The Rev. Roscoe Harrison Jr. lived several lifetimes in one span — a trailblazer who kept his eyes focused on bettering his African-American community.
He died early Sunday, and the announcement was made to his parishioners at Eighth Street Baptist Church in the morning worship services.
His friends and colleagues recalled that he had a ready story, a twinkle in his eye and a pithy comment that was always punctuated with a hearty laugh.
Willie Phillips, longtime Eighth Street member, said announcement of his death was a great shock. “It’s a great loss to our church as well as the community. He was a great asset to our church. He cared about our church, and he loved the history of our church just like we did.”
“He was very caring.”
Born in Belton during the bad ol’ days of segregation, he graduated from the then black-only Harris High School. Among his favorite stories was his account of integrating the Belton Public Library — then located in the Carnegie Library building now part of the Bell County Museum. The library was overseen by eagle-eyed Lena Armstrong (1913-1999), who held the position for half a century.
As a young boy, Harrison charmed her into issuing him a library card at a time when African-Americans were not permitted to use the library. “She told me not to tell anybody about the card,” he recalled. “So, I told everybody I had a library card from Miss Lena.” Then he would let out a cheerful chuckle.
After graduating from Temple College, he attended Prairie View A&M and the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton. He earned television news credentials from University of Oklahoma in 1975. He also holds a master’s degree from the Atchison Topeka School of Engineering and a doctorate in ministry and crisis counseling from Minnesota State University.
A broadcast journalist for more than 20 years, he was a catalyst for change in Central Texas journalism and communications.
Harrison was a radio announcer at KTEM radio in 1960 at the age of 16. He was the first African-American reporter for the Temple Daily Telegram in 1966 and the San Antonio Express News in 1967 as well as becoming the first African-American news anchor for KCEN-TV in 1970, a position he held for several decades.
In the spring 1968, he was working for Jet magazine as a young associate editor when he was introduced to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Two weeks later, on April 4, King was assassinated.
Harrison was assigned to cover his death and funeral. A year later, the publication won a Pulitzer Prize for its commemorative team coverage.
Jumping from journalism into politics, Harrison served as deputy press secretary for the late Texas Attorney General and Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice John Hill. That career parlayed him to becoming director of community affairs at Scott & White Healthcare, where he finally retired in 2012.
But retirement for him was a relative term. While he worked at full-time jobs, Harrison also assumed the pastorate of Eighth Street Baptist Church, a historically significant black church organized in Temple in 1882.
He became more outspoken in his attitudes of equality and fair treatment of all races. A frequent “Letters to the Editor” contributor to the Telegram, he recently praised the Texas Education Agency’s endorsement of African-American history in public schools.
“For example, students might learn the historical context of why the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a disproportionate number of deaths in African-American communities,” he wrote. “History offers an insight into a society as an archive of what is important enough to pass onto future generations. It is important for high school students to learn that the history of Texas and the United States includes the experiences of and contributions of Mexican Americans, African Americans and other people from diverse backgrounds. It is also very important that students, regardless of race, see themselves in the important parts of history.”
Growing up on Belton’s Pearl Street, he listened as his elders regaled each other with stories of their “olden days” in Bell County’s African-American communities. Harrison would remind white and black audiences that African-American history is kept alive only through generations of storytelling.
“In accumulating black history, you don’t have to go to the library. We learned it on the front porch talking to people who knew how it was back then. That’s the way I learned it because they didn’t teach it in school,” Harrison said.
He also decried the presence of the Confederate soldier statue on the Bell County Courthouse square, the proliferation of Confederate flags and other symbols of “the old South.”
“Frankly, they make my flesh crawl,” he wrote in another Telegram letter. “There is some old and unfinished business concerning the question of race in America. We have torn down the barriers in our laws, but now we must break down the barriers in our lives, hearts and minds.”
His last contribution to the Telegram was a pastor’s column on Jan. 29 was a mantra for his multi-faceted life and careers: “A journey without God breeds a sense of non-fulfillment and disappointment, no matter what you aspire to achieve. But a journey with God opens up the windows of heaven and rewarding opportunity.”
In recent years, Harrison was publicly recognized for his many years of service. This past March, the congregation honored him and his wife, Sandra, on his 19 years as the church’s pastor.
He also served as honorary grand marshal of last year’s Belton Fourth of July parade — a high honor for a kid who was once barred from “white-only” drinking fountains.