By Andrew Edwards
The City of Prattville is rich in history, from the Old Cotton Gin to the Buena Vista Mansion. But, it’s the people within the city that have helped to make it such a known location throughout the years. The people in Prattville are the heartbeat of the community – the ones who will live on to tell the tales about the ever-changing city.
One of those citizens, Mary Virginia Harris, has lived in Prattville her entire life, a life that has spanned over 82 years.
Not only that, she’s the first black nurse to receive her credentials and license in the medical field at a medical institution in Autauga County, Prattville, back in 1958.
Harris, who spent her younger years on the farm before attending Smith School (which has long been torn down), graduated from North Highland School before furthering her studies in nursing.
All the while, Harris was breaking down barriers during the time of segregation – a period that lasted from 1896 to the early 1960s.
Before becoming fully-certified, Harris said she would take nursing courses in Montgomery. At that time in history, there were not many restaurants that she could eat at that would allow blacks. So, through sheer determination, Harris would take it upon herself to bring her own lunch.
“I’d bring my own fruit jar and water container every day. Places had their own water fountain for blacks, but I wasn’t going to use that. I even had some white friends that took courses with me, and they told me, “Well Mrs. Harris, if you’re not going to eat in this restaurant then neither are we”, so we would all sit together and eat in the car,” Harris said.
Ultimately, Mary was hired by Prattville General Hospital in 1958. Harris says the way the hospital operated back then was much different than it does now because the hospital was segregated.
“There were two labor delivery rooms, one for whites and one for blacks. There were also two emergency rooms. The side for blacks was station three, and the white side was station one, which was on the other side of the hospital,” Harris said.
Harris says that her first assignment was actually on the white side of the hospital, where she would work as a nurse’s aide for the first several months of her job.
Although she couldn’t remember when the hospital first became de-segregated, she does recall tending to white and black patients full-time starting in 1967.
Clearly, her work towards helping black as well as white patients was recognized, because that same year she was honored as one of the first six members of the staff to receive caps and pins as certified licensed practical nurses (LPN) under provisions and state board examinations.
In all, she would work at Prattville General Hospital, now Prattville Baptist, for 35 years before retiring in 1993.
But during those years, Harris had many experiences and accomplishments. When asked about her favorite part of working at the hospital, Harris responded with “the babies”.
“In the 70s, I delivered a baby girl at the parents’ home in Prattville, without a doctor present but under the guidance of a local doctor, and followed it through with the correct medical care,” Harris said.
“There were many times when the doctors needed help taking care of the all the sick, crying babies in the hospital. So, I would volunteer my time to rock them to sleep in my chair. Those are the memories that last with me,” Harris said.
For years, Harris would make her mark on the community, helping all who would come through the doors of Prattville General Hospital.
Five years after she retired, Harris received an award for her lifetime achievements that was presented by the Autauga County Education and Enrichment Association during a Black History Awards Program.
In 2001, she was honored with a “Certificate of Appreciation” for the many years of dedicated service as an officer and member of Macedonia Baptist Church Sr. Usher Board on their 65th Sr. Usher Board Anniversary.
And what does Mrs. Harris do now? Well, she’s an active member at First Missionary Baptist Church on 7th Street, she regularly visits the senior center and enjoys spending time there with her friends, and in her free time, loves to make hats.
“Oh, I’ll make hats of all sorts,” Harris said. “I’ll make them for all the holidays, parades, you name it.”
Harris briefly left the interview to pull out one of her homemade hats that she wears at the annual MLK parade, which she said she missed this year for the first time in a long time.
Harris’ Daughter, Alice, said that they would always watch their mom in the parade every year in the same spot, where Chestnut would change to MLK Drive. Their relationship, she says, is more than just parental.
“She’s my best friend,” Alice said smiling. “I’ll still call her up every night asking what she’s doing, and she’ll tell me, “I’m about to go to bed” and I’ll say, “No you’re not, you’re still up waiting for me to call!”
Above all, Harris wanted to share her favorite Bible verse, which is Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthen me”.
“I’ve tried to live by that verse every day of my life. It’s not a miracle that I am where I am. It’s through God’s guidance. He lights the way for me,” Harris said.
God has granted Mrs. Harris with extraordinary skills, and with those skills she’s helped to impact the lives of so many people in the Prattville community. Instead of allowing the years of segregation to tear her down, she used it as platform to make herself the best person that she could be.
From the farmlands to the medical field, Harris proved that hard-work and determination can grant you many opportunities in life. She will forever be one of the most impactful individuals in this city, a guiding light in a world of darkness.