Richard Berry Harrison was a renowned actor, teacher, lecturer, and dramatic reader. Harrison was born in London, Ontario, Canada, in 1864 as the oldest of five siblings. He was the son of fugitive slaves who had escaped through the Underground Railroad.
After moving to Detroit, he began his dramatic studies at the Detroit Training School of Dramatic Art, and privately with British drama coach Edward Weitzel, drama editor for the Detroit Free Press.
As a young boy, he worked selling newspapers and managed to work near a local theater which allowed him to get to know well-known actors. He often saved his money to attend plays.
In the late 1890s, Harrison traveled the U.S., performing as a dramatic reader. Harrison’s professional work included Shakespeare and poetry from his friend, Paul Laurence Dunbar, including promotional tours for Dunbar’s book Oak and Ivy.
He married Gertrude Janet Washington in 1895. She was the first Black person to graduate from the Chicago Conservatory of Music.
Harrison became extremely well-known after playing “de Lawd” in more than 1,650 performances of Marc Connelly’s play, The Green Pastures, which opened on Broadway on February 26, 1930. The show ran for 16 months before going on tour.
Harrison received the NAACP’s 1931 Spingarn Medal for Distinguished Achievement. He was also awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Howard University in 1934.