An avid student of French existentialism and a serious collector of modern jazz LPs, Donald Harrison Sr. was not your average Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief. One of the real-life models for “Big Chief” Albert Lambreaux in the much-heralded HBO series Treme, Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. was a tireless reader and accomplished street-corner philosopher who in 1988 formed his own tribe, The Guardians of the Flame, and remained a lifelong proponent of the central roles education, cultural tradition and artistic expression ought to play in a full and meaningful life. When he passed in December 1998, Big Chief Donald left behind a legacy of thought and action unmatched in the annals of New Orleans cultural history, a legacy fully recounted by Al Kennedy in the remarkably intimate cultural biography Big Chief Harrison and the Mardi Gras Indians, published in 2010. But a complete picture of Donald Harrison