Paula Rideout-Harris, a leader of the Greater Harrisburg Branch of the NAACP at start of this century and committed civil rights and policy activist long after that, died Saturday at her Lower Paxton Township home. She was 68.
Her daughter, Rogette Harris, said her mother had been dealing with a kidney disease for several years.
Harris, a lifelong Harrisburg resident, rose to public prominence in the area with her election as president of the regional NAACP branch in 2000.
Her installation as president coincided with the arrest and prosecution of a state House member from Bucks County, Rep. Thomas Druce, for leaving the scene of a July 1999 accident on Cameron Street that left a Harrisburg man named Kenneth Cains dead.
Druce was arrested the following winter, and Harris would become a leading voice in efforts to make sure then Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico and the local courts did not offer Druce any preferential treatment. The disgraced lawmaker eventually wound up pleading guilty and serving a two-to-four year term in state prison.
Her watchdog role in the Druce case was the most public, but not the only example of Harris’s zeal for the fight for equal treatment for all that filtered through education, access to the vote and many other issues, friends and colleagues said Monday.
“Paula Diane Harris was a fierce advocate for the underdog, and specifically people of color,” said Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick. “She was someone who was not there to agree with you; she was there to advocate for the people who had entrusted her to represent them… probably to her own peril at times.”
“She was a raw and sheer force when she entered the room,” added Harrisburg businessman Fred Clark.
Within the NAACP, Harris also was credited by friends and colleagues Monday with amplifying the chapter’s reach in the region.
Under Harris’ leadership, the branch opened an office, started a Web site, held a TV and radio fund-raising telethon, held a choir festival, and began taking part in the NAACP’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics to promote academic excellence among black youths.
She also put together a regional group of attorneys who were willing to take discrimination cases pro bono, her daughter said.
“Paula really took the NAACP, in my opinion, into the modern era,” said Clark. “She was able to mobilize many factions of the African-American community and bring them together, which seems very simple, but she knew how to thread the needle.”
But Harris’s tenure as president came to a quick end in 2002, after internal rivalries within the organization led to her defeat in a bid for a second term.
“My Mom was about what was right, not necessarily what was popular, and that did make some enemies for her,” Rogette Harris said.
Harris, who worked for Highmark Blue Shield as a business analyst and trainer by day, continued her work toward civil rights field and racial equity through a separate company that she formed under the name of the Andrew Young National Center for Social Change, running diversity training programs for employers, re-entry training for ex-convicts and other programs.
She also became a regular contributor to The Patriot-News’ Op-Ed pages, and also authored a book, somewhat presciently, called “1st Black President,” a 312-page study that explored, in 2004, what Black Americans needed to do to become serious contenders for the presidency.
The book dropped in November 2004, four years before Barack Obama broke that particular glass ceiling.
Friends said Harris’s determination to fight for the underdog and interest in making sure that people had a fair second chance was galvanized by her own conviction in 1986 for forging four checks from the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg, where she had been working as a bookkeeper.
Many years later, an anonymous letter sent to Highmark about that case led the company to temporarily suspend Harris from her job. She was later reinstated.
Harris sought, and received, a pardon for the crime, telling the state Board of Pardons in 2003 the board that she had made a mistake when she was a single mother faced with medical bills from surgeries required to correct her young daughter’s hearing disorder and legal fees stemming from a custody battle with her ex-husband.
”I make no excuse for what I have done,” she said at the time. “It was a crime, and it was wrong. … What I do this for is to continue in my work of helping other people that have similar obstacles in their lives.”
“She was a constant servant leader in our community,” said former Harrisburg City Councilwoman Gloria Martin-Roberts, a lifelong friend of Harris’s. “Her heart was always right in terms of wanting equality for all people because there was a small time in her life when people tried to make judgements of her, and that was the one thing that drove her to make sure that there was fairness.”
With the pardon in hand, Harris talked openly at times about running for political office, but she never actually launched a campaign.
Instead, she watched with great pride as her daughter, Rogette, because the first African-American woman to be elected as chair of the Dauphin County Democratic Committee. “She used to always tell me: ‘It wasn’t meant for me to run. It was meant for you.’” Rogette Harris told PennLive Monday.
Rogette, meanwhile, was eager to turn the family pride back on her Mom.
“I attribute my passion to help people to her,” she said.
“Because to me, politics, we get into who’s more electable. Who fits the criteria for this district… But politics is really about policy, and policy is there to help people better their lives. And that’s what I got from my mother – wanting to implement and fight for policies that are going to better peoples’ lives.”
Paula Harris was born in Carlisle but raised in Harrisburg, where her father, Robert, worked for the state Department of Transportation and her mother was a homemaker. One of four children, Paula graduated from the then-John Harris High School, and attended Cheyney University for two years, before returning to Harrisburg.