Herreast Harrison’s life story sings of destiny. A soft-spoken yet sharp-witted and culturally astute and involved woman, Harrison, 81, took her cues from her mother, Mattie Johnson, in her love of books and artistic creation.
“I had a quest for knowledge,” Harrison says, remembering that her mother read to her children and taught them how to read at an early age. “I was a curious child, it was just how I was wired I guess,” adds Harrison, who excelled throughout her academic life and holds a master’s degree in Museum Studies. “It just came naturally.”
Her mother also taught a young Herreast the art of quilting, a skill passed down from her own mother. Later in life Herreast’s talent with a needle and thread would also be utilized when she would help her husband, the late Donald Harrison Sr., the Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame, sew his Mardi Gras Indian suits.
“I was introduced to Donald by his mother,” says Herreast, who attended Joseph S. Clark High School with Donald’s sister. “She said, ‘I would like for you to meet my son—he is very bright and you are very bright and I bet the two of you would have a lot in common.’”
She couldn’t have been more right. Donald was a voracious reader and after the two were married, on July 17, 1958, books remained a priority in their household. “Donald and I provided our children with lots of books,” says Herreast, recalling that they even put aside money to purchase an encyclopedia. She also made sure that there were plenty of books and educational toys at the nursery school she ran for 32 years.
Their mutual love of books continues to be reflected through the Guardians Institute, which Herreast established in 2006. Its cornerstone is the Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. Book Club that provides under-served children with hardcover books. It was her way of paying tribute to Donald, who passed away in 1998.
“I wanted to honor him and our existence together because that had been the essence of my life,” says Herreast, adding that her favorite song is, “The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.” “That was him…”
When Herreast first met Donald she wasn’t aware that he was involved with the Black Indians. She found out in 1957 when he asked her mother to make a yellow satin shirt for him. “Then he had to tell us why,” she remembers.
Early in their marriage, Herreast would help her husband sew his Indian suits. “So he taught me how to sew and bead and he told me what to do but I had no input on what he was producing. When Donald formed the Guardians of the Flame in 1988, following a period when he didn’t mask, Herreast did offer her informed suggestions on his designs.
“We had been married for many years and I had grown—I was not the same person,” says Herreast. “Then I introduced him to the African aspect, a deeper more pertinent aspect of the tradition he held so dear.”
Herreast has kept her needle and thread busy since Donald’s death, sewing for her daughter, Cherice Harrison-Nelson, the Big Queen of the Guardians of the Flame as well as for the Young Guardians of the Flame. In 2015, she established the Donald Harrison Sr. Museum next to her home in the Upper Ninth Ward. Open by appointment, it houses beaded patches, memorabilia, photos and other items related to her family’s involvement with the Black Indians as well books and other cultural items donated to the museum by the community. Music and dance and other presentations take place at the attached Legacy Performance Pavilion.
“It’s not just about dancing and singing, it has a deeper meaning,” Herreast points out. “It’s a cultural heritage based on the memory of the people who started it and the resistance of what they were facing here in New Orleans.”
A passion for music, particularly jazz music, was another common denominator between Herreast and Donald Harrison, though she is quick to point out that when they were first married it was her husband who brought some 200 to 300 records into their home. “I just fell in love with the genre of music,” says Harrison, the mother of internationally renowned saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., who leads the Congo Square Nation Black Indian tribe, and grandmother to Grammy-nominated trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah.
Herreast Harrison’s works, most notably her impressive quilts, have been exhibited in acclaimed museums both locally and nationally and she has received numerous awards for her contributions to the arts and culture and enriching the lives of children.
“What better way to give to young children than to empower them with knowledge and just to instill in them how important it is to know things—to be curious and to want to excel?” she asks while living the answer.
“What Donald and I collectively felt was that you should give back in whatever way you can,” she continues. “We were not wealthy so we had to give a lot of ourselves. Donald was a giver to a fault. I think he got it from his mother and I think I got it from my mother too and we passed that down to our children.”