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Jamie Harrison, the first black chairman of the Democratic Party in South Carolina

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Just a half-century ago, inspired black college students in South Carolina boldly parked themselves in the seats of a segregated department store — armed only with conviction and courageousness — in order to procure the rights to sit at a lunch counter, sparking the monumentally-important “Student Sit-Ins” portion of the Civil Rights Movement.

A half-century later, their sociopolitical offspring, Jamie Harrison, was paid the ultimate homage when he was appointed the first-ever chairman of the Democratic Party in the same state of South Carolina. And this illustrious honor comes on the heels of Harrison becoming the first African American to work on the floor of the House of Representatives.

It was in this state as a child that the seeds of greatness were planted within him that enabled him to make history on multiple fronts. Born into abject poverty and forced to live with his grandparents because his mother had to move to Atlanta to secure stable employment, Harrison shares he was propelled to higher heights in life because of his grandparents’ love and ardent advocacy of his scholastic and emotional development.

“It was more inspiration than anything else. I was inspired to do better to help my mom and my grandparents,” said Harrison. “They invested in me and it was important for me to return that investments. And they constantly pushed me and for that I’m eternally grateful.”

Harrison would ultimately repay those investments in him in a way that was beyond his grandparents’ comprehension and showed unequivocally that the American Dream can be manifested with hard work and diligence.

Despite Harrison’s humble origins — his grandmother only had an 8th grade education while his grandfather stopped at the 4th grade —Harrison credits his grandfather with introducing him to his first love: politics.

“My grandfather got me into politics, watching the evening news or watching the morning news and I would be peppering him with questions about the president. Whether he always knew what he was talking about, I don’t know,” he says. “But I remember being totally enthralled, watching the 1984 presidential elections with the Rev. Jackson, and watching it with my grandfather. He was the first person who got me hooked.”

Harrison was also inspired by his grandfather to adopt Harry Truman as his favorite president because, like Harrison, Truman was from small town (Truman was from rural Missouri) who steps up to fill the shoes of a legend, Franklin D. Roosevelt — much like Harrison is now filling the shoes of the cultural giants who cleared the path for him to succeed without racial obstructionism.

Harrison’s mother’and grandparents’ meticulous devotion to his uprbringing paid handsome dividends when he was accepted to Ivy League powerhouse Yale University.

“My four years at Yale were the best years of my life. It opened my eyes to the world,” he said, despite the initially cultural shock. “I was very isolated. I only saw in black and white and rich and poor. Up until then, I never saw life in shades of gray. I was able to realize that at Yale. If you work hard, you could rise very quickly to the top. Absolutely amazing experience for me at Yale.”

After graduation, Harrison returned to Orangeburg, S.C. where he returned to teach at his high school alma mater for a year. After heading north to work with a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., he decided to enroll in the prestigious law school at Georgetown University before getting the life-changing, breakthrough job with legendary Rep. James E. Clyburn’s office and becamse the first ever African American floor leader in the House of Representatives.

This new job was a grand case of serendipity and what can be termed as the “confluence of mutual agreeable circumstances” for Harrison because of this: Clyburn was the man who once lead the Civil Rights Movement in South Carolina and organized the first student sit-ins in the state, which we mention at the top of the story.

Now, after securing  his law degree and holding down an all-important job in Rep. Clyburn’s office, Harrison sought to manifest the promise he made to himself — to repay the investments his grandparents made to him by buying them a house.

Harrison was a child when his grandfather, a proud and studious man who always paid his bills ahead of time, was the victim of fraud that directly led to the family losing their home and forcing them to stay at relatives’ homes. The pain and humiliation on his grandparents face was tattooed into Harrison’s memory banks and he swore he would one day buy them a house.

When Harrison was able to finally make that dream a reality, the feeling was unlike anything he’d ever experienced in his life.

“When I gave my grandfather and grandmother the keys to the house, they cried like babies,” Harrison recalls, still awed by the memory of the house on the good side of town. “It was like they moved from the ‘hood to Beverly Hills. It wasn’t really Beverly Hills, but it felt like it.”

And the timing was perfect, for Harrison’s grandfather unfortunately passed away just a few months after moving into the house. But Harrison is comforted by the fact that his grandfather was able to see the dream become a reality.

It is the memory of his grandparents that continues to help power Harrison toward greater and unprecedented heights. And while he is proud to have done things that no other blacks have ever done in the history of South Carolina — and this nation — Harrison has his sights set on accomplishing so much more.

“Yes, I’m the first African American to be the floor leader for one of the big three. I’m the first African American chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. I wish they were (distinctions) that were broken a long time ago,” he says. “I don’t want to be known as the first. I want to be known as the best.

“You don’t just want to be there, but you want to do well.”


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