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Home North Carolina Northampton County City of Seaboard Historical Markers Bernice Kelly Harris 1891-1973

Bernice Kelly Harris 1891-1973

Main Street at Harris Street, Seaboard, NC, USA

Latitude & Longitude: 36° 29' 6.1836", -77° 26' 21.7248"
  North Carolina State Historical Marker
    North Carolina State
Historical Marker
    Marker Text:
"Novelist, playwright, & storyteller of rural eastern N.C. Author, Purslane (1939), Sweet Beulah Land (1943). Grave 600 yards west."
     Born in 1891, in Wake County, Bernice Kelly Harris grew up on a large family farm. She later wrote that her family, though large landowners, were not gentry, but just hardworking farmers. Upon graduation from Meredith College in 1913, Miss Kelly taught in Duplin and Catawba Counties. In 1917 she accepted a position teaching English at Seaboard High School in Northampton County, where she met Herbert K. Harris. The couple married in 1926 and she remained in Seaboard the rest of her life. Her husband died in 1951.

     During her summer breaks, Bernice Harris attended summer school at the University of North Carolina, studying playwriting under Frederick Koch. She organized the Northampton Players, for whom she wrote and directed plays. In the 1930s she began working for the Federal Writers’ Project and saw her oral histories published in These Are Our Lives. With the encouragement of Jonathan Daniels, Harris wrote her first novel, Purslane, published by UNC Press in 1939. It was a critical success and won the Mayflower Cup for the year’s best book by a North Carolina resident, making her the first woman to win the award. Over the next twelve years, Harris saw six other novels published. Her Janey Jeems (1946) depicted African American characters. Only Sweet Beulah Land (1943) remains in print. A dramatization of her Yellow Color Suit was televised nationally in 1957. In 1963 she began teaching creative writing at Chowan College. In 1966 Bernice Kelly Harris was the recipient of the North Carolina (Governor’s) Award. She was among the fifteen inaugural inductees in the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 1996.

     Critic Harry R. Warfel wrote that Harris “possibly of all other writers, best reflects the spiritual elevation in common humanity.” A reviewer from the Chicago Tribune generalized about her novels in 1951 that “(they) have a universality that transcends mere regionalism. . . . she somehow manages to invest the commonplace with an aura of the unusual without once departing from reality.” Harris’s style of writing fell out of favor in her later years and she had difficulty getting her work published. She was destitute and in poor health. In the spring of 1973 she was declared a ward of Northampton County and sent to a convalescent center in Durham where she died, sitting up in bed writing a letter. Chowan College in 2001 held a conference devoted to her life and work.

Valerie Raleigh Yow, Bernice Kelly Harris: A Good Life Was Writing (1999)
Richard Walser, Bernice Kelly Harris: Storyteller of Eastern Carolina (1956)
Erma W. Glover, “Salt of the Earth: Plain People in the Novels of Bernice Kelly Harris” (Ph.D. dissertation, UNC-CH, 1977)

Bernice Kelly Harris 1891-1973 Historical Marker Location Map, Seaboard, North Carolina