By Josh Rivera
The Harris Community Center on Alexander St. hosts everything from weddings and retirement ceremonies, to yoga and Zumba classes. However, it is also the former segregated Thomas Breckenridge Harris High School, an all-black institution which taught elementary thru high school students. It served as a focal point for the African American community in Belton between the 1930s and 1960s.
Belton was desegregated in 1963 under a Freedom of Choice desegregation plan, eight years after the US Supreme Court’s decision in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. Having ruled that school racial integration must occur with all deliberate speed, the so-called Freedom of Choice plans allowed students to choose between attending either white or black schools.
“The integration had gone smoothly,” said Rev. Roscoe Harrison of Eighth Street Baptist Church in Temple. Harrison is an alumnus of the Class of 1963 and has served as a president and a member of the committee of the West Belton-Harris Ex-Students Association. “Belton was such a small town that the black and white families were already friendly with each other. After integration passed, we didn’t feel much of a difference.”
T.B. Harris High closed its doors in 1966, two years before the US Supreme Court ruled Freedom of Choice plans inadequate in achieving integration. In the following years, it had served as a special education school, a maintenance facility, and the Brentham Christian Youth Center.
“There was an alumni association that went dormant,” Harrison said. “We reorganized it into an ex-students’ association, and the first reunion we had was in 1983. We developed it and it’s still going, after more than 30 years. We didn’t want to include just graduates either. If you went to school at Harris, you were included. If you were just a tidbit at Harris High School, you were included.”
The West Belton-Harris Ex-Students Association was founded by the late Johnnie Ruth Nelson, who, with her fellow alumni, sought to preserve the school’s legacy. The association has since held biennial reunions at the Harris Community Center, where alumni gather to reflect on stories from the school and award scholarships to high school students.
“We were more of a family oriented school,” said Ora Jean Butler, president of the West Belton-Harris Ex-Students Association. The school’s smaller class roster, especially in its post-integration years, has led to the close bonds shared by the former classmates. “The city was interested in taking Harris and turning it into a community center because we didn’t want to see it taken away. We were excited to see that happen.”
In 1998, the association succeeded in placing a Texas State Historical Marker at the former school. In 2005, the Belton Independent School District donated the facilities to the City of Belton. Later, the Harris Community Center would gain recognition from the Texas Municipal League and Texas Historical Commission. The former home of the Harris High Blue Dragons was transformed into a beloved facility for the service of all Beltonians.
“The way it looks now on the outside is the way it’s always looked.” Harrison said. Each of its five rooms is named after a beloved faculty member. “It’s looked like that ever since I could remember. They just renovated the inside. Even the classrooms are still like they were; I could walk down the hall of that building and point out what classes were in the rooms.”
As time marches on, the association becomes smaller due to classmates passing away. “We hope to have at least a hundred people [at the next reunion],” said Harrison. “But now it’s dwindled because we’ve had a lot of deaths.”
“We’re losing a lot of them,” said Butler. “But we have people traveling from near and very far. We have people that come from Seattle, New Mexico. One of our ex-students from Belize is going to come to speak for us this year,” Butler said of keynote speaker and Class of 1959 alumnus Paul Lewis, director of Tri-Energy, Ltd.
“The next reunion will be co-hosted by the Class of 1966, the last class to graduate from Harris,” said Butler. The reunion is scheduled to for July 22nd through 24th at the Harris Community Center.