A Colorful Life
Ruth Bates Harris may be one of the most significant people of which you have never heard. I discovered her story as I researched a story about her fourth husband, Alfred McKenzie, for my Adventist Historical Footprints blog. The more I learned about her, the more I knew I needed to share her story.
Born on August 27, 1919, in Washington, DC, Ruth never knew whether or not her parents were married. Raised by her father, Harry Delaney, for the first ten years of her life, she assumed her parents had divorced when she was very young. She was nearly forty years old when she unsuccessfully tried to obtain a copy of her birth certificate. It was her godmother who told her it had been filed under false names—her mother’s clumsy attempt to keep her away from her father. It did not work. When questioned, Ruth's mother remained coy about her relationship with Harry Delaney.
While Ruth’s father pampered her and tried his best, albeit sometimes unsuccessfully, to protect her from the harsh realities of life in Harlem, he also instilled her with strength, pride, confidence, and a love of learning. Due to his influence, as an adult Ruth was both a civil rights activist and a feminist.
By contrast, life with her mother, Florence Graham, with whom she lived in Richmond, Virginia, after the age of 10, was difficult. Shaped by both the Jim Crow South and her mother’s sanctimonious and parsimonious character, Ruth faced poverty, neglect, and discrimination throughout her teen years. Never close to her mother, Ruth always turned to her father when she was in crisis, however she did come to appreciate her mother in later life.
It was Ruth’s father who helped her complete college at Florida A & M University, after which she began her career as secretary to the president at Tuskegee Institute at the beginning of World War II. Thus, Ruth was in a position to become friends with many Tuskegee Airmen. It was the start of a lifetime association as Tuskegee veterans continued to enter both her professional and personal life forevermore. Ruth’s first husband, Charles Richard Foxx, Sr., was a flight instructor whom she married on October 2, 1942. However, the marriage did not survive the end of the war and was mutually dissolved. Her ex-husband took custody of their son, Charles Richard Foxx, Jr.
Following the end of the war, Ruth’s drive to succeed professionally kicked into high gear. At Alcorn College in Mississippi, she rose from secretary to recruiter and finally worked in public relations. In between, she was part of a three-person team which managed the college during the president’s leave of absence. This success was tempered by the dangers of a lone black woman traveling alone on recruitment assignments in the Deep South of the 1940s and 1950s, and the horrific scenes she might encounter. At least once, she came upon the body of a Black man who had been lynched.
In 1953, she returned to her father in New York City—due to a crisis in her second marriage. With years of work experience and a keen desire to further the cause of civil rights, she became the first African-American secretary at Philip Morris in collaboration with the National Urban League (1953-1958). She also completed an MBA at New York University in 1957.
Growing tired of New York City, in 1958 she moved to Washington, DC. Here she worked in management for Avon for a couple of years while volunteering with the Washington Urban League. It was a stepping stone. In 1960, she was offered a position that would propel her to the center of the civil rights movement in Washington, DC: director of research and education for the DC Commissioners’ Council on Human Relations. In this role, she was witness to many of the major historic civil rights events of the decade. It was exhilarating and stressful. While meeting famous and influential people, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., she also fielded hate mail and prank calls.
In the late 1960s, Ruth became the first director of the human relations department of the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. Her success in integrating the school system led to a speaking engagement at the Goddard Space Center, which brought her to NASA’s notice. She became NASA’s first Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) director on October 4, 1971. Thus, began a journey that made her the highest-ranking woman of any color at NASA when she was promoted to deputy assistant administrator in April 1973. Her success at NASA came with great professional and personal sacrifice. At the time, NASA’s workforce was 5.6% minority and 18% female, but almost all were employed as janitors and secretaries (Kim McQuaid). Six months after her promotion, Ruth was fired for a hard-hitting EEO report she co-authored with two others (one of whom was a former Tuskegee Airman, Samuel Lynn). Eleven months later she was reinstated after protests from civil rights organizations and three congressional hearings. In the meantime, NASA had already started implementing recommendations in the report.
The fulfillment Ruth found in her work came at a cost to her family. When she accepted the job at Alcorn College, her second husband, Bernard Bates, was also hired as a biology instructor. A World War II veteran, he suffered violent alcoholic episodes that led to several separations and reconciliations before they finally divorced in 1958. Ruth believed her independence and drive for success was a contributing factor to her husband’s problems. As with her first husband, she maintained a friendly relationship with Bernard. Although she was more involved in raising their son, Bernie, than she was with her elder son, he spent significant portions of time with his father who remained in New York.
Ruth married her third husband, Bryant G. “BG” Harris on October 11, 1962, while working for the Council on Human Relations. Although they enjoyed many happy years together, the stress of her years at NASA took their toll. By the time she left NASA in 1976, Ruth was completely burned out and her marriage was over. Temporarily retreating to New York, Ruth was recruited by the Department of the Interior for her final professional position.
In retirement Ruth remained active in the civil rights movement and was frequently honored for her accomplishments—she received more than 100 awards in her lifetime (obituary). After she married her fourth husband, former Tuskegee Airman Alfred U. McKenzie, in 1987, attending Tuskegee Airmen reunions restored friendships with airmen she had known during World War II.
Ruth Bates Harris McKenzie enjoyed a long retirement before her death on January 31, 2004.
If you're interested in learning more about Ruth Bates Harris, her memoir, Harlem Princess: The Story of Harry Delaney's Daughter (New York: Vantage Press, 1991) is a lively and interesting read. While it provides a strong sense of her personality, the chronology of her life and career is less clear. Still, it is the most complete source of information about her.