By Mark St. John Erickson, email@example.com | 757-247-4783
February 3, 2013
Like many other small towns across the rural South, Williamsburg spent most of the late 1800s struggling to recover from the catastrophic effects of the Civil War.
Abandoned by many of its residents after Federal troops occupied the area in May 1862, all but a few of its houses and businesses had fallen into disrepair or ruin by the conflict's end.
That added the burden of rebuilding to the challenge of replacing the devastated slave economy, and — when the cash-strapped College of William and Mary was forced to close its doors for several years in 1881 — the future of the stumbling old town rarely looked bleaker.
Not long after the war ended, however, a young black merchant walked down dusty Duke of Gloucester Street and saw nothing but potential.
Within a few years his bustling "Cheap Store" ranked as the town's leading business — black or white — and Samuel Harris was being celebrated across the nation as one of the richest and most enterprising African-Americans in Virginia.
"Williamsburg was devastated by the war and the Federal occupation. People lost fortunes. Others left and never came back. Houses and businesses were torn up and in some cases leveled," says Williamsburg author Wilford Kale.
"But something in Harris saw opportunity here. Making money was his talent, and he filled every little niche he could in a way that usually showed a profit."
Born into slavery, Harris was in his early 20s when he moved from Richmond in late 1872 with his new wife and a bankroll of $70.
Though the former colonial capital had a long history of relatively good race relations — and had made room for such ambitious black craftsmen as bootmaker James Dipper to buy his own freedom, grow prosperous and invest in real estate during the early 1800s — it had never seen an African-American do business with the kind of success and skill that Harris demonstrated from the beginning.
Within two years he had made enough money to buy a prime piece of property on the northwest corner of Duke of Gloucester and Botetourt streets, writes Williamsburg historian Julia Woodbridge Oxrieder in her 1998 book "Rich, Black and Southern: The Harris Family of Williamsburg (and Boston)."
Not long afterward he opened the "Cheap Store," luring black and white customers alike with a tantalizing array of merchandise that ultimately ranged from dry goods, household furnishings and groceries to hardware, building materials, coal, buggies, harness and horses.
"They are cheaper than the cheapest, better than the best. Prices to suit the times," crowed a 1895 ad in the Virginia Gazette.
"Harris keeps everything to eat and drink, everything to wear…if there is ANYTHING you want on which to save time, trouble and money, go to the Cheapest merchant in Williamsburg — SAMUEL HARRIS."
Harris plowed his profits back into this "mammoth establishment" for more than 30 years, building a sprawling entrepreneurial empire that eventually boasted a stable, barber shop, coal and lumber yards, blacksmith and saloon as well as a ship and crew to transport goods from Richmond.
So successful was his business plan, which focused on "Quick sales, small profits, buy and sell for cash," that when he bought his sales-based business license in 1901 his $203 fee completely eclipsed the $10 or less paid by 50 of Williamsburg's other 57 business owners.
"This was a sleepy Southern town. It was a traditional Southern town, and he probably made some whites very uncomfortable with his success and wealth," says Beatriz Hardy, former director of special collections at the College of William and Mary's Swem Library, who mounted an exhibit on the town's post-Civil War changes in 2009.
"But Harris couldn't have become Williamsburg's most important businessman without some white support."
Harris' elevated standing among the town's whites can be seen in his real-estate partnership with Judge Richard L. Henley, with whom he purchased and developed 417 acres northwest of today's Merchants Square in the mid-1890s.
He also made substantial personal loans to such prominent white residents as Benjamin Ewell, enabling the retired and nearly bankrupt W&M president to put in a crop on his James City County farm. In 1897, the African-American entrepreneur expanded this role as an influential lender by becoming a founding shareholder of the town's first major bank.
During Reconstruction, Harris served as Commissioner of Revenue and school board trustee, too, working tirelessly if not always successfully to further the education of black youths studying in the town's revealingly named Public School No. 2.
"It was a real struggle in the late 1800s. Black parents had to buy the equipment and books their teachers and students needed. They had to clean the schools," says historian Linda Rowe of Colonial Williamsburg.
"And whenever something did happen with the black schools, Samuel Harris was usually the one they put in charge."
Despite such obstacles, Harris not only sent his son Samuel Jr. to what is now Virginia State University but also financed his studies at Harvard Medical School, preparing him for a Boston practice and a pioneering role as the first African-American medical specialist in the nation.
Daughter Elizabeth received an unusually advanced education, too, but died just a year after her marriage to prominent Hampton Institute administrator Robert Moton, who later succeeded Booker T. Washington as president of Tuskegee Institute.
"You can tell a lot about a man by what his children do," Kale says. "And his children were amazing."
Harris' black friends and acquaintances provide similar kinds of insights into the life and character of the former slave.
Like brothers Daniel and Frederick Norton of York and James City counties — who served prominently in the General Assembly during Reconstruction — most were men of education, property and influence. They also knew how to command respect from whites by working within and sometimes dramatically pushing the limits of the system.
"He was always extremely well-dressed. As you can see from his picture, he seemed determined to out-proper the most proper whites," Hardy says.
"I think it was a way for enterprising blacks like Harris to distance themselves from the past and proclaim their equality — because they knew it wasn't going to be handed to them."
Such hard-won and sometimes grudging regard began to fade after the passage of the Virginia Constitution of 1902, which stripped most blacks of the right to vote and rolled back many of the gains of Reconstruction.
But the short, dapper shopkeeper remained so highly esteemed that thousands of mourners both black and white attended his funeral service at First Baptist Church when he died in his early 50s just two years later.
"In the death of Samuel Harris the town has lost one of its most progressive and enterprising citizens," wrote editor W.C. Johnson of the Virginia Gazette, mourning the loss of his biggest advertiser and frequent subject of news articles.
"His removal from us is a distinct loss, not only to his family, but his town."
Copyright © 2013, Newport News, Va., Daily Press