Recognizing Local Heroes During Black History Month


Brandon Clark, Writer

Every year during the month of February, many of us take the time to recognize prominent black figures and their many contributions to the world. Unfortunately, when bringing up Black History month, we usually only associate big names with it, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks.
Heroes and their legacies originate from every corner of the earth, but we often neglect to notice those who have risen up out of our own cities and communities. The South has an appalling history of injustice toward African Americans, but with it, comes an extensive history of men and women who spoke up and defied social constraints in the face of racism and discrimination. The Huntsville area is no exception as several agents of change have hailed from our area.
Chessie Harris was a compassionate woman of exceptional character who devoted her life to charity work. During the 1920s and early 30s, times were hard. With the recovery from World War 1 and the onset of the Great Depression, children everywhere were subject to hardship during this time as they were abandoned and left to provide for themselves. In the beginning, Chessie and her husband, George Ernest Harris, began helping children by taking them in and caring for them as their own. Progressing forward, she and her husband continued their mission of assistance and aid by erecting the Harris Home for Children,  located in the neighboring city of Huntsville, Alabama. Chessie and George Harris’s overwhelming commitment to their community did not go unnoticed. In 1989, Harris was given The President’s Volunteer Action Award by George H. W. Bush. Even today, the Harris Home for Children continues to help children in need, proof that her legacy lives.
William Hooper Councill may not be a well-known name, but his accomplishments speak for themselves. William Hooper Councill was formerly a slave sold to a plantation in Alabama. Through the Union, William Hooper escaped his oppressors and traveled North to live a life of freedom. Councill would return to Alabama in 1865, not as a slave but as a student and teacher in black public schools. Besides his educational career, he was also responsible for founding the Huntsville Herald, a local newspaper, and institutions like the Lincoln School and Alabama A&M University.
O.W. Gurley, born in Huntsville, solidified himself as a significant black figure not only because he was a wealthy and capable business owner but also because he was proof that the African American population could be equally if not more successful than white people. O.W Gurley was a businessman who began his entrepreneurship in Tulsa, Oklahoma. O.W Gurley settled in Oklahoma in the early 1900s and bought an abundance of land, later established as the Greenwood District. In Greenwood, black business boomed, and the community prospered, eventually leading to the district receiving the name Black Wall Street. Although Black Wall Street flourished, it did not last long. In a terrible act of racial violence, white mobs ravaged the Greenwood district, burning buildings and leaving many people homeless. Even though Black Wall Street is gone, its staple in history remains.
Dr. Robert Shurney served in World War II as a medic for the Army. After retiring, Dr. Robert Shurney would later be hired by NASA in Huntsville after U.S Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell fought for Shurney’s employment. During his time working for the administration, he would train many of the first astronauts and contribute to microgravity research. On behalf of his work, NASA presented Dr. Shurney with several prestigious awards. The NASA Exceptional Service Medal, the Apollo Achievement Award, and the Lunar Flight Award were just some of the awards given during his time at NASA.
African American men and women have played important roles throughout history in our area through selfless actions and daring accomplishments. We should take this month to honor these people who have moved society forward, especially those who have done so here at home.