Edna O. Harris, centenarian and former public schools worker, dies

Edna O. Harris, who overcame an abusive marriage during the Great Depression and later had a successful career as a public schools worker and Head Start volunteer, died April 6 in her sleep at her home in the Parkview at Coldspring Apartments in Northwest Baltimore.

She was 104.

“Edna was a very admiring, spiritual, kind, gentle and funny person,” said Merletha W. McKisset, of Cross Keys, who cared for Mrs. Harris for nearly a decade.

“She was just a cute 104-year-old darling, and what a memory! She could spell any word you gave her and she remembered the names of all of her teachers starting from kindergarten, and all of her pastors and Sunday school teachers,” Ms. McKisset said. “It was wonderful being in her presence. She was a great lady.”

“She was a splendid woman who was very friendly to others,” said Rhonda Nelson-Bogland of Catonsville, a close friend. “She loved to sing hymns and was always breaking out into song. She had a deep faith and belief in God.”

The granddaughter of slaves, Edna Odessa Tartt was born and raised in Mobile, Ala., the daughter of Rabond Tartt, who owned a wood yard and hauling business, and Corrine Elizabeth Valentine Simmons, a homemaker.

“Her father made it a point to teach self-reliance, integrity and personal honor to his seven children,” wrote a daughter, Helen Dale of Northwest Baltimore, in a profile of her mother. “Her mother encouraged Edna, the oldest of four girls and three boys, to develop character traits that would help them withstand the hardships of a society where colored women had little formal status.

“She advocated for quality education and high moral standards as permanent insurance in an uncertain world; where Klansmen’s robes were common and persecution was without recourse,” her daughter wrote.

She was a 1930 graduate of Dunbar High School in Mobile. There, she met and fell in love with a fellow student, Robert Simmons. They married in 1935.

The couple settled into a home in Pritchard, Ala., where they began to raise their family.

As the Depression deepened, her husband moved the family to Chicago where he found work with what became the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, but was disillusioned to find the racism he tried to flee from in Alabama was present in the North.

Ms. Dale described her father as “a perfectionist” who did not tolerate disorder. If he found wrinkles on a tablecloth or a spot on a drinking glass, he would go into a violent rage and beat her mother, she said.

It wasn’t uncommon for him to lock her out of the house at night dressed only in a nightgown, her daughter said. “Later he would be remorseful and loving again.”

She wrote that her mother decided to escape the marriage, and the couple later divorced. A “sympathetic minister and his wife provided refuge and helped her hide out until she could get a job,” he daughter said.

She found work as a housemaid, paying $3 to $7 dollars a week. Through resilience, resolve and determination, Mrs. Harris recovered her girls from foster care, established a home and found a job to support herself and her family.

“As a matter of personal pride, she refused public assistance, public housing or even free school lunches for her daughters. She was determined to pay her own way,” Ms. Dale wrote. “Her courage, struggles and achievements are inspiring. Although they were often hungry and cold, this proud family managed to survive, dream and achieve high goals for themselves and their children.”

During World War II, she worked in defense plants and, after the war ended in 1945, she became a factory worker until being hired in the late 1940s by the Chicago Board of Education as a lunch room attendant.

While working in the cafeteria of Roswell Mason Elementary School, she came to the attention of the principal and was given a job as a school representative to a federal program that worked with disadvantaged children. Mrs. Harris also worked in the Roswell Mason’s breakfast and Head Start programs.

“She opened her home and heart to children and women in distress,” Ms. Dale wrote.

Mrs. Harris organized Concerned Parents of Chicago, which mobilized parent involvement with Elementary and Secondary Education Act Title 1 schools — part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.

During her 20 years at the school, she never missed a day’s work, according to her daughter.

“She overcame all of those challenges in life and moved on. She was a very inspiring woman,” said Nelson-Bogland. “And because she was a mother, she had focused on the welfare of her children.”

She was married for a number of years to Edward Harris, who worked in Republican politics. He died in 1978.

A world traveler, she had visited Europe, Africa, Asia and South America, and also traveled throughout the U.S.

After retiring in 1978 she moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, and later to Long Beach, Calif., then to the Parkview at Coldspring Apartments two decades ago.

Mrs. Harris was active at Shiloh African Methodist Episcopal Church. She also enjoyed exercising, playing Scrabble and read “constantly,” her daughter said.

She also hosted a weekly roundtable fellowship at her home and a “Saturday eating program for residents who lived at Parkview,” said Ms. Nelson-Bogland said.

She was a guest speaker at the 2003 conference of the American Institute for Urban Psychological Studies Inc., held in Baltimore.

Although she was blind at the end of her life, Mrs. Harris was still a vigorous presence.

“She knew hundreds of songs and would just break out into song,” her daughter said.

“She prided herself on her spelling ability and knowing her hymns, which she loved to sing,” Ms. McKisset said. “If you started to sing with her and didn’t know a verse, she did.

“Edna used to say, ‘Put a song in your heart and you might as well live.’ It was one of her favorite sayings,” she said.

Regarding her centenarian status, Mrs. Harris never drank or smoked, and “ate everything she wanted, but never partied,” her daughter said.

“She was very coherent until the end of her life and was surrounded by the support and love of her family and friends,” Ms. Bogland-Nelson said.

“On the day of her death, she had sung the old hymn, ‘His Eye is On the Sparrow,’ ” her daughter said.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. May 12 at Shiloh AME Church, 2601 Lyndhurst Ave., Baltimore.

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by another daughter, Roberta Simmons of San Jose, Calif.; a sister, Corrine Wesley of Mobile; four grandchildren; nine great-grandchildren; and six great-great-grandchildren.

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