Cookin', Critters and Chillun

‘Towering figure’ in Salem’s African American history passes on

Lucy Martin Harmon might have been a tiny little lady, but to people who knew her well, she was “a towering figure in Salem’s African American history.”

That’s what Salem Museum Director John Long called Mrs. Harmon, who died at age 99 on Monday of this week.

This undated photograph from the collection of the Salem Museum shows Lucy Martin Harmon teaching at Carver School.  Mrs. Harmon died May 6 at age 99.
This undated photograph from the collection of the Salem Museum shows Lucy Martin Harmon teaching at Carver School. Mrs. Harmon died May 6 at age 99.
She was a legend in Salem for her participation in the life of the African American community that used to be centered on Water Street – now South Broad. She was also a legend in Pulaski, where she grew up and will be buried.

I only knew her in her later years, as Marylen Harmon’s mama. I missed the opportunity to see her in action in the classroom at George Washington Carver where she taught for more than 30 years when it was Carver School. Later, the name was changed to Salem Intermediate School, then reverted back because black citizens didn’t like the name, people recall.

Mrs. Harmon’s late husband, Chauncey Depew Harmon Sr., was principal at Carver from 1953 to 1956. The school was the one all the African American children from this side of Roanoke attended.

Mrs. Harmon taught just about every black leader still living in Salem, as well as those in dozens of other states.

I remember Marylen Harmon said there was no way the Harmon children would ever think of misbehaving at school, with their mother teaching there and their father being the principal.

Even though I think of Mrs. Harmon as being sweet and quiet, her husband was known in Virginia and the nation for speaking out. Former Salem School Superintendent Wayne Tripp, who did his doctoral dissertation on Chauncey Harmon Sr., remembered Lucy Harmon this week:

“Mrs. Harmon was a lovely, gracious, and kind person, not only to me, but also to my family. When I was working on my dissertation about her husband’s involvement in a early (1938-39) Civil Rights action in Pulaski County, she invited me into her home repeatedly to speak with her. She had a keen sense of history and had kept many, many records and mementos that allowed me to fully document what was a significant event in history in Southwest Virginia. For years after I completed the dissertation, she would come by the School Board Office or call me on the anniversary of my defense of the study,” Tripp said.

“Many people had no idea that she was also involved in the push for a new high school for African Americans in Pulaski at the time. This diminutive and sweet lady had a quiet courage that sustained her through many crises and trials. I was always particularly amazed that, despite the racism and discrimination she had faced in her life, she bore no ill will toward anyone. She somehow managed to forgive and rise above any mean spiritedness that she encountered. She was a great lady. I will miss her very much,” Tripp added.

Although Mrs. Harmon lived in Salem, because of frail health the last few years she stayed in Roanoke with Marylen. The two traveled the world, even at Mrs. Harmon’s advanced age. As I recall, a couple of years ago they went to Egypt together. Marylen took such good care of her mama.

I usually saw Mrs. Harmon at programs of the Salem Museum where Marylen is active. One of my favorite images of Mrs. Harmon is a photograph I took in 2010 when the renovated museum reopened. A historic pew near where she was sitting had been donated from her church, First Baptist in Salem. Another legendary Salem resident involved in equality for the races, Cabell Brand, was reaching out his hand to her, and they were talking.

Mrs. Harmon’s “Homecoming Celebration” will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday, May 18, at Shiloh Baptist Church, Salem with the Rev. Melton Johnson officiating.

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