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The Legacy Of ‘Reticent Disrupter’ Ruth Harris, An Early President Of Stowe Teachers College

Ruth Harris was appointed the president of Stowe Teachers College in 1940.
Via Vanessa Garry

Vanessa Garry is passionate about preparing aspiring administrators to lead today’s schools. As an assistant professor of educator preparation and leadership at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, she often finds herself looking to the past for some of the most important lessons she teaches.

That history is not always easy to grapple with, and Garry knows its ugliness better than most. The Missouri General Assembly’s 1847 passage of an act making it illegal to educate people of color is just one early example. Even after that changed in 1865, public schools were segregated by law.

By the early 20th century, African American communities were leading the way in search of progress and reform. And one of those leaders was growing up in St. Louis’ Ville neighborhood: Ruth Harris.

Described by Garry as a “reticent disrupter” in the Jim Crow era, Harris in 1940 became the first African American female president of Stowe Teachers College, which is now Harris-Stowe State University. This year marks the 80th anniversary of her appointment.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske talked with Garry about Harris’ life and legacy. Garry contributed a chapter about Harris to the forthcoming book “Mentoring as Critically Engaged Praxis: Storying The Lives and Contributions of Black Women.”

What first pique Garry’s interest in this early progressive feminist was actually a book Harris herself wrote, titled “Stowe Teachers College and Her Predecessors.”

“We are very lucky to have this book, because it is in her own words, and without it, we would not know as much about Harris-Stowe during the years that she was tenured,” Garry explained.

Vanessa Garry is an assistant professor of educator preparation and leadership at UMSL.
Credit Via Vanessa Garry
Vanessa Garry is an assistant professor of educator preparation and leadership at UMSL.

She noted that as a young adult Harris left her native St. Louis for college and graduate school in Chicago and New York, where she was freer to pursue higher education as a person of color.

“African Americans left Missouri during that time period, because they did not have alternatives other than Stowe and also Lincoln University,” Garry said.

When Harris moved back to her hometown, she returned as a woman on a mission. She developed seven key principles that guided her leadership of Stowe Teachers College, two of which Garry writes about in depth in a recent Journal of Urban History article.

One of those principles involved using Stowe as a cultural center.

“At that time, during Jim Crow era, of course African Americans were not always allowed to attend venues, theaters and concert halls,” Garry explained. “And so she created Stowe as a culture center, which allowed African Americans to be entertained and also to be presented with African American leaders at that time.”

Harris brought in luminaries including Benjamin Mays, Langston Hughes and John Hope Franklin among others during her presidency.

“The second thing that she did … was to allow pre-service teachers to go into the communities by volunteering at least 50 hours and working with these community organizations,” Garry added. “So they in turn would become very knowledgeable about these community institutions and would be able to serve or help parents of these students as they became full-time teachers.”

The conversation also touched on how Harris’ legacy has informed Garry’s own efforts to prepare contemporary principals and administrators for the educational challenges of today.

Listen:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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