Photo courtesy of MyCentralJersey.com.
Rutgers alumnus David Harris was a tireless champion of underrepresented children, schools, and neighborhoods. For decades, Harris UCNB’86 served as executive director of the Greater New Brunswick Day Care Council, providing a safe and caring atmosphere to generations of the city’s youngest residents. The well-known community leader passed away February 5, 2022, at the age of 80.
Born in 1941 in South River, New Jersey, Harris’s world view emerged not only from the civil rights movement and his identity as a Black American but from childhood experiences growing up in a racially mixed neighborhood. “We were the only Black family on the street in South River,” he said in an interview presented by the Rutgers Oral History Archives. “We spoke some Polish, some Hungarian, and some Italian. [It was] like the League of Nations there, and our earliest lessons in terms of getting along with people of a variety of backgrounds. We went to school together…we played ball and we were good friends.”
Attending Rutgers part time, Harris worked for DuPont in Parlin, New Jersey, until 1965, when he moved to New Brunswick to become director of citizenship education for the Middlesex County Economic Opportunities Corporation. “There were a lot of great levels of activism going on in the city,” said Harris. “Rutgers students were very, very involved.”
Harris’s descriptions of life on the Banks are, like those of his childhood, poignant reminders of the fluidity and fragility of urban communities. “[For those living in] towns around the Hub City, the center of African American culture was New Brunswick,” said Harris. “It was a place where we could get our hair cut in a real barber shop and not someone’s kitchen. [There were] beauty salons and there were great Black churches. And you know, places to shop and soul food restaurants and bars and all.”
Recognizing a dire need for child care among the city’s working population, Harris founded the Greater New Brunswick Day Care Council in 1970 and served until the day he died as its executive director. He was also its closest neighbor, living next door. Harris was “a very loving and gentle man,” according to Bruce Morgan, president of the New Brunswick NAACP, quoted on MyCentralJersey.com following Harris’s death. “He bled New Brunswick.”
While working to ensure that the day care center welcomed and accommodated children from all walks of life, Harris also continued pursuing a degree in political science from Rutgers. “It took me about 22 years to graduate,” he told archive interviewers, evoking the tenacity so many nontraditional students bring to their education. “The point is, I did.”
Over time, Harris’s enthusiasm for civic life and his fierce dedication to the needs of underserved families brought him into conflict with some of the region’s most wealthy and powerful personalities. The Rutgers Oral History Archives interview sheds light on Harris’s disagreements with developer John Heldrich UCNB’59, New Brunswick mayor John Lynch, and others. It also makes clear that Harris always tried to find the good in people, no matter what side of an argument they occupied. His unsuccessful runs for mayor against Lynch, who was later incarcerated, did not stop Harris from staying in contact with the politician. “We developed a level of respect for each other,” said Harris. “We would correspond. And I…let him know that, you know, nobody is all one thing.”
Besides his political and community activities, Harris was also a key Rutgers leader. He served on the university’s Board of Governors and Board of Directors and on the Rutgers University Foundation Board of Directors (known then as the Board of Overseers). Donations in Harris’s memory can be made to Rutgers University Foundation.