Mississippi native elected Harvard student body president: Noah Harris makes history

The same month Mississippi voters overwhelmingly opted for a new state flag without a Confederate emblem, Noah Harris was elected student body president at Harvard University.

It’s been a defining year for Harris, a 20-year-old Black man from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. 

Noah Harris, of Hattiesburg, Miss., was elected president of Harvard’s Undergraduate Council on Nov. 12, 2020.

“I definitely don’t take that lightly,” Harris, a junior majoring in government, said of the confidence placed in him. “Especially with everything that went on this summer with the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, all the protests that went on in this moment of racial reckoning in this country. This is a major statement by the Harvard student body to entrust a Black man with such an unprecedented moment in its history.”

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Harris follows two other Black students who have headed Harvard’s Undergraduate Council, but Harris is the first Black man to be elected by the student body.

Cary Gabay (1994) was the first Black man to serve in the role; he was chosen in 1993 by members of the council, prior to voting changing to include the entire student body in 1995. Gabay died in 2015 after being caught in the crossfire of a shooting in New York City. Fentrice Driskell (2001) became the first Black woman to be elected, in 1999. She now serves in the Florida House of Representatives, where she recently was elected to a second term.

Harris currently co-chairs the Undergraduate Council’s Black Caucus and serves as treasurer. Jenny Gan, a junior from Cleveland, Ohio, who is studying neuroscience, is the new vice president. The two ran on a platform of diversity and inclusion, improving student life and focusing on students’ mental and physical health. They were elected on Nov. 12 and will be sworn in Dec. 6 for their 2021 term.

State flag and Southern stereotypes

Harris said the process of changing the state flag, a decision made by the Mississippi Legislature this summer, is something he will never forget.

“As you can imagine, learning, sitting in Mississippi studies class and being like, ‘Oh, this is our state flag and it’s got a Confederate battle emblem.’ That was a rallying cry at a time where Black people were less than human, and it just makes you feel negatively towards yourself. Like how could it not,” he said.

“It was an amazing moment in casting my ballot for the new flag in the November elections.” 

Harris, though, has always been a supporter of his home state.

“A lot of people from the South will tell you, when you go places and you tell them, ‘Oh, I’m from Mississippi,’ I’ve definitely gotten the jokes like ‘Do you have shoes?’ ‘Do you have running water?’ ‘Oh, do you also have Wi-Fi?’ ‘You speak in complete sentences,’” Harris said. “And hearing those things, it doesn’t feel great.

“But, he said, he’s always trying to show people that’s “not the Mississippi that I’m from, that I know.

“I want people to know I’m proud of who I am,” Harris said. “I’ve never shied away from it. I’m from Mississippi. I’m proud of that, too.” 

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Exposing the relatively privileged to ‘broader issues of fairness’

Brandon Terry, Ph.D., an assistant professor of African and African American studies and social studies at Harvard, said Harris is “somebody who has made sure that the relatively privileged student body that we have at Harvard is exposed to and attuned to broader issues of fairness in the larger society.”

“That’s rare as a student body leader,” he said. “You can imagine a lot of student body leadership is pretty narrowly inward-focused and you can’t get far by just doing the status quo. He’s somebody who has really broken with that. He seems responsive to a higher calling.”

Terry also believes Harris’ accomplishment makes an important statement about Harvard.

“I think it reflects a growing interest among the broader student body in taking these questions of diversity and inclusion seriously, not just as an abstract or intellectual puzzle, but as a set of values to be lived in the decisions that they make in their most intimate community,” Terry said.

Noah Harris, of Hattiesburg, Miss., and Jenny Gan of Cleveland, Ohio, were elected president and vice president of Harvard’s Undergraduate Council on Nov. 12, 2020.

“For him, it’s not just that he’s African American. It’s more so that those are the principles he put forward and the substance of his campaign. And to have those principles ratified by the broader student body I think is an important statement, especially in a university that’s often been known for favoring the wealthy.”

Harris said that though Harvard is diverse — minority students, including the outgoing Undergraduate Council president and vice president, make up nearly half the student body — he wants to see more unity. 

“Harvard’s community specifically, it’s very diverse but it’s kind of diverse in that it has its own separate communities,” Harris said. “A lot of what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to bring communities together.”

Noah Harris, a former Oak Grove High student now at Harvard University, participates in story time Jan. 22, 2020, at TJ's Learning Center in Hattiesburg. His book, "Successville," was used by Pearl River Community College as part of its Early Childhood Academy.

‘Successville’ sets an example

Harris, who graduated from Oak Grove High School in 2018, has always been involved in school and community activities. The violin and piano player participated in sports and was an Eagle Scout.

He also served as an intern for Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker.

Growing up in Hattiesburg, though, Harris didn’t picture himself going to Harvard. He said, “I just didn’t even know that it was it was an option.”

In an effort to inspire others, as he had been inspired by parents Anthony and Frankie Harris and the community, he wrote and self-published a children’s book during the summer after his senior year of high school.

The book, about setting goals and working hard, is aptly titled “Successville.” Pearl River Community College used the book as part of its Early Childhood Learning Academy.

How to get to ‘Successville’:Noah Harris’ children’s book shows the way

Johnny DuPree, former mayor of Hattiesburg, called Harris “a special young man.”

Harris said he considers the mayor one of his mentors. DuPree said he has known Harris all his life.

“He has so much drive. He has so much drive to be an achiever and make a difference,” DuPree said.

“I think it’s important for us to be total Americans, to be involved in the process of governing, involved in the process of making life better. Our life experiences give us a unique look into the lives of other people and it’s difficult to address the needs of different groups if you are not accustomed to or associated with or aware of the needs of those communities, and that’s what I think Noah is interested in.”

That does, indeed, seem to be Harris’ interest, since he said he plans to attend Harvard Law School.

“I really think that’s an amazing profession for being able to stand up for people and give them a voice,” Harris said of becoming an attorney.

“My parents have always taught me to use my voice and to use my platform, and to take the mic and to be able to speak up for people who needed it most, and I really see my love for government and law coming together in that way to be able to give people a voice in the courtroom, and I think that my gifts and my talents would be very well served there.” 

Contact Laurel Thrailkill at lthrailkill.gannett.com.