Alpha Rho Alumni Association Pays Tribute To Our Fallen Brother -- Dr. Ira E. Harrison -- Fall 1952
Brother Dr. Ira E. Harrison, aged 87 and a southwest Atlanta resident, entered Omega Chapter on Monday, April 27, 2020. Brother Harrison was a retired Emeritus Professor in the Department of Anthropology at University of Tennessee-Knoxville, formerly with Meharry Medical College, and a Public Health Behavioral Scientist. His life was one of activism and scholarship.
Harrison was born in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, on June 1, 1933, the only child to Isaiah Michael “Ike” Harrison and Sarah Louisa Richardson. After his mother passed when he was nine, his aunt Mary raised him until he was eleven. He then moved to Syracuse, New York, to live with his father and stepmother, Janie Ruth Godwin Harrison, and spent his junior and high school years in New York, attending Syracuse Central High School. His parents, both social workers in Syracuse communities, molded his mind in the direction of solving social problems and engaging in activism.
His parents encouraged him to make a contribution and a difference. His father had been a great athlete in high school in New Orleans and at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. In Syracuse, he was a key figure in the community who urged children to focus on their studies in his capacity as an administrator and coach of the Dunbar Community Center. His stepmother received her degrees at Syracuse University and was awarded a women’s achievement award in 1969.
Isaiah Harrison sent his son to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia in 1951 wanting to ensure a good foundation for his future (Spadey, “Ira E. Harrison Reveals the Lives and Works of Pioneers in Anthropology”). Atlanta was a city full of rich history and African American culture and thus was the perfect place for molding a future academician and activist. Morehouse’s president at the time, Benjamin Mays, shaped his academic life, raised his consciousness, and encouraged his activism. According to Harrison, Mays said, “Young man, you are here to get your act together, go forth, and make your contribution to society.” This was the “Morehouse spirit.”
At Morehouse, Harrison served as president of the Academic Sociology Honor Society. Majoring in sociology, with minors in psychology, English, and the humanities, he became interested in anthropology at this time, taking his first class at Atlanta University. He earned his bachelor of arts in 1955 and then served in the US Army as a medical aidman in Colorado and Germany from 1956 to 1957. He returned to Atlanta University and earned a master of arts in sociology and anthropology. His interests in travel and research resulted in summer sessions in the late 1950s and mid-1960s at Atlanta University, Syracuse University, and the University of Puerto Rico.
Harrison took a job teaching history and geography at Boggs Academy in Keysville, Georgia, which allowed him to experience working in the rural South (he had already worked in the urban South). In the summer of 1960, after a year of teaching, Harrison moved back to Syracuse and entered the PhD program at Syracuse University. He remained busy taking summer sessions, and by fall he was working as a course coordinator and instructor, teaching introductory courses in sociology at Syracuse University.
Harrison’s work in medical and applied anthropology through public health and in the black church and his editing of African American Pioneers demonstrate intellectual activism at its finest. His legacy is centered on advocacy, which follows “naturally from the practice of anthropology” and is “an integral part of the process of representing other people’s views” (Fuller, Layton, Parish, and Rowlands, Advocacy in Anthropology, 40). It is an “active, politically-committed, morally engaged anthropology” (Scheper-Hughes, “The Primacy of the Ethical,” 419). He has received numerous awards for his anthropological contributions and his service in the community.
He was the recipient of the Distinguished Fellow Award for his fifty-year membership in the AAA, and in 2010, he was awarded the Legacy Scholar Award by the ABA at the AAA annual conference. Harrison’s achievement resonates not only in the academic world but in the artistic world of oratory. He is the second African American president of the thirty-seven-year-old Georgia Poetry Society. He has published eight books and shared his love of poetry in the community until his passing.