A Life Well Celebrated
Northeast Neighborhood Honors Its Oldest Resident
Posted: November 5, 2012
HARRISONBURG — Harrisonburg resident Mary Carlotta Newman Harris can answer more “where were you when… ?” questions than just about anyone in the central Valley.
Fill in that blank with just about every major event of the past century and she’d have an answer for you: the Roaring ‘20s, the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent Depression, World War II, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Civil Rights movement, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and more recently, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
And though she was too young to remember the sinking of the Titanic or the start of World War I, the 101-year-old Harris was alive for those, too.
As a longtime Harrisonburg resident, Harris is also a key to the history of the city’s northeast neighborhood where she was born in 1911 and still lives today, in the very house where she first came into the world.
On Saturday, the Northeast Neighborhood Association hosted a luncheon to honor its oldest resident and a “life well celebrated.”
“I came to your house and sat down with you for over an hour about Effinger School,” Walter Ghant, associate director of community service learning at James Madison University, said to Harris on Saturday. He was referring to the Effinger Street School, which served the city’s black students between 1882 and 1938.
Ghant recalled how Harris was like a living history book, helping him to complete a project for his master’s degree in history.
“Your mind is just so clear and you were so incredibly helpful,” he said.
About 100 people gathered Saturday to honor their friend and neighbor, who turned 101 last month. Neighbors say Harris can best be described as a friend who is always available and willing to lend a helping hand.
“This is a small percentage of the lives you’ve touched,” Karen Thomas, president of the Northeast Neighborhood Association, said. “[Harris is] a woman of God who deserves all the recognition [she is getting]. We want to celebrate her life and share it. I know you’ll all have a wonderful time just being in her presence.”
The last of 14 children, Harris, known as Miss Carlotta to many, was born in 1911 to George and Mary Newman in the very home she resides in today on Kelley Street.
Harris attended the Effinger Street School from the first through 12th grades. There, she studied under Lucy Simms, a former slave and beloved city schoolteacher whose career spanned 56 years. The school that replaced the Effinger Street School was named in Simms’ honor.
After Harris graduated from the Virginia Normal College, now Virginia State University, where she majored in music, she taught for one year. But after finding that teaching was not for her, she chose to pursue government work in Washington, D.C. She worked for several government agencies in the nation’s capital, including the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and Veterans Administration before retiring in 1973.
Harris lived in Charles Town, W.Va., with her late husband Austin Harris until 1986, at which point she returned to Harrisonburg to care for relatives.
Aside from a yearlong stay in Washington, D.C., Harris has since resided in Harrisonburg.
“She wanted to come home,” said her niece, Ruth Toliver. “She’s constantly saying, ‘I was born in this house, I want to die in this house.’”
In the neighborhood, Harris holds a distinct role, Thomas said.
“She has fed so many people; she’s just been a wonderful mother type in the community,” Thomas said. “She loves everybody.”
Among her own passions, Harris counts reading, photography, bridge — a hobby she picked up from reading a column in the Washington Post — and music.
Growing up, Harris, called “Hun” by family members, followed in her family tradition of playing the piano.
She has received accolades for volunteering to play the organ and piano at John Wesley United Methodist Church.
“Whenever she could do something for us, she was always there,” said Henry Whitelow, lay leader at the church.
“She’s been a blessing to us.”
Whitelow has known Harris since he was a child, coming over to play with Harris’ late son, who was around his age.
“She was so generous, she invited us into her home,” Whitelow said, adding that all these years later, “her door is always open.”
At the end of the event, Harris was given flowers and a picture quilt from the Northeast Neighborhood Association.
“I appreciate everything,” Harris said. “I enjoyed it.”
Contact Emily Sharrer at 574-6286 or firstname.lastname@example.org