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Larry D. Harris: At age 6 or 7, I was the only colored, 'black' Catholic in Hannibal, Missou

Jean and Scott Meyer, owners of the Fette House on Palmyra Road, share this photo of their house, taken in the early 1900s. At the back of the house is a two-story servants’ quarters, with the kitchen on the first floor. During the restoration of this house, the Meyers have re-established the kitchen in this el. Lenora B. Harris (1898-1987) was a long-time cook and housekeeper for the Fette Family. PHOTO SHARED BY JEAN MEYER

Miss Marian Fette – the well known and highly respected former Hannibal English teacher - and Mary Helen Harris were the best of friends during their teen years in the 1930s, even though it was a social no-no. Marian was Caucasian, and Mary Helen was light skinned, but classified of color. Regardless, they were ‘buddy buddy.’

Marian was the daughter of John Fette, respected orchardist. Mary Helen was the daughter of the Fettes’ long-time housekeeper and cook, Lenora B. Harris.

The Fettes took a special interest in Mary Helen, a young woman with a light complexion, who looked more Hispanic or Latino than black. Under the Fettes’ influence, Mary Helen adopted Catholicism. The Fettes, who were very devout, promised to pay for her education at St. Mary’s College in Keokuk, Iowa, after high school graduation.

“Unfortunately Mary Helen’s family had a lodger, Mr. John Tolliver Harris,” said Larry D. Harris, now 75 and of Kansas City. “He was 22 and she was 16. Somehowever I came to be. So they moved to KC with me.” The year was 1941.

Two years later, the young couple split ways. Ultimately, Mary Helen called upon her parents, Lenora B. and Hilbert Daniel Harris, to raise her young son, and they brought him back to Hannibal, where he attended Douglass School.

“My grandmother would walk to the Fettes’, fix their breakfast, walk back home, then fix my breakfast so I could get off to school,” Larry said. “She walked back and forth; everybody did in those days. As far as I know she went back and fixed their lunch.”

With his mother living in Kansas City and Larry in Hannibal, he acquired a unique distinction. He became the only black Catholic living in Hannibal during the 1940s, he said.

It was unthinkable for this child of color to worship in the Immaculate Conception Church at Sixth and Lyon during that era, but special arrangements, facilitated by the Fettes, were made for him to attend services in the chapel in 500 block of Church street.

After Lenora quit working for the Fettes in the late 1940s or early 1950s, she continued to do laundry for Marian Fette. “(Miss Fette) had a car and that was a big deal. She had white hair and glasses. Miss Fette would drive up to our house, and Grandmother would take the basket, wash and iron the clothes, and have it ready for Marian whenever Marian picked it up.”

Larry was still living in Hannibal during the 1946-47 school year. He moved to KC for a time, and back to Hannibal before relocating permanently to KC for the 1953-54 school year. He graduated in 1959 from a Kansas City Catholic military academy, ranking third in a class of 250.

“I was like a lieutenant colonel when I graduated. The DAR gave me a leadership medal. When they found out I was African American they took it away. I still got the medal, but at graduation there wasn’t any mention of it,” he said.

He carried his early introduction to Catholicism into advanced education, earning two bachelor’s degrees – one in finance and another in business - from Catholic Rockhurst College, in addition to a MBA in finance, which he completed in 2003.

Lenora and Hilbert Harris

“My grandmother was part a Blackfoot or another (Indian) group and my grandfather was also half Indian,” Larry said. “The story is that my grandfather worked as a mason and she worked for the Fettes. On the day they got married, they walked down to the courthouse, took out their license, said good by and they both went back to work.”

Lenora Belle was born about 1898, the daughter of Edward and Sarah M. Woodson of Hannibal.

Hilbert Harris was born in 1886, the son of Daniel and Amanda Harris of Hannibal. When Hilbert registered for the draft on Nov. 12, 1918, he and Lenora lived at 1320 East Gordon, Hannibal, and at the time he was a poultry dresser for Macon Poultry Co.

Hilbert Harris helped build the foundation for the Tom and Huck Statue at the north end of Main Street, Larry said. He later operated a nearby business.

