John Gideon Harris
John Gideon Harris was born into the home of a successful planter near Greensboro on March 1, 1834. His parents, Page and Mary (Williams) Harris, were North Carolina natives who had moved to Alabama about 15 years before his birth.
Harris graduated from the Green Springs Academy and taught school for five years. In March 1856, he was elected justice of the peace. Going by the name “Gid,” he entered Cumberland University, was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon and graduated in 1858 with a law degree. He was admitted to the Alabama Bar in 1859 and practiced law in Greensboro with Judge Thomas W. Coleman Sr.
On January 3, 1861, he married Mary Jane Brown, daughter of John Evander and Mary Jane (Godfrey) Brown, in Sumter County, Alabama. Less than two weeks later, on January 15, he enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army in the Greensboro Light Artillery Guards. In the summer, Harris raised the Planters Guard, becoming part of the Alabama 20th Regiment. Then in 1863, he was promoted to major. His daughters, Mary Julia and Annie B., were born during the war years.
Following the war, Harris settled in Livingston, opening a law office. He was involved in Alabama Democrat Party politics and was unsuccessful in his campaign for Congress in 1870. In 1873, he was appointed to the board of commissioners of the Alabama State University for Colored Students in Marion. Harris was the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor in 1874 but declined to have his name on the ballot. In 1875, he coordinated Mississippi’s Democratic Party.
He and his wife were active in First Baptist Church, Livingston, where she was considered one of the best Sunday School teachers and choir soloists in the church. Harris too was so revered in his area that the newly formed Baptist association was named in his honor. Harris was elected Grand Master of Alabama’s Grand Lodge of F. and A. Masons in 1885.
That same year, Harris bought The Alabama Baptist, located in Selma, Alabama, from John L. West. He moved the operation and his family to Montgomery. In 1886, he was appointed register of the Montgomery Land Office by President Grover Cleveland and he served in that position until 1889.
Through his career as editor, he championed the rise of the South from Reconstruction. He encouraged the industrial growth of the state, especially Birmingham. He urged legislation to improve education for all children and to defeat “demon rum.” Some in the convention considered him too outspoken on moral and political issues, but he explained that an educated readership made better citizens and church members. He served as president of the International Sunday School Convention from 1890 to 1893.
From 1890 to 1895, Harris served as Alabama’s superintendent of education. When he retired as superintendent of education in 1895, Booker T. Washington, president of the Colored State Teachers Association, signed resolutions endorsing Harris’ administration and commending “his deep and active interests in the education of the colored race.” He called Harris “a friend who stood by us.”
The front page of April 18, 1901, issue reported the death of Mary, Harris’ wife of forty years. By the end of the year, he negotiated a second office for The Alabama Baptist in Birmingham and sold the paper to Frank Willis Barnett.
The July 15, 1908, issue of the paper reported the July 7 death of Harris in Montgomery. His was a Masonic funeral, befitting a past grand master of the Alabama Masonic Lodge.