50 Years – The Founders

In celebrating our legends and echoing the NOMA core value of Legacy, the Historian Committee is proud to introduce you to our NOMA hero’s the NOMA Founders, William M. Brown Jr., Leroy M. Campbell, Wendell Campbell, John S. Chase, James C. Dodd, Kenneth G. Groggs, Nelson A. Harris, Jeh V. Johnson, E.H. McDowell, Robert J. Nash, Harold Williams, & Robert Wilson.

A new founder will be profiled here each month.

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Nelson Harris

Nelson A. Harris

A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Nelson Arthur Harris, Sr. was a witness to the racism of the deep north of the United States. His family was threatened by a local group of the Klu Klux Klan when he was a young boy, but the Firestone Family of Akron, for whom his father occasionally worked, intervened to secure their safety. From this dramatic event he was inspired to combat discrimination and violence through education, conducting himself with grace and respecting the dignity of others. His passion beyond his family was that of art, spending hours each day drawing and painting, portraits, landscapes, abstracts and buildings.

As he graduated from high school, World War II began, and he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Nelson served in the Pacific Theater for 4 years under the command of General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines rising to the rank of 1st Sargent. On Okinawa he supervised the construction of airstrips. Following the war, he was married and continued his education at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio. It was during this period in the early 1950’s he began to pursue his desire to be an architect.

Nelson decided to leave Cleveland given the intense discrimination he faced there in building his career, and moved to Chicago, where he continued his professional development as an engineer in the 5th Army Reserve Corps, and as an architecture student at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He met Frederick Isensee, AIA, who became a mentor for Nelson, and later invited Nelson into his practice. By the early 1960’s he became a partner in the practice known as Isensee and Harris, Architects. Nelson passed his licensing exams and at the death of Isensee became the principle, and the practice became Nelson A. Harris and Associates, the first Black owned practice in Illinois. He joined the AIA and was a founder of NOMA. Beyond Illinois he was licensed across the Midwest and Northeast, from Minnesota to Maryland. In 1970 he opened a second office in Youngstown, Ohio.

Although early in his career he designed some residential properties, institutional buildings were his main focus. Nelson designed HUD complexes, churches of several denominations and apartment buildings. Mayor Richard J. Daley appointed him Chief Architect for Day Care Center certification and the architect for the renovation of southside Chicago Public High Schools. His designs and words about churches embraced his deep spirituality. The Bishop of 6th District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church appointed him the architect of that area.

Beyond his profession, Nelson supported several civil rights organizations: NAACP, SCLC, and was on the boards of directors of Operation Breadbasket and Operation PUSH. He was a Mason and a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. He mentored many young professionals and was active in his practice until his death in 1990.