Barbara Harris holding an award from Ohio State

In 2016, Barbara Thornton Harris received the Larry Williamson Distinguished Service Award from Ohio State’s Black Alumni Society.

At 95, Barbara Thornton Harris’ youthfulness shines through in her spunky personality. She recalls her time at Ohio State and all she accomplished, despite society’s racial challenges. The tenacity that Harris developed as a student, along with her ability to innovate, helped guide her as an educator to solutions that met the overlooked needs of her young students.

When reminiscing about Ohio State, Harris, ’49 BS, remembers Ramseyer Hall as the hub for her educational work. At the time, the building was a K-12 school where education majors did their student teaching. It also was where Harris was introduced to Professor John A. Ramseyer, founder and director of what was called the University School. Harris was a student in Professor Ramseyer’s freshman orientation class. “He was kind to me and made me at ease,” she said.

Barbara Harris yearbook profile

Harris emphasizes how the faculty and classes impacted her teaching endeavors. While giving a shoutout to Laura Zirbes, one of her professors who helped found the University School, Harris noted that “All of those things I learned as a student have stood me in good stead all these years — how to be creative, how to adjust to adversity. It was hard, but we did it without even thinking.”

She used those skills when her father died suddenly just as she graduated. She passed the real estate broker’s exam and took over his business for several years. She especially used those skills during her teaching career with Cleveland City Schools starting in 1955.

Initially teaching in standard classrooms, Harris encountered a group of students whom she felt needed special attention. These children were often lucky to get something to eat or decent clothes, Harris said. “One even witnessed a shooting. They couldn’t relate to Dick and Jane and their houses with white picket fences.” So they were behind in their learning.

This led to participation in the organization of three classrooms in Cleveland that became the Learning Disabilities program. “We had a psychologist, doctor, social workers and other health professionals needed to support the work with the children,” Harris said. “The research was submitted to and approved by the state, and the Learning Disabilities program was added to the Special Education program for the state of Ohio.”

Harris’ kind nature and caring heart were essential to helping her navigate teaching methods that would best serve each of those students. “That’s the kind of thing we did in the Cleveland system,” she said. “We related to the children, and the children learned.” Thanks to her experience, Harris later supervised students studying to be special education teachers at Kent State University.

Harris left the school district after 31 years, but launched a second career in a tutoring and nutrition program for her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. And still, she sees students whom she impacted during her teaching years. “There is one girl in particular who calls me every once in a while,” Harris said. “She even invited me to her grandmother's 100th birthday.”

Barbara Harris and Janet Smith during Ohio State Alumni function
Harris (right) traveled to Columbus with fellow Buckeye Janet Smith, past president of the Greater Cleveland Alumni Club

Harris also tells about how she became acquainted with the famous Ohio State athlete Jesse Owens. “He and my husband, William ‘Sonny’ Harris, grew up in the same neighborhood and were friends since primary school,” she said. “Jess took up with our children because we would take them to Cleveland (Alumni) Club activities.”

Owens would make Harris’ elementary-aged daughter laugh by pretending to pull a quarter from behind her ear. “I still have some autographed pictures of him, our daughter and one of our sons,” she said.

Now retired, Harris sits on the board of the Ohio State Alumni Club of Greater Cleveland, having been a member since graduation. She has raised money for scholarships, chaired a collection of social clubs, been an integral part of the membership committee and more. For her exceptional leadership and service, the Alumni Association awarded her its Ralph Davenport Mershon Award in 2017.

Ever loyal to her alma mater, Harris traveled to Ohio State for homecoming weekend and attended the college’s luncheon as part of the Black Alumni Reunion. She enjoyed seeing faculty and alumni who carry on the legacy of those who impacted her so greatly.

Comparing her time at Ohio State to where it is now, Harris echoes the resounding sentiment: “Ohio State has come a long way.”

Barbara Harris at 2022 Homecoming reunion with Dean of EHE
Ever the engaged Buckeye, Barbara Thornton Harris (second from left) attended the college’s homecoming tailgate this past September, enjoying time with (L-R) fellow Buckeye Duane A. Smith, director of the Alumni Band of Greater Cleveland; Chair and Professor Antoinette Miranda; and Dean Don Pope-Davis. 



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