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February 21, 2014

A family history of breaking down racial barriers

COMMERCE — The Harrison family is a family of firsts in Commerce.

The Harrison family is credited of having the first black phone operator, waitress and police dispatcher in Commerce.

According to Commerce Councilwoman Emma Martin, growing up a Harrison, her father had a large impact on how they were able to achieve so much.

“My mom and dad taught us spirituality, education and work,” she said. “Making an honest living was how we were going to make it in this world.”

Martin grew up in Wolfe City where her father, Billy T. Harrison, was a sharecropper on a farm there.

The Harrison’s lived there until the only black school in town, which only went from grades one through six, closed down.

Martin said her parents wanted their children to get an education they did not themselves receive.

They decided to move to Commerce when they heard about the Norris school, which went from grades one through 12.

“My mother was so determined that we got an education,” she said. “It was known that if you were in this family, you were going to school.”

The entire family of 11 moved to the Norris community, since they could not purchase a home which was considered to be on “the white side of town.”

Although Martin grew up during segregation, she said her parents were able to make the most of it.

“I loved living in Norris community,” she said. “I knew nothing else. You grew up in a knit community.”

While at the Norris school, Martin and her classmates would receive the old textbooks that the white schools did not use any longer.

“It was just the way it was everywhere,” she said.

Martin said because their family was so large, the neighborhood they grew up in was safe, since most of their neighbors were related to them.

The family was also deeply religious, Martin said, adding that if her parents “found you at the cafe instead of church you would receive a whipping.”

The elder Harrison was a leader in the Norris community, having worked with many of the Commerce City councilmembers during that time. His wife also cleaned many of the professors homes at East Texas State University.

Harrison was also the first president of a civil rights group, the Norris Community Club that was founded in the 1950s, and would bring requests to the city council.

“They wanted to get together to do some things for the community,” she said.

Martin said her father was a leader because instead of focusing on the color of their skin, the focus was on the character of a person.

“My dad told me to stop playing with a black girl who made disparaging remarks to a white kid because he was white,” she said, adding her mother would tell her to “love everybody, no matter the color of their skin.”

Because the family was so tightly-knit, and her father’s prominence in Commerce, Martin said they never experienced the harsher racism other towns in America did during the civil rights movement.

“Commerce was a nice, nice place to live,” she said. “We could go into the stores.”

After the Commerce schools were integrated when Martin was going into 8th grade, Martin went on to graduate from Commerce High School and began attending East Texas State University.

It was a jarring experience walking through the then East Texas State University, considering she was not allowed on the premises growing up during segregation.

Martin said racial tension began to decline when Ivory Moore was elected as the first African American mayor of Commerce.

Moore was much like her father, Martin said, in that he worked to find the common ground of humanity among people of different races.

Most of the roads in the Norris community were either still dirt or white rock roads before Moore took office.

“He helped fix the streets in Norris,” she said.  

Martin said since then, the sense of community among residents of Norris Community has seemed to dissipate.

Martin said in order to bridge the gap between Commerce and Norris Community is to treat them as they are, part of the same city.

In the past two years she has been on the council, Martin said she has been working to bridge the gap.

“We are working together, we are unified,” she said. “We need to get together to help each other now.”

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