RICHMOND, Va. — Dr. Grace E. Harris, the highest-ranking African-American and highest-ranking woman in the history of Virginia Commonwealth University, died Monday at age 84, leaving a legacy that stretches throughout and beyond the state of Virginia.
In an email to the VCU community, university President Michael Rao called Harris “a giant in legacy and in character, a woman whose contributions to VCU and to the countless lives we touch are truly immeasurable.”
“She was one of the wisest, kindest, and most generous people I have ever met,” Rao wrote.
Harris was born Grace Victoria Edmondson on July 1, 1933, in Halifax County to a family of preachers and educators in segregation-era Virginia. Harris had five siblings. One sister, Mamye BaCote, went on to become a member of the Virginia House of Delegates; another, the late Sue E. Wilder, was a NASA data analyst referenced in the movie “Hidden Figures.”
Graduating as class valedictorian from Halifax Training School in 1950, Harris attended several institutions of higher education, including Grinnell College in Iowa as an exchange student. She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and graduated with highest honors from Hampton University, then named Hampton Institute.
When Harris was a graduate student in 1954, Virginia Commonwealth University – then known as Richmond Professional Institute – refused to admit her because of her race. Undeterred, Harris spent two years at Boston University, alongside classmates such as Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1960, she returned to RPI to complete a master’s degree in social work. In 1967 – the year before RPI merged with the Medical College of Virginia to form VCU – Harris was hired as an assistant professor in the School of Social Work. For the next 30 years, she was a rising presence at VCU, becoming a dean in 1982, provost in 1993 and acting president in 1995 and 1998.
Along the way, Harris earned accolades and awards. In 1999, the VCU Board of Visitors established the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute in her honor. In 2007, VCU renamed the former School of Business building as Grace E. Harris Hall.
Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a longtime friend, celebrated Harris’ achievements, saying in a statement that her “connection to the needs of the community and its citizens had a dramatic impact on the identity of VCU and the way it engaged people.”
Though she retired from VCU in 2016, Harris’ social work never stopped. She assisted nonprofit organizations across the commonwealth, including serving on the advisory board of the Virginia Health Care Foundation. Deborah Oswalt, executive director of that group, described her as “small in physique, but she was a giant in all other respects.”
“Grace helped the Virginia Health Care Foundation flourish during a time of transition and fiscal uncertainty,” Oswalt said. “She brought a thoughtful, intelligent, kind approach to everything she did and to all with whom she engaged.”
Harris was vice chair for Mark Warner’s transition team after he was elected governor in 2001. The following year, Warner appointed her to the Virginia Commission on Higher Education.
In a statement, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia praised the “keen insight into university administration” Harris provided when, as governor, he appointed the governing boards of Virginia’s public colleges and universities.
“Dr. Harris used her lifetime of groundbreaking service to help cultivate and elevate emerging leaders,” Kaine said.
She is survived by her husband, James W. “Dick” Harris; her two adult children, Gayle and James; and her grandson, Jullian, who earned a master’s degree in sociology from VCU in 2016.
By George Copeland Jr./Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.