Like many other Southern states recovering from the blows of the Civil War, the 1870s found North Carolina slowly rebuilding its infrastructures and attempting to adjust to post bellum society. The physical and economic effects of slavery were not eradicated during the Reconstruction era (1865 – 1877), and the practices of the former plantations still held the land in a faded southern grandeur. Born in a small town in the heart of tobacco-rich, northeastern North Carolina, the Harris brothers ¾ Osborne Jr. (1850-1932), Scotland (1869-1953), Cicero (1867-1940), Thomas (1873-1929), William (1871-?) Hilliard (1856-1930), and Governor Ellis, known as “G. Ellis” (1861—1933) ¾ were the grandsons of their former slave master, Thomas Whitmell Harris.[1] Raised on the “Sunnyside” plantation, a 100-acre tract of land purchased by their father, Osborne Sr., from his father (and master), each of the brothers received primary-level education in a segregated, one-room school before matriculating at St. Augustine's Normal School, an institution founded by the Episcopal Church in 1867 to train the newly-manumitted slaves as teachers.[2]

These men asserted their rights to equality in the new American nation through their quest for education, land ownership, socio-political activity, and religious freedom. During a time of rising and increased racism, when much of the South was focused on undermining the rights guaranteed by the Reconstruction Amendments, the Harris brothers fought back. While many freedmen were reduced to a state of peonage, the Harris men represent the struggles of a rising black middle class, which would, after many trials, establish itself in America.

For the purposes of this study, I would define members of the black middle class as those who are literate (and encouraged literacy for all black Americans), involved in their communities (particularly in the spiritual sphere), financially independent, politically active, and focused on their families. Black Americans seized these aspects of their identities to claim their independence from the cultural destruction of nearly four centuries of slavery. I would also consider these aspects as vehicles of both personal and community protest.

[1] Doris Harris Carroll, interview by author. Flint, MI. January 2013

[2] Carroll, interview by author.


Baumgartner, Kabria




Reconstruction, black America, history, middle class, Harris brothers, North Carolina

Publication Date


Degree Granted

Bachelor of Arts

Document Type

Senior Independent Study Thesis



© Copyright 2014 Aviva H. Neff