Norman Washington Harllee was an African American educator who served as a teacher, principal, and supervisor of public schools in Dallas for more than forty years. He was a civic leader and also a newspaper columnist. N. W. Harllee, as he came to be known, was born into slavery on the Harllee plantation near Lumberton in Robeson County, North Carolina, possibly about 1847. Sources differ regarding his exact year of birth. Census information and biographical sketches have listed a range of years from 1847 to 1853. His parents were Evan and Luisa Harllee, who were both enslaved, and he was one of four children born to them. He taught himself to read and write by using Webster’s blue-back spelling book. In 1921 he wrote that he was a “Bibliomaniac” who read 2,000 pages per month before he was eighteen years old, and his readings consisted of biography, science, fiction, philosophy, and religion. By 1867 he taught school in Richmond County, North Carolina. Eventually, he attended Biddle University (now Johnson C. Smith University) in Charlotte, North Carolina, and graduated with an A. B. degree in 1879.
After earning his degree, Harllee returned to teaching in Richmond County. In 1883 he presided over the Colored Public School in Laurinburg, North Carolina. He participated in the North Carolina Teachers’ Education Association, and in 1882 he was elected as vice president. He was on the executive committee of the North Carolina Industrial Association, an organization that advocated industrial education for African American students. Harllee also earned the reputation of being one of the state’s leading African American community activists. In 1881 he attended and spoke at the “Colored Fair” in Raleigh, and in July 1882 he led a teachers’ institute for Black teachers in Laurinburg, North Carolina. In 1884 he led a fundraising campaign for his alma mater, Biddle University.
Harllee was also active in North Carolina politics. Ironically, at an Educational Convention in Richmond County in October 1877, he proposed four resolutions that were adopted by the members of the convention. One resolution stated “that it was unwise and inconsistent to principle to mingle schools and political issues.” Despite his having taken this position, Harllee definitely “mingled” education and politics. He was an active member of the Republican party and served as the chairman of the executive committee of the Richmond County Republican party. In 1883 he served as secretary of the party’s state convention. In 1884 he was nominated to chair the State Republican Convention in Rockingham, but he conceded the position to a White man in order to reduce the conflict between the state’s Black and White Republicans. Subsequently, he ran for and was elected as Recorder of Deeds for Richmond County. His election to public office in the state, along with the election of other Black Republicans, increased the ire of the state’s White Democrats, and they accused all of them of controlling public offices in the state at the expense of more qualified White men. In 1888, after Harllee had actually left North Carolina and moved to Texas, ten of North Carolina’s newspapers published editorials citing Harllee as one of the “colored men” who had been elected to office over more qualified White men. Harllee and other African American Republicans were also featured in an infamous cartoon that implied that the Republican candidate for governor, Oliver H. Dockery, had voted for unqualified Black men instead of more qualified White men for public offices in North Carolina. The Democrats used the cartoon and a vicious pamphlet that indicted “negro rule” to defeat Dockery’s bid to become governor.
In 1885 Harllee moved to Dallas and began his career of more than forty years as a teacher, principal, and supervisor of the city’s public schools for African American children. He taught at Colored School No. 2, Ninth Street Colored School, and the Colored High School, serving as principal from 1901 to 1912. On January 7, 1891, Harllee married Florence Belle Coleman. During the course of their marriage, they had three children: Chauncey, Norman Jr., and Florence.
Just as he had done in North Carolina, Harllee did not limit himself to teaching. He was also very active in the Dallas community. He was one of the founders of the Dallas Colored Literary Society and served as its president. Frequently, he presented lectures and orations, and he participated in debates. He was a member of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He served as the first superintendent of the “Colored Department” of the Texas State Fair. He was one of the founders of the Colored Library Association organized in 1887 by a committee of African American men to provide books for African American citizens of Dallas. He was also active in the training of African American teachers in the city and the state. Starting in 1895 he led and taught teachers in summer normal institutes. The institutes trained African American teachers in pedagogy and in the subject matter in which they taught. He led and participated in the normal institutes for nearly thirty years. His role in the training of teachers also led him to participate in the Colored Teachers State Association (see TEACHERS STATE ASSOCIATION OF TEXAS) and to serve as its president in 1897–98. As a master teacher with more than twenty years of experience, Harllee recreated in Texas his ongoing dedication to education.
