Celebrating the life of Lt. Sylvester Harris

Author and former lieutenant Sylvester Harris “pierced the cloak of judicial immunity in America” when he sued a judge for pursuing false charges against Harris because he was Black and, in his role as lieutenant of the Racine Police Department in Wisconsin, directly investigated any and all reports of police brutality and racist abuse. The landmark civil rights case, Harris v. Harvey, was the first time a judge was sued and lost in a civil action in the US. – Photo: sylharris.com

Sylvester Harris was born on July 13, 1945, to Servella and Joseph Harris in Marion, Ill. The family relocated to Racine, Wis., where he attended Garfield Elementary School and William Horlick High School, graduating in 1964. He attended Wisconsin State University in Menomonie, Wis., and Dominican College in Racine, Wis., from 1965-1967. He was very smart, kind, loving, generous and lots of fun!

Sylvester was united in holy matrimony Dec. 23, 1967, with Letha Robinson, the “love of his life,” whom he met while she – also from Illinois – was visiting relatives in Wisconsin. They were married 53 years as of Dec. 23, 2020. 

Sylvester became employed by the City of Racine Recreation Department and was recognized by the mayor for his ability to work with and abate the hostility that existed at the department. He was recruited by the mayor to join the Racine Police Community Relations Division, which was created to bridge the divide that existed between the “African American community” and the police department and criminal justice system.

After serving in that capacity for five years, Sylvester was promoted to sergeant, and subsequently to lieutenant of the Racine Police Department, which was the first time an African American achieved this status in the history of Wisconsin. 

Sylvester Harris was not one to back down from injustice when he saw it, and he wanted to change policing – making for national news. Papers across the country closely followed the Harris v. Harvey proceedings. – Photo: sylharris.com

An angry judge and his colleagues, who did not like this promotion of a Black man who was very successful in enforcing the law, decided to falsely indict Sylvester. This was as a result of an arrest Sylvester made of a man he saw was breaking the law and who was known to have a criminal past. The charges lodged against Sylvester by the judge, Judge Richard Harvey, Jr., were subsequently dismissed in court. 

Sylvester and Letha decided to move to San Jose, Calif., after visiting a friend who resided there, and they were truly impressed by it. This also enabled them to eliminate this chaos in their lives. 

Sylvester sued Judge Harvey and the case culminated all the way to the United States Supreme Court: Harris vs. Harvey, 605 Federal 2nd 330, became a landmark case. The case is also displayed in the International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, N.C., next to Dr. Martin Luther King’s display. It was the first time in US history that a judge was successfully sued for a civil rights violation.

Sylvester wrote a book about the landmark case titled “A Reason for Being: The Syl Harris Story.” The book has received many rave reviews, including a personal letter from the great Alex Haley, author of the “Roots” miniseries.

Sylvester passed away to the heavenly realms on Friday, March 12, 2021. Sylvester was preceded in death by his parents, Joseph and Servella Harris; sisters, Rena DeLacy, Arzola Harris and Lynn White; brothers, James Harris, William Harris, Clarence Harris and Joe Harris. 

Sylvester is survived by his sisters Betty (Edward) Archie and Judy Harris of Racine, Wis.; sister-in law Lynn Harris of Racine, Wis.; godchildren Dionne Archie, Turrell Wooley and Tamara Person of Racine, Wis. 

Nieces and nephews who have shown continuous love for their Uncle Sylvester are Paige and Brooke Harris, Tim, Loretta, Latasha, Tina and J.R. Robinson. Mother-in-law Rosie and sister-in-law Luevenia love and truly, truly miss you. 

Special friends who have assisted Sylvester with several projects and urgent matters are Thad Jamisson, Michael Fair, Perry Nichols, Glorious Goldsmith, Sylvia and Cliff Rogers, Terry Hobson, Al Farley and Pam Jamisson, Mary Kelly, Harry Gaulden, Chuck Tyler, Patrick Lydon, David Jordan, Larry Foster, Purcell Sanders, Archie Moore, nephew Chris Wooley, brother-in-law Elmer Robinson and neighbors Dan and Michelle Dodds. 

Thank you all very much!