A trailblazer for African Americans in the medical profession, Dr. Herbert C. Harris was born on Feb. 4, 1928, to Emanuel Mason Harris, a school principal in Tucker, Ark., and Lillie Maude Tucker, his stay-at-home wife.
Their son, who was one of seven children, would go on to attend Arkansas AM&N College — later to become University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, one of the historically black colleges and universities — where he excelled at both academics and athletics. After graduating, he served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, where he achieved the rank of sergeant.
Returning from the war, he enrolled at the groundbreaking Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. — the first medical school in the South for African Americans, chartered in 1915 — where he obtained his degree in dentistry in 1959.
He’d complete an internship in oral surgery at the famed Harlem Hospital in New York City in 1960, returning to Chicago, the city where he’d met his wife, to begin a successful dental practice of 40 years on the South Side.
Dr. Harris died Friday at ManorCare of Oak Lawn, from prostate cancer. He was 91.
“He had such a brilliant intellect and such a generous heart for family, scholars and community. He was so service-oriented. He taught me how to live a selfless life,” said his wife of 60 years, the Rev. Mildred C. Harris, founder and pastor of Chicago’s God First Church and Ministries in South Shore.
Dr. Harris, who obtained his master’s of public health from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1976, was the longtime proprietor of the Chatham-Avalon Medical Center — the largest African-American-owned medical center on the city’s South Side. He opened it in 1986, selling it when he retired in the late ’90s.
Listed in Who’s Who in America, Dr. Harris was a lifetime member of the NAACP and member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Founder and CEO of the former Daniel Hale Williams Health Center, he was past president of the Lincoln Dental Society and a member of the National Dental Association, American Public Health Association and several other organizations.
Dr. Harris remained devoted to Meharry throughout his lifetime, serving on the college’s board of trustees and as president of the Meharry National Alumni Association. He is credited with training and supporting untold numbers of aspiring physicians through generous contributions of both time and money to the historic school.
“Dr. Harris was the most exemplary alumnus of Meharry whom I ever met,” said Henry Moses, a Meharry professor emeritus and executive director of the alumni association. “He mentored. He advised. He gave significant financial support and practiced excellent dentistry.”
Dr. Kimbra Bell, assistant professor of clinical medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, who currently serves on Meharry’s board of trustees and is current president of its national alumni association, added, “Dr. Harris was a Meharry legend. He was a very devoted and impassioned Meharrian, truly invested in the success of the college. He was an incredible man. I am honored to follow in his steps.”
Myriad scholarships established by the late dentist include the Drs. Herbert C. and Mildred C. Scholarship Fund for students interested in dentistry at Meharry, and the Herbert Harris Family Foundation Scholarship at U of A Pine Bluff. The recipient of numerous professional awards, he was honored with his undergraduate alma mater’s Legacy Award in 2017.
“It is in the selfless life that we live a victorious life, and so I’m just so grateful to God for giving him to me as a husband,” said his wife. “He had a passion for what he was able to accomplish as a physician. It was a high bar for him, and he was able to jump that bar. So he just kept pouring back into trying to encourage others, to let them know that they too, if they had a vision and stayed with that vision, that they could fulfill the dream of the vision they had within.”
Besides his wife, he is survived by a host of nieces and nephews.
Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Cosmopolitan Community Church, 5249 S. Wabash Ave. Visitation will be at 10 a.m. at the church. Burial will be in Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, Elwood, Ill.