top of page

Richard Berry Harrison

Richard Berry Harrison was an actor and teacher of the dramatic arts and elocution at several colleges including Branch Normal College, later AM&N and now UAPB. He was best-known for his performance as De Lawd in The Green Pastures, the first Broadway play to feature an all Black cast.

Image Credit:

Richard Berry Harrison was born on September 28, 1864, in London, Ontario, Canada, to Thomas L. Harrison and Ysobel Benton, who had escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad. Harrison’s mother named him Richard after seeing a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Her interest in theater greatly influenced Harrison for the rest of his life.

During his childhood, Harrison attended plays at his local theater and got to know the actors. He recited poetry every chance he got, whether at church or school. 

In 1881, Harrison’s father died, making him the family’s main provider at the age of seventeen. He soon moved to Detroit, Michigan to work at the Russell House Hotel. While there, Harrison met Chambless Hull, a theater manager, who arranged for him to study at the Detroit Training School of Dramatic Art. At school, he was privately trained in dramatic studies by Edward Weitzel, a British drama coach and drama editor for the Detroit Free Press. 

After graduating, Harrison sought work as an actor, but he was rejected because of his race. Consequently, Harrison began touring the United States and Canada, putting on a one-man show and reciting poetry anywhere they would let him, including in tents, churches, and schools.  

In 1893, Harrison met and befriended renowned African American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar in Chicago at the World’s Columbian Exposition. From 1892 to 1896, Harrison continued to travel around the United States, performing dramatic readings of Shakespeare and poetry written by his friend, Paul Laurence Dunbar. He even performed promotional tours for Dunbar’s first book, Oak and Ivy. 

In 1895, Harrison married Gertrude Janet Washington, who was the first African American to graduate from the Chicago Conservatory of Music. They had two children, Lawrence Gilbert and Marian Ysobel. 

Harrison continued to tour the United States, Canada, and Mexico under the sponsorship of the Great Western Lyceum Bureau of California. By 1913, he had performed at the Pekin, the first African-American-owned theater in Chicago. During this time, Harrison became well-known for his recitations by black and white audiences across the United States. While on tour, he saw the great desire and need for dramatic training in the African American community. Subsequently, he convinced James B. Dudley, the president of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical (A&T) College, of the need for a dramatic studies program. In the summer of 1922, he began teaching elocution and dramatics courses. Harrison also taught these same courses at the Branch Normal College, which was later renamed the Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College (today known as the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). AM&N College would go on to name their first student acting guild “The Richard B. Harrison Dramatic Club.”

 Harrison later moved his family to New York, where he began reading and teaching in churches and performing on stage. Harrison was booked by the New York Federation of Churches, a lyceum that included 1,600 churches. 

In 1929, Harrison left North Carolina A&T College when he was offered the role of “De Lawd” in Marc Connelly’s play The Green Pastures. The Green Pastures opened on February 26, 1930, at Mansfield Theatre on Broadway. It told the story of the Old Testament and was the first Broadway play to feature an all-black cast. 

The show became extremely popular. It ran for 16 months and went on a national tour that appeared in more than 203 cities (including his hometown of London, Ontario, at the Grand Theatre). Harrison never missed a single one of the more than 1,650 shows.

Harrison’s portrayal of “De Lawd” was essential to the play's success, winning him additional success and acclaim as audiences loved the dignity and passion with which he played his character. In 1931, The Green Pastures playwright Connely won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in no small part due to Harrison’s performance. 

In 1930, Harrison received the NAACP's Spingarn Medal for Distinguished Achievement. He also received honorary degrees from several colleges and universities. On his 70th birthday in 1934, he received 14 congratulatory telegrams from college and university presidents and seven from state governors. On March 4, 1935, Harrison was featured on the cover of Times magazine. Just ten days later, Harrison died of heart failure at the age of 71, right before a performance. 

Fifteen thousand people of all backgrounds came to pay their respects at Harrison's home the night before his funeral services. Two funeral services were held for Harrison. The first was at St. Philip’s Church in Harlem, New York. The second was at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Chicago, Illinois. Thousands of people came to his funerals to honor Harrison. He was buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago. 


Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page