“ln a building next door to that statue, at one time (Hilbert) ran a bar. That was one of the times my mother came back to Hannibal. She would work there and she would read me stories from the Golden Books while we were there. Directly across the street was the (Cruikshank) lumberyard. There was a storm and they told me to get down. A 2x4 flew across the street and stuck in the wall.”

“Grandpa, (Hilbert Harris,) I think he often lived off the land,” Larry said. “He might have done odd jobs from time to time. In the summer he fished and the winter he hunted. I think at one time, he worked at the Brown Shoe Factory.”

The Fettes

Education was an important focus for the Fettes. “Marian Fette was always interested in what I was reading,” Larry said. There was always that interest with the Fettes. They were always interested in getting an education. They seemed like they were fairly decent people.

“One summer I visited Marian Fette at her apartment on Seventh Street. She put me to work cleaning silver with a putty-like stuff, and cleaning the wallpaper in her dining room. I had never seen anything that elegant in my life.”

824 N. Section

The Harris family lived on the north side of Mark Twain Avenue, in a house facing North Section. “Where our house was, in a house above it lived Ed Harris, he was my father’s uncle or father. Below that house there was a house with three sisters in it, who were sisters of my grandmother. My dad had three brothers, Paul, Isaah and Jim, and the four boys were basically raised in a house full of women. Back in the time children were to be seen and not heard, I don’t think children were allowed in the living room.”

The houses were torn down when Mark Twain Avenue was widened and expanded in the mid 1950s. The Harris family relocated to the Douglassville neighborhood, 519 N. Ninth St.

Fond memory

Larry remembers getting out pennies and dimes to pay admission to the Star Theater on Main Street, which had a balcony where people of color could sit. “We’d go to the Star, and walk home. That was really special.” He does remember that the theater had separate drinking fountains for the races.

Military service

Larry joined the service in 1960, and served out his enlistment through 1961-62.

Mary Helen’s heritage

Mary Helen, Larry’s mother, was born in 1924 at Keokuk, Iowa. Larry tells the story of how she began life in Hannibal:

“My grandmother’s sister worked at Levering Hospital. When she was working there, they brought a baby in and it was mulatto. She had a white father, and he didn’t want it. They brought the baby from Keokuk to Hannibal. ‘I’ll take it,’ my Aunt Helen said, so they gave the baby to her. At that time she already had five kids, so she brings home another one, and her husband said, ‘It ain’t gonna happen.’ Aunt Helen talked to my grandmother; my grandmother had had a stillbirth, a boy named William, and it really affected her. She took my mother and raised her as her own. Aunt Helen, my grandmother’s sister, lived on the west end bottoms. Every summer it flooded there. They had 8 or 9 kids. As a treat to me sometimes in the summertime I’d get to go there and play with them.”

Out of college

In 1968, Larry applied at Yellow Freight in Kansas City. They tested him, and ultimately hired him as one of the first 38 computer programmers to work for the company. He worked there for ten years; then took a turn managing a barbecue restaurant for his father. Today he works for DST Systems, where he has been employed for 21 years.

Lasting faith

Today, Larry is a member of St. Peter’s Parish in Kansas City, where he is one of five African American males in a congregation of 650 people. He is a third-degree Knights of Columbus.

“There is a lot of conservatism in the church. It has gone through cycles. In the late 1950s, it was liberal; late in the 1970s it started to become conservative and now it is very conservative.

“I’m pretty sure that between Marian and John Fette, they basically convinced my mother that she should have me baptized. When I came to Kansas City I was baptized at St. Joseph’s Church.”

Despite his dedication to his church, he said he said he still feels the prejudice. “I have one pew I sit in so they will know where I am.” After the Ferguson riots, he said, “one European couple with a daughter age 4, 5 or 6, sat in front of me. The girl turned around and looked at me. She said ‘hands up, don’t shoot.’ Kids understand more than you think they do.”

He remains grateful to the Fettes for their early influence on his life.

“Any time you think what you say and what you do has no effect, the Fette family gave us an early look at what is possible.”

Despite obstacles, “I’m here (in Catholicism) because I believe in Christ and the religion.”

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