“I remember in 9th or 10th grade, my friends and I use to sit together and have lunch,” Harris said about his years at Central
High. “We would just talk about things. Someone would say, ‘Something must be happening because my mom got a phone call
from your mom.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, my mother was on the phone last night because she kicked me out of the living room.’ We

only had one phone in the living room. I heard my mother say,’ Oh, honey hush. You are kidding. We have to do something about
that.’ They had a beautiful telephone connecting system. If there was an issue that came up, they got on the phone and talked. In
fact, Betty Banks and I always talk about this because her mother, Mae Mitchell, was in that loop. Basically we knew these
mothers were doing something. Whatever it was, it was good. They would deal with the issues and the problems that were
facing Black people.”
       One instance was when the employee of a downtown department store would make Black customers purchase clothing
before they could try them on. The manager said it was because the White customers wouldn’t buy the clothing if it had been
worn by a Black person.
       “Lo and behold, they had this big meeting with the store manager,” Harris recalled. “He apologized and there was a big
article in the paper about it. He offered to give her the dress. She said, ‘I don’t want anything for free. But I want to try them on.’
Well, he stopped that practice. To make a long story short, we used to call that group ‘The Mother Watch.’ We didn’t know what to
call them. We just knew it was a group of mothers who were watching. We’d say ‘What do you think Mother Watch is doing
today?’ We used to laugh about it when they would get on the phone and talk. They had a good, little system. If any ounce of
discrimination occurred, they began to work on it. A lot of people were hired in jobs in the 1950s because of the work of these
people in the 1940s.”
       There were also informal Black institutions that taught Black culture and history. “The Baptist Church, once per month, had
what they called BTU for young people,” Harris said. “We learned Black History. And we got it all year. I am so happy to see these
Black History programs going on during the month. But what you see going on during the month, we had every third Saturday. So
we knew what the score was.”
       Harris grew up in Madison during the days of segregation, the days when restrictive covenants kept Black people “in their
place” and the color line was drawn through many facets of every day life. “There were no Black bus drivers,” Harris said. “There
were no Black police officers or school teachers or nurses. That’s why these things are important to me. We knew that and our
people would tell us, ‘Madison is no different than Mississippi. The only difference is you aren’t going to be physically abused.’”
       Ironically, it was the color line that led to the formation of many Black businesses.“Now you really didn’t feel comfortable in
White restaurants,” Harris said. “Either they didn’t serve you or if they did, they made it clear that they didn’t want you there. So a
number of Black family restaurants were started. There was a Chicken Shack restaurant. There was a restaurant owned by the
Williams family. We had a guy by the name of Mr. Mosley who sold hot tamales. We had Curly Deals and he worked for a car
company as a mechanic. At night and on weekends, he did his own work. So if you had car trouble, you took it to Curly Seals. We
had one guy who had a commercial Laundromat. His name was Kurt Taliaferro. We only had one dry cleaner. The oldest grocery
store that I can remember in Madison was owned by Mr. Hill on the east side. My mother said that was probably started in 1910
or 1920. We were told that the Hill family was probably Madison’s first Black family. Now I have talked to the Hills and they have
said that their people have been here for at least 110 years, around the turn of the 20th Century. Those little businesses were
successful because every Black person went to them.”
       Integration and urban renewal would soon tear down some of the institutions in the Black community.
Dr. Richard Harris and his book "Growing Up in South Madison"
South Madison roots
By Jonathan Gramling

Part 2 of 3

       The African American community in the Madison area has gone
through a lot of changes since the first African American came to Madison
in the Civil War era. Dr. Richard Harris, born in 1937 at Madison General
Hospital — now Meriter Hospital — in the heart of the old Greenbush
neighborhood, has lived through roughly half of that history. Harris is now
writing a book about Madison and his life called Growing Up Black in South
Madison.
       Back in Harris’ youth and high school days, the African American
community was smaller and very much organized. All of Harris’ friends
came from two-parent families and there were several churches and social
and civic organizations that met the needs of Black Madison. It also had its
informal advocacy and political groups like Mother Watch.
     
Dr. Richard Harris was born in 1937 at Madison
General Hospital in the heart of the old
Greenbush.