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Black History Month profile: John Langston Harrison

While Charles Sumner Harrison may be more locally well-known for being the first black graduate of Marietta College in 1876, it was his younger brother who held Marietta in higher regard.

John Langston Harrison was born on March 1, 1866 in Harmar, a son of George W. and Maria E. Harrison. He was the second of three boys who graduated from Marietta College, the older of which was Charles, and the younger of which was Walter Clifton Harrison.

“(John) seems to have held his experience at Marietta College in highest regard,” said Linda Showalter, special collections associate at the Marietta College Legacy Library.

Harrison entered Marietta College in the fall of 1883 and was a candidate for the degree of bachelor of philosophy, graduating in 1887. He spent the majority of his life as an educator and writer.

After Harrison’s 50th class reunion, he wrote an essay sharing his fondest memories of his college years. During those years, he played baseball with Ban Johnson and Charles Gates Dawes. Johnson studied law at Marietta College and was the founder and first president of the American League.

Dawes was born in Marietta and was the 30th vice president of the United States. He was the son of Civil War General Rufus Dawes and his wife, Mary Beman Gates.

Harrison started his career as a public school principal in Topeka, Kan., and retired in 1936 as supervising principal at Brown’s Creek Graded Schools in McDowell County, W.Va.

As a Marietta College alumnus, he attended the dedication ceremony in 1939 of Howard University, a historically black university in Washington D.C.

“He stayed in touch with the college and was more attached to the town, although his brother was more well-known,” Showalter explained.

Harrison once contributed to the alumni fund, sending the college $8. In an accompanying letter, he wrote “I only wish I could make it ($8,000) as a partial payment for what I received by attending Marietta.”

Showalter said that’s one of her favorite stories about Harrison.

“It’s so touching,” she said. “That’s so nice. He really loved this place.”

He also loved to write, publishing books such as ‘Short Stories’ in 1909 and ‘A Lesson Learned and Other Stories of the Color Line’ in 1912.

“It was his writing and the love of the town and the college (that was important),” Showalter said.

Toward the end of his life, he wrote a series of columns for the Marietta Daily Times about his childhood growing up in Harmar, and swimming in the Muskingum River.

In August 1940, he penned a column about what a beautiful city he thought Marietta was.

“In speaking of Marietta among my friends and acquaintances, I always refer to it as the most beautiful small city in the country,” he wrote. “I honestly think it is. There is something about the town – a broad peace and quietude born of the stately trees, the reposeful homes, the friendly hills, the shining rivers, that stamp it as unique and individual.”

He noted those “who were born and raised there can never forget loyalty and affection for the old home town. Its tendrils have woven themselves about our very being.”

Another column that month showed his humor when talking about having special swimming places in the river.

“In our boyhood days some 50 years ago, we Harmar boys sought out our own bathing places and were our own lifeguards,” he wrote. “We had a monopoly on good swimming places in the Muskingum River and we jealously guarded against any encroachments on our own territory by the ‘Marietta Rats.’ The enmity existing between the boys of Harmar and those of Marietta forbade any exchange of courtesies and so swimming by either in the other’s territory was taboo.”

It wasn’t just his childhood that he reminisced about in writing. He wrote an essay about a time he was a sophomore at Marietta College, which showed a funny side to his college life.

“Roaming the campus one dark night, four of us sophomores, looking for freshmen, stopped at the college pump for a drink,” he noted. A little distance away, they found a bottle covered with wicker work under a tree. They lugged the bottle to a friend’s dorm room, where they found it was filled with crab apple cider. They called all their friends together to drink the cider, and when they were finished, they carried the jug back to the pump where they filled it with water and put it back under the tree where they found it. The next morning, the jug was gone.

“To this day, its ownership remains a deep, dark mystery,” he wrote. “We wished we could have seen the face of the saddened and bewildered owner as he poured out the first anticipatory drink. We prayed he was a freshman.”

Showalter said his brothers Charles and Walter graduated from Marietta College and became scientists, but that wasn’t where John’s heart laid.

“He was in the humanities and wanted to teach and write. He could have made a lot more money (as a scientist),” she added.

Harrison died unmarried on Oct. 22, 1940, in Washington D.C. He and his brother, Charles, were eventually buried in the same unmarked grave at Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, Md. Charles was buried directly beneath his younger brother.

Madison McCormick, a history major from Hornell, N.Y., said she’s researched the brothers who attended Marietta College.

“I found out the Harrison Hall (student residence halls) were named after the three brothers,” she said.

According to the college, its board of trustees honored the family for their achievements at the college, but also for their contributions in the fields of medicine, education and engineering, by naming the facility in their honor.

Charles graduated in 1876, John graduated in 1887 and Walter, an electrical engineer and amateur naturalist, graduated in 1891.

Michele Newbanks can be reached at mnewbanks@mariettatimes.com.

At a glance:

• Who: John Langston Harrison.

• Born: March 1, 1866, in Harmar.

• Died: Oct. 22, 1940, in Washington D.C.

• Family: Son of George W. and Maria E. Harrison; one of nine children, including Charles Sumner Harrison, the first black graduate of Marietta College.

Source: Times research.

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