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Pearlie Harris receives honorary degree

Last updated January 28, 2022

By Clinton Colmenares, Director of News and Media Strategy

Pearlie Harris earned a master’s degree in education from Furman in 1983, 26 years into a 37-year career as an elementary school teacher. She received her second Furman degree, an honorary Doctor of Humanities, today, Jan. 28, 2022, as part of the university’s annual Joseph Vaughn Day event.

Harris, 85, was shocked to find out she was chosen for the honor. “I had to read the letter twice,” she said in a phone interview before the ceremony. At the event, she told a crowd of about 150, “I’m moved, I’m blessed, and I’m appreciative.”

Pearlie Harris, M’83 H’22, on the day she received an honorary doctorate degree from Furman

“Pearlie Harris is a transformational educator, having lifted up generations of students over a decades-long career in public education,” said Furman University President Elizabeth Davis.

“Despite many painful experiences with racism throughout her early life and career, she became known for her deep commitment to love, compassion and unity across racial divisions,” Davis said.

That commitment has been on display in a larger-than-life way since 2020, when her image was the focal point of a mural on Canvas Tower in downtown Greenville that commemorates the 50th anniversary of Greenville schools’ desegregation.

Harris grew up in the Western North Carolina town of Saluda in a house without running water or heat. As a student at Barber-Scotia College in the 1950s, she spent hours in the basement of her dorm doing teachers’ laundry just so she could have a dollar or two to send home to her widowed mother. In the mornings, she cooked breakfast in the dining hall before her 7:30 classes. She never went out with the girls, never bought Nabs and a Coke after class. She never had a spare nickel.

At first, she didn’t like teaching because an instructor was so hard on her. On an assignment to teach a lesson on magnets, he said she failed because she only used pictures. But his instruction also motivated her. He told her an effective lesson gave students something to see, hear, touch and smell. She taught it again, using real magnets, and the class soared.

Harris began her teaching career in the segregated elementary schools of Beaufort, South Carolina. She then came to Greenville in 1962 and taught at two segregated schools before she was assigned in 1968 to Crestone Elementary School, where she taught third grade and was the only Black teacher. All but one of her students at the time were white.

Rolyn Rollins ’97, program coordinator in the Cothran Center for Vocational Reflection, with Pearlie Harris M’83 H’22. Harris taught Rollins in fifth grade.

After retiring from teaching in 1994, Harris began volunteering with a number of organizations, including the Greenville Symphony, Centre Stage, Carolina Youth Symphony and Bon Secours St. Francis Health System, among others. In 2009, she became the first Black person and first woman to serve as chair of the St. Francis Board of Directors. In 2011, The Pearlie Harris Center for Breast Health at St. Francis was named in her honor.

An exemplary servant-citizen and longtime member of St. Mary’s Parish in Greenville, she was recognized in 2021 by Pope Francis and awarded The Benemerenti Medal, “awarded by the Pope to those members of the clergy and laity for their service to the Catholic Church.”

Harris praised Furman for its work to make the campus more diverse, equitable and inclusive, and for working with and supporting the Black community in the Greenville area.

“I hear the roar of the drums at Furman University for unity among everybody,” she said.

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Clinton Colmenares
Director of News and Media Strategy