Harllee advocated higher education for the state’s African American students. In the 1890s he served on a committee organized by the Colored Teachers State Association to lobby the state legislature to create a “Colored Branch University” that was authorized by the Texas Constitution of 1876. After lobbying for the university for more than thirty years, Texas’s African American educational leaders failed to convince the legislature to create a “Colored Branch University” in Austin. Instead, they settled for the increased funding and support that the Texas legislature provided Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University) starting in 1915. Two years before the state legislature committed to providing more funding to Prairie View, Harllee and three other African Americans obtained a charter to create a “Colored Normal and Industrial Institute” in Dallas. Harllee served as its president. The school’s purpose was “the establishment, maintenance and support of an institution for the scientific normal and industrial training of colored youth, with authority to award diplomas and issue certificates.” The school’s purpose reflected Harllee’s belief that African American students should have a variety of opportunities for education and training. Unfortunately, after three years of operation the institute failed and closed its doors for financial reasons.
In the same year that Harllee helped to charter the “Colored Normal and Industrial Institute,” two African American newspapers reported that he had started publishing a newspaper called the Union City News in Union City, Texas, an all-Black town outside of Dallas. No issues of the newspaper have been found, and it is not clear how long Harllee published the periodical, but his attempt to publish his own newspaper reflected his ongoing interest in journalism as an avocation. In the 1890s and early1900s he wrote articles about African American events and a regular “Colored Society” column for the Dallas Morning News. From 1919 to 1923 he expanded his journalistic endeavors and wrote articles and a regular column for Dallas’s most successful African American newspaper, the Dallas Express. While continuing to teach and serve as a principal in the city’s public schools, Harllee served as a reporter and a columnist for the Express and wrote about the activities and programs of the city’s churches, fraternal organizations, and educational activities. While he tended to write about the activities of organizations such as the Knights of Pythias, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Masons, he also reported on the efforts by the city and its African American leaders to address issues that affected the lives of African American citizens.
Harllee also wrote a column in which he sought to motivate young people in Dallas. Entitled “N. W. Harllee’s Two-Minute Talk for Boys and Girls,” his column presented lessons on achieving success and personal uplift, and it encouraged learning and social development. In a 1921 column, for example, he wrote about the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington. He described how the three men rose from poverty and challenging circumstances through hard work, a dedication to learning, and a commitment to service to become three of the most significant leaders in American history. His overall message in his columns was that young people should not be discouraged just because they were not born rich and famous, but through hard work, perseverance, and living a morally upstanding life, they could also achieve their goals in life.
In January 1927 the city of Dallas honored N. W. Harllee for his forty-one years of service to Dallas’s public schools and the Dallas community by renaming the Ninth Ward School where he had served as principal in his honor. Harllee became the first living person and the first African American in Dallas to have a school named for him. Four months later, Norman Washington Harllee died of bronchial pneumonia on May 17, 1927. He was buried in Woodland Cemetery in Dallas. With his passing he left an excellent legacy. His son Chauncey became a physician in Philadelphia. His daughter Florence Harllee Phelps became a social worker and the first African American faculty member in the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Arlington. His granddaughter Lucy Phelps Patterson became the first African American woman to serve on the Dallas City Council. In 2007 the Dallas African American Archives and History Program, an organization dedicated to preserving the history of African American educators and schools in Dallas, honored him posthumously with a Pioneer/Trailblazer Award and inducted him into the African American Educators Hall of Fame. The school that was named for him in 1927 still served students in the Oak Cliff community of Dallas in the 2020s.
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“Beacons of Light: The Education of the Afro-Texan, N. W. Harllee, A.M. , A. B.” (http://afrotexan.com/Teachers22/TSAT/harllee.htm), accessed November 2, 2020. Charlotte News and Observer (North Carolina), September 12, 18, 23, 28, 1888. D. W. Culp, ed., Twentieth Century Negro Literature; or, a Cyclopedia of Thought on the Vital Topics Relating to the American Negro (Atlanta, Georgia: J. L. Nichols & Co., 1902). Dallas Daily Times Herald, January 23, 1927. Dallas Express, January 25, 1919; March 15, 29, 1919; November 22, 1919; March 13, 1920; May 15, 1920; January 8, 21, 1921; May 21, 1921; October 29, 1921. Dallas Morning News, November 25, 1887; November 27, 1891; August 4, 1891; October 30, 1893; July 16, 1895; September 21, 1902; September 24, 1903; July 28, 1904; March 10, 1916; December 21, 1926; February 12, 1929; January 17, 1973; February 18, 1987. Marvin Dulaney, “‘We Still Love Lucy’: Lucy Patterson, Dallas’s First African American Councilwoman,” Legacies 25 (Fall 2013). Greensboro Patriot (North Carolina), October 19, 1888. “Special Awards,” Pioneer/Trailblazers Award: N. W. Harllee, Fourth Annual African-American Educators Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony Program, April 24, 2007.
School Principals and Superintendents
Editors and Reporters
Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
Texas in the 1920s
Dallas/Fort Worth Region
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
W. Marvin Dulaney,
“Harllee, Norman Washington,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed June 28, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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