Dr. Homer E. Harris Jr., a Seattle dermatologist, sports legend, and eponym of a Seattle Central Area park, was born in Seattle on March 4, 1916. His mother, Mattie Vineyard Harris, was a Seattle native born in 1896 and his father, Homer E. Harris Sr., from Gastonia, North Carolina, was employed as a postal clerk.
The family home was at 2507 Helen Street, very close to the Washington Park Arboretum, and his mother's sister's property abutted the Japanese Tea Garden. As a youngster he headed to the park after school and played football, baseball, and soccer with neighborhood friends. He was also on the swim team at Madison Park Beach.
He attended Stevens Elementary School and Garfield High School, where he became the first Black captain of the football team in 1933. By-passing the University of Washington because of racist attitudes toward Black athletes, he chose to attend the University of Iowa on a sports scholarship. In 1937, he became the first African American player to captain a Big Ten team and was voted Most Valuable Player the same year.
Harris wanted to play professional football after he graduated from the University of Iowa but Black players were banned from the National Football League. Instead, he headed to A and T College in Greensboro, North Carolina, to coach football. His mother’s dream was for him to become a physician and with her encouragement he later entered Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. After receiving his medical degree he interned in Kansas City, Missouri, then trained in dermatology at the University of Illinois in Chicago and with Dr. T. K. Lawless.
In 1955, Dr. Harris returned to Seattle to begin his practice. He chose dermatology as his specialty because it provided him with a sense of independence in not having to rely on hospitals or physician referrals. He chose to rent an office in the Medical Dental Building, but was told by the building manager that there was no space available. Doubting this to be true, he called a friend, Stimson Bullitt (1919-2009), and related his experience. Shortly thereafter, the building manager came to his home and offered him office space.
Dr. Harris became a well respected dermatologist with a well-known practice reputed to be the largest west of the Rockies. He was honored in 1989, by the Black Heritage Society of Washington State as a Black pioneer in dermatology.
On November 13, 2002, the Seattle Parks Foundation announced at an official ceremony that an anonymous donor had given $1.3 million to build a Central Area park in honor of Dr. Harris. The donor admired Dr. Harris because of the equanimity, good humor, and positive attitude he exhibited despite the tremendous adversities he faced.
The gift was believed to be the largest single private donation made toward a park in the city’s history. The park, located on the southeast corner of 24th Avenue E and E Howell Street, is on a tract of land once owned by William Grose (1835-1898), a Black pioneer, who bought it from Henry Yesler in 1882 for $1,000 in gold.
In August 2002, Dr. Harris was inducted into the University of Iowa Hall of Fame during the half time season opener. He attended this event with his grandson; it was his first visit to the university since he graduated.