The city renamed this road for him (and it intersects with another named for his wife) a few years ago. I noticed a few days ago that Google Maps never updated. I respected the Rev. Curtis West Harris Sr. too much to let this stand.
The beacon of truth that shines upon the just and the unjust grew a little dimmer Jan. 18. The Hopewell News of Hopewell, Va., has closed its doors.
I was once the editor there.
I was 25 years old the first time I stepped into that building, and I had no idea what I was doing. But, damn it, I had ambition.
But I had a great mentor in the publisher at the time, Jim Smith. And I had an invaluable staff that I eventually had to pick myself.
I went with my gut a lot. I wasn’t afraid to ask questions and ask for advice. Sure, we made mistakes along the way, but when we were on it, we were on it. We went from the town joke to garnering enough interest to print a third day. We broke news sometimes days before our daily and television competitors.
We kept long hours.
We went as far as Richmond and Roanoke to bring forth stories of local interest. We almost went as far as New Jersey, and I’ll never let Katy forget that she kept me from breaking news on my vacation.
We grew and learned and loved and fought and headed off to greener pastures. Those of us who stayed in journalism became better journalists because of it. We were a training ground. I firmly believe every journalist needs a stint in a small town.
We kept tradition going at a young paper in a young city in an old state. We penned the first drafts of history. We held elected officials accountable. We launched social media. We ventured into radio. We took home awards. We kept going because people said that we couldn’t or shouldn’t.
We provided a voice to the voiceless. We were that cliché of people who buy a failing business or abandoned building and then get a ragtag group of people armed with brooms and paintbrushes and make it work.
We forged a kinship in that converted car dealership that went beyond being coworkers.
After we moved on, we constantly checked in, rooting for the underdog we once were a part of.
And now it’s gone. Abruptly. All of that grit and determination snuffed out.
The Hopewell News ranked as one of my greatest accomplishments. It still does. Nothing — not even the deletion of the online archives — can take away that great push we made during my tenure from 2008 to 2012. It made us into who we are. For some of us, it made us into damn good newspapermen and women.
To name a few, Katy is now an editor herself at a major metro. Along the way, her tenacity brought forth sweeping change in state and local government. Jonathan quickly grew into his role of being the voice of local sports in the Tri-Cities. He just launched a new venture into Central Virginia sports.
And here a sit like a proud parent whenever I hear of the accomplishments of those journalists who were under my care those years. Even if they left the industry, like any rational person would do, knowing that I played a role in their journeys warms my heart.
I will forever miss The Hopewell Publishing Co., and I hope someone assumes the mantle for the betterment of the Wonder City. We need small-town papers more than we do national outlets. What goes on in your city hall affects your daily life more than anything that ever happens in Washington. The internet alone can’t fill that gap between your front door and the statehouse. A viral post from down the street without full context is just that: a virus.
“You can’t get your news from Facebook. People need to know that,” said the final editor, Adrienne Wallace, in an article in the first newspaper I ever worked, The Progress-Index.
Those words are very, very true.
Former Hopewell City Councilor and Mayor Curtis Harris called me the “The Lawyer” because of my interviewing style. I have this nasty habit of forgetting half of my interview questions, so as things seemingly wrap up, I come back with a flurry of questions. In a way, I like that because it catches people off guard, like when Colombo did it.
Rev. Harris’ church was mostly behind the newsroom. It was the one that got caught in the crossfire about a week after the current pastor of my mom’s church in Hampton started there. Rev. Harris lived across the street from the church on what is now Rev. C.W. Harris Street, near the corner of a road now named Ruth Harris Way for his wife.
Ms. Ruth was his rock. There were countless times when he told him he couldn’t or should do something, like have another soda, and he would a boyish grin and try for it anyway. In one particular instance, he argued that he should have another one, despite the hour, because he once again was elected to the City Council.
It took a lot of effort for him to get on the council the first time.
Rev. Harris spent most of his life fighting for civil rights. He was discriminated against. He joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He marched arm-in-arm with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He was threatened. There were two unsuccessful attempts to firebomb his home. He marched to Hopewell City Hall past a group of Klansmen. He was arrested 13 times fighting for rights.
After seven unsuccessful runs for the City Council and a lawsuit to cease at-large representation for the entire city, he won in 1986. He became mayor in 1998.
He was also fought for environmental justice in a city often known only for pollution. He fought through his resignation from the council in 2012 due to a stroke. He was a bottomless well of information. He never leaked information to me. He would only give me enough to point me in the right direction. Katy and I got to know the city we were covering better through his wisdom. His office next door to his home was a treasure trove of civil rights and Hopewell history.
The world lost that Sunday when Rev. Harris died at 93, but his legacy will live on.
There is a public viewing scheduled for Saturday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. just outside the doors of the Curtis W. Harris Sr. Library at Carter G. Woodson Middle School in Hopewell. A second viewing is set for 10 a.m. Monday at First Baptist Church, at the corner of North Second Avenue and West Randolph Road in Hopewell, and the funeral will begin there an hour later.