Harris graduated high school from Halifax Training School in 1950, where she was class Valedictorian. Harris attended Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, and spent a semester at Grinnell College in 1952 as an exchange student. She was involved in a program designed to promote interracial understanding at both schools. She was one of five African Americans at the school at that time. Harris received her Bachelor of Science degree in sociology from Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, graduating with highest honors. Originally denied admission to Richmond Professional Institute (RPI) of the College of William and Mary (now VCU) in 1954 during Virginia’s massive resistance, Harris attended Boston University in 1954‐55. She would later return and receive her Master of Social Work from RPI in 1960. She received Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in sociology from the University of Virginia in 1974 and 1975, respectively.
Beginning her career in 1955, Harris worked as a caseworker in Hampton, Virginia in the Department of Public Welfare until 1957, and eventually a caseworker and Supervisor in the Department of Welfare and Institutions in Richmond, Virginia until 1963. In 1963, she went on to become Executive Director of the Friends' Association for Children. She was also Director of the Richmond Community Action Program. From 1967 to 1976, Harris served as assistant professor in the VCU School of Social Work. During her last year as assistant professor, she was Director of Student Affairs in the School of Social Work. In 1976, she became an associate professor. Two years later, Harris was named Associate Dean of the School of Social Work, a role she maintained until 1980. In the year following, she was named Fellow in Academic Administration for the American Council on Education, which was an Internship with President and Vice President for Academic Affairs at VCU. In 1990, she was named Vice Provost for Continuing Studies & Public Service. In 1993, she moved on to become the first African American and first women Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs in VCU’s history. During the summer of 1995, she was named acting President of VCU, and then once again in 1998.
Following her retirement from her position as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs in 1999, The VCU Board of Visitors established The Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute to honor Harris’s exemplary service to the university. The Institute continues Harris’s legacy and spirit of collaboration, equity, and partnership modeled throughout her service to the university. Harris stepped down from her post as distinguished professor at the Institute in December 2015.
Active in community organizations in the Richmond area, Harris served on numerous boards, task forces and commissions. She was a founding board member of the Richmond Women’s Bank and served on the advisory board of the Virginia Health Care Foundation and the Virginia Commission on Higher Education Appointments, of which she has been a member since its establishment by former Governor Mark Warner in 2002. Harris also was vice chair of Warner’s transition team — Put Virginia First. She was also involved with the establishment of John B. Cary Elementary School.
Harris received many awards and honors for her professional and community contributions, including VCU’s Presidential Medallion Award. She was cited for her leadership in establishing the first‐ ever, long‐range strategic plan for VCU. The university also awarded her with the Presidential Award for Community Multicultural Enrichment and the Riese‐Mellon Award. Harris received honorary degrees from The College of William and Mary, the University of Richmond, and Virginia Union University and was recognized as Educator of the Year by the Richmond Chapter of the National Coalition of Black Women. In honor of Harris’ longstanding leadership, service, and contributions to VCU, a campus building, Grace E. Harris Hall, was dedicated in her honor in 2007. The Virginia General Assembly passed House Joint Resolution No. 513 in 2012, Commending Grace Edmondson Harris. She received the John Jasper Trail Blazer Award in 2014. Harris was also inducted into Omicron Delta Kappa, a National Leadership Honor Society in 2014, joining other leadership luminaries including Margaret Thatcher, Jimmy Carter, Shirley Chisholm, George H.W. Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tim Kaine. In 2015, Harris received an honorary doctorate from the College of William and Mary. Most recently, Harris was inducted into Richmond Times Dispatch Person of the Year Hall of Fame for lifetime achievements in the region.
Harris is survived by her husband James “Dick” Harris and their two children who continue her legacy, one as a social worker the other through employment at VCU. Harris has one grandson, of whom she was most proud. He is an alum of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University.