Black History Month 2022-Day 17: Walter Harris

Born September 28th, 1941, Walter Harris is known as the first Black chess player to earn the U.S. Chess Federation National Master title. There are a number of articles about Harris on The Chess Drum, twice as an interview subject {2006 (phone), 2014 (in-person)}.


Walter Harris in action against Bill Slater at the Marshall Chess Club.
Photo by Ebony magazine

I first learned about Harris from Jerry Bibuld who compiled a list of Black National Masters in the U.S. He guarded this list like a trade secret but entrusted me with a copy which was helpful in the beginning stages of The Chess Drum. It gave me a point from which I could research these names further. Of course, the original list is currently outdated but still stands as a valuable contribution.

Later, I was able to find information about Harris’ participation in the 1959 U.S. Junior and U.S. Open. Incidentally, it was Wilbert Paige who told me that he saw Harris in an encyclopedia!

Walter Harris at 18. Photo by Ebony (June 1960)

One evening, I made contact with Mr. Harris and told him that the 2014 World Open was in Arlington, Virginia. I knew he resided in the area, so I left him with the details. It was Saturday, July 5th, 2014. He called me on my cell phone telling me he had arrived. When we met it was exciting to meet the trailblazing player whom I had written about for years.

Finally meeting the legendary Walter Harris at 2014 World Open!
Finally meeting the legendary Walter Harris at 2014 World Open!
Photo by Daaim Shabazz/The Chess Drum

After our greeting, I proceeded to introduce him to everyone in sight and a slew of photo-ops followed:

Walter Harris with Daaim Shabazz National Master Walter Harris, Dr. Kimani Stancil, Shabazz, National Master Frank Street Harris speaking with contemporaries NM Philip Collier and Fischer biographer Dr. Frank Brady
eejay Hicks, Abdullah Abdulbashir, Adia Onyango, Harris, Ken Moody Walter Harris sharing a moment with fellow New Yorkers. Daaim Shabazz, Adia Onyango, Walter Harris

(CLOCKWISE starting top left): Walter Harris with Daaim Shabazz; National Master Walter Harris, Dr. Kimani Stancil, Shabazz, National Master Frank Street; Harris speaking with contemporaries NM Philip Collier and Fischer biographer Dr. Frank Brady; Shabazz, Adia Onyango, Harris; Beejay Hicks, Abdullah Abdulbashir, Adia Onyango, Harris, Ken Moody; Walter Harris sharing a moment with fellow New Yorkers. Photos by Daaim Shabazz

We then sat down in a quiet place for the interview. International Master Kassa Korley walked up and was introduced as well.


IM Kassa Korley chatting with Walter Harris


On the next day, Harris returned and I put in a call to GM Maurice Ashley. They enjoyed a cordial chat. It was a historic day!

My last exchange with the pioneer was via e-mail the last few days of December 2017. I wanted to know (offhand) if he knew the precise date of earning the coveted title. He responded,

On occasion, people ask me that question. Over the last 50 plus years, since I became a master, I have not given a lot of thought to exact times and dates. However, I do remember that I earned the title at the US Open, in St. Louis, Missouri around July/August 1960. The title was not actually awarded until the following year, when the new ratings came out.

He was unclear, so I did some poking around through the archives of Chess Life and here is what I revealed to him:

I see an occurrence of your name on the Master’s list first appearing August 1962 at 2214. I checked 1961 and they only had an April 1961 rating of 2091, August 1961 rating of 2146 and December 1961 rating of 2175 and April 1962 rating of 2164.

The reality was the USCF rating system may have been two years behind in publicizing his rating after his 7.5/12 result at the 1960 U.S. Open in St. Louis. The July 1960 article announcing his title (above) in Ebony magazine seems to make his recollection accurate.

In 1964, Harris graced the cover of Chess Life in a classic photo with him on the move at the Marshall Chess Club. The caption stated “Harris, the first Negro to be rated a USCF Master, is now serving with the U.S. Air Force and is stationed a Mather AFB, California.”

Harris mentioned in the 2014 interview that it was Archie Waters who made sure he had memberships in both the Marshall and the Manhattan Chess Clubs. It was at the Manhattan Chess Club where he was introduced to Fischer through Waters. Waters also mentored Bobby Fischer was part of his entourage in Reyjavik, Iceland. Harris played Fischer in the following game during a simultaneous exhibition in 1958:

After serving in the Air Force, Harris had a long career as a physicist. While he no longer plays competitively, he does enjoy teaching chess. We honor him as a trailblazer in chess and one whose career we can admire. Salute!

Interview
Audio interview with NM Walter Harris26:10 minutes
Saturday, July 5th 2014

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