he was a student at VCU, and Rao’s “remembrance” memo inspired Copeland’s recollection below.

“This trailblazing daughter of Jim Crow Virginia had a real impact on my own professional and educational development. As a social worker for the NYC Department of Welfare/Social Services in 1968, I was, at first, rejected for a two-year paid educational leave program to attend Richmond Professional Institute (RPI). At that time, Atlanta and Howard universities were the only schools of social work south of the Mason Dixon on the approved list that New York City social workers could attend. When I informed the RPI admissions office of this city policy, Professor Harris was sent to New York to meet with me and, subsequently, plead the case with the New York City Social Service Administration to allow New York City employees to attend RPI.”

“As a result,” he said, “New York City changed its policy and I attended RPI, receiving a MSW degree in 1970. In 1969, RPI merged with the Medical College of Virginia (MCV), becoming Virginia Commonwealth University. When I graduated from Virginia State College, I, along with other African Americans, were denied admission to RPI and any of the white graduate schools in Virginia. Professor Harris took a keen interest in my welfare. I subsequently learned that in her pleadings with NYC, she had made a commitment that there would be no racial considerations in field placement assignments. My first year field placement was with the Henrico County Juvenile Probation Department.

My second-year placement was with the Richmond City Welfare Commissioner’s Office, also a first.

As Copeland’s narrative suggests, Grace Harris touched the lives of countless students over the course of her 49-year teaching career at the university.

Rao echoes those sentiments as well—and in doing so, they both remind us of the importance of caring mentors. Their impacts are life-altering. It also proves that not all of our civil rights activists were necessarily big names in the Civil Rights Movement.

Many contributed without fanfare through quiet activism in academia, healthcare, social welfare and much more.

As Rao said in his announcement to the VCU alumni community, “Grace was a giant in legacy and in character, a woman whose contributions to VCU and to the countless lives we touch are truly immeasurable. She joined our faculty in 1967 and helped us become one of the nation’s premier urban public research universities and, maybe more than anyone, personified our commitment to serve the public good.”

Grace Harris lived up to the biblical name bestowed by her parents. As her students would likely say, she was grace under pressure and grace personified—all for their greater good. We could also say that she was an unsung civil rights hero.

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