Richard Berry Harrison (September 28, 1864 – March 14, 1935) was an actor, teacher, dramatic reader and lecturer. His parents escaped slavery and settled in Canada. He performed from a young age, studied acting in Detroit, Michigan, and became a dramatic reader and actor in the United States. He was featured on the cover of TIME magazine on March 4, 1935.



Harrison's parents escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad. Harrison was born in London, Ontario, Canada, on September 28, 1864, the eldest of five siblings. His mother named him Richard after seeing a performance of Shakespeare's Richard III. Her interest in theatre placed Harrison on the way to becoming an actor. In his youth, he worked selling newspapers, and managed to work near a local theatre where he would try to get to know the actors. Whenever he saved enough money he would attend the plays. His talents were recognized early in recitations that he would give at school and in church.

After moving to Detroit, he began his dramatic studies at the Detroit Training School of Dramatic Art, and privately with British drama coach Edward Weitzel, drama editor for the Detroit Free Press. From 1892 to 1896, Harrison traveled the U.S., performing as a dramatic reader. Harrison's repertoire included works from Shakespeare and poetry from his friend Paul Laurence Dunbar, including promotional tours for Dunbar's book Oak and Ivy.

He married Gertrude Janet Washington in 1895. She was the first Black person to graduate from the Chicago Conservatory of Music.[when?] They had two children, Lawrence Gilbert and Marian Ysobel. He has descendent family members in Kansas City, Missouri and throughout the Kansas City metro area.

Harrison was booked by the New York Federation of Churches, a lyceum that included 1,600 churches.[1]

Harrison's grave at Lincoln Cemetery
Harrison's grave at Lincoln Cemetery

Harrison became extremely well known after playing "de Lawd" in more than 1,650 performances of Marc Connelly's play, The Green Pastures, which opened on Broadway on February 26, 1930. The show ran for 16 months, then went on tour, appearing in more than 203 cities and towns (including his hometown of London, Ontario, at the Grand Theatre), and later won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for playwright Connelly in 1931.

He taught elocution and dramatics courses at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, Branch Normal College (University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Arkansas), and Flipper-Key College in Oklahoma.

Harrison died of heart failure in New York City, on March 14, 1935, ten days after he was featured on the cover of TIME magazine. He was buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Illinois.



  1. ^ Negro Yearbook 1925-26 by Monroe Work Tuskegee Institute 1925 page 361