Richard Berry Harrison: Namesake of a Park

One of SoHo’s more scenic spots is the lovely riverside park just westof the Wellington Street bridge. London’s bike trail winds through the park and there is a delightful play area for children. This park is named for one of SoHo’s most celebrated native sons – Richard Berry Harrison.
Harrison was born in a humble little house at the corner of Nelson andWellington Streets in 1864. By the time of his death in 1935, Harrison was considered to be the greatest black living actor – and may have beenthe only Londoner to ever grace the cover of Time magazine (the March 4, 1935 issue – which can be viewed on the Internet).
Richard’s parents were both runaway slaves – his mother from Missouri and his father from a plantation in Kentucky. Like many of the other blacks who lived near Clarke’s Bridge (forerunner of the Wellington Street bridge), the Harrisons had escaped to Canada on the Underground Railroad. Richard’s mother was the main breadwinner for a family of six children, taking in laundry for local families. Richard’s father, a semi-invalid, worked at odd jobs when his health permitted. Mrs. Harrison was noted for three things – always wearing a white kerchief, singing songs while she worked and her wonderful homemade biscuits , much loved by neighborhood kids. The family, like others of the time, struggled to stay afloat. As a boy, Richard – known as Dick to his friends – delivered the London Advertiser newspaper to help out with the family finances.
Dick attended Waterloo South Ward School (now part of Cornerstone Church at Waterloo and Grey) and was baptized at Beth Emmanuel Church on Grey Street. A popular kid, he played second base on a team called The Athletics. The team held its games on an island east of the bridge. While still a boy, Dick fell in love with reciting Shakespeare and other classics. He often performed recitations both in the classroom and at church events. When he wasn’t playing, studying or delivering newspapers, Dick was responsible for catching part of the family’s dinners in the Thames River.
During Dick’s teen years, the family moved to Windsor. Two days later, hooligans burned their London home to the ground. That house sat where the historic plaque in Harrison’s honor stands in the park today.
After leaving his hometown, Richard Berry Harrison started his working career as a bellhop in a Detroit hotel. He later became a Pullman porter on the railway, was promoted in his job, and eventually moved to Chicago. While still in Detroit, he also studied drama at college and later in life, became a favorite lecturer on the Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits in the southern United States. Eventually Richard Berry Harrison was appointed head of the dramatic department at a black college located in Greensboro, North Carolina.
When he was in his late 60s, at a time when most people retire, Harrison gained overnight fame. This was for the playing the role of “De Lawd” in a Broadway play called Green Pastures, written by playwright Marc Connelly. The play showed how Negroes on southern plantations reacted to stories in the Bible. The production featured many beautiful Negro spirituals. Several well-known actors had turned down the role of “De Lawd.” Even Harrison twice refused the part. But the playwright was persuasive, and although he had never acted on stage professionally before, Harrison became the star of a smash Broadway hit. In fact, Green Pastures won the Pultizer Prize and Richard Berry Harrison, SoHo native, was the talk of New York – and soon of all the United States.
On October 29, 1934, about 54 years after leaving SoHo, Harrison and the cast brought Green Pastures to London. A delegation of London mayor George Wenige and surviving members of Harrison’s old baseball team, met the actor at the London railway station. That noon hour, Harrison was awarded the Freedom of the City at a Rotary Club luncheon at Hotel London.
As Harrison responded, “My father and mother came here as runaway slaves and London met them with open arms, helped them to find themselves in this new freedom. Now their children come back again to the city and are greeted and honored with arms extended wide.” The actor, accompanied by his brother, Rev. William Harrison, said, “I am the happiest man in the world.”
While in London, Harrison visited his old cronies in the SoHo neighborhood and gave talks at Beal Technical School, the University of Western Ontario and at his much-loved Beth Emmanuel Church.
A few months later, on March 14, 1935, a very distinguished portrait of Harrison appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Just a few days after this honor, Harrison died of heart failure.
In 2003, the late historian and filmmaker, Chris Doty, succeeded in having Harrison’s distinguished career recognized with the naming of Richard Berry Harrison Park in SoHo. I think that mischievous boy who used to play second base just a stone’s throw away, would be very proud of this honor indeed. And perhaps his mother, even prouder!