Ten years ago when Charles F. Harris sat for an interview with Historymakers, he disclosed his first contact with the world of words in print. His father insisted that he read the papers he delivered. Harris not only read the papers he devoured them, digested them so thoroughly that elements of them emerged again in the books he edited and published. A pioneering Black publisher, Harris, 81, died on Dec. 16 in Manhattan.
According to his son, Francis, the cause of death was colon cancer.
A robust man of diverse interests, Harris was born January 3, 1934 in Portsmouth, Va. He graduated from Virginia State University in 1955 with a B.A. degree. After college he enlisted in the Army and rose to the rank of first lieutenant.
In 1965, while employed at Doubleday & Company, his first job in publishing, he launched the Zenith Books Series that focused on young African American readers. He was busy over the next two years accepting and developing manuscripts from such notables as historians John Hope Franklin, Rayford Logan, economist Robert Weaver, and football immortal Jim Brown.
Harris was a senior editor at Random House in 1967 and began editing Amistad, two volumes of writings devoted to Black history and culture. The magazine became very popular among general readers and particularly scholars. He also acquired The Greatest by Muhammad Ali with Richard Durham.
From 1971 to 1986, Harris was at Howard University where he created and managed the college’s publishing arm. Amistad Press Inc. resulted from this venture and he continued his interest in specializing in African American topics and themes for his books. Both Amistad and its literary series featured a coterie of notable authors, including Arthur Ashe, Susan Taylor, John Johnson, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker.
In 1999, he sold Amistad to HarperCollins Publishers, and joined the company as vice president editorial director of the new imprint as well as executive editor of the company’s general books division. “I am pleased to be bringing Amistad Press to HarperCollins, a company that shares my vision and supports my mission,” Harris upon selling the press. “HarperCollins has a strong heritage of publishing books by African-American authors: books by authors such as Shelby Steele, Lawrence Otis Graham, Richard Wright, Earl Graves, Zora Neale Hurston, and Marion Wright Edelman; highly successful children’s books by authors such as Walter Dean Myers, Joyce Carol Thomas, Jerry Pinckney and Eloise Greenfield; and popular Christian titles by Zondervan authors such as Dr. Ben Carson, Mike Singletary and Rosa Parks. In addition, HarperCollins’ acquisition of William Morrow and Avon Books brings with it many more important African-American authors including Paula Giddings, Tony Brown and Les Brown. I am very proud of all we have achieved at Amistad and look forward to an exciting future building on that success with HarperCollins.”
At the same time, he began writing a monthly column for BET.com.
In 2003, Harris left HarperCollins Publishers to once again start his own publishing company, Alpha Zenith Media Inc., where he continued to publish works critical to the African American community.
Funeral services occurred in Portsmouth, Va.