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I WAS JUST THINKING: Harllee-Phelps family: Dallas Black dynasty of achievement – Part I

How much achievement can come from one family?

By Norma Adams-Wade

N. W. Harllee Elementary
N. W. Harllee Elementary School
Photo credit: Pinterest

How much achievement can come from one family?

Yes, there are many examples of families that set high bars and just about all, if not all, of the family members clear the hurdle and then some. They go out into the world and stand tall above us average citizens.

Such a family was the Harllee and Phelps family of Dallas whose achievements we will chronicle. I was just thinking…, this family dynasty illustrates one of many chapters of Black history lost in the rapidly- turning pages of time. But let’s remember them here. We begin with the family patriarch:

Norman Washington Harllee, (c. 1847-1853, died 1927) also known as N. W. Harllee, was a beloved, towering figure in Dallas Black education beginning in the 1880s. He moved to Dallas in 1885 — approximately when he was in his late-30s. His ability to teach and relate to people took him from being a teacher to principal to the height of supervising the public education of ALL African-American children throughout Dallas.

His parents were enslaved when he was born on the Harllee plantation near Lumberton, N. C. and his exact birth date is unknown. Harllee taught himself to read and write, began teaching other Blacks in his early 20s, enrolled in college in what is now the historically-Black Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N. C. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1879 and later a Master’s from the University of Chicago.

N. W. Harllee
N. W. Harllee
Photo credit: Dallas ISD

Harllee wrote several math, history and geography text books. He also was a railroad postal clerk in North Carolina and an influential Black community civic and political affairs leader in North Carolina and Dallas. He trained teachers on the local and state level and was the first superintendent of the Texas State Fair’s “Colored Department” in the 1880s.

Surprisingly, from the 1890s to 1900s, he even wrote a column about Black community affairs in The Dallas Morning News major daily and later the Black-owned Dallas Express.

Four months before he died in 1927, the school system and community honored his 41 years of superior service by renamed the Ninth Ward School where he had been principal in his honor – the N. W. Harllee Elementary School at 1216 E. Eighth St. DISD records say that tribute made him the first person of any color in Dallas to have a school named for them while they still lived.

The Harllee school still today is a highly-esteemed symbol in the Eighth Street community of Oak Cliff, across from the familiar Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Magnet Center. It was one of nearly a dozen schools that DISD decided to close in 2012 under budget cuts. But after a vigorous community campaign to save and restore it, the former elementary school reopened the following year as N. W. Harllee Early Childhood Center.

Part II next week will continue with other Harllee family members who carried on the patriarch’s powerful family legacy. He work ethic, intellect, and genuine concern for youth and the Black community benefitted all of Black Dallas and much of the city proper.

Hurry back next week and stay tuned.

Norma Adams-Wade, is a proud Dallas native, University of Texas at Austin journalism graduate and retired Dallas Morning News senior staff writer. She is a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists and was its first southwest regional director. She became the The News’ first Black full-time reporter in 1974.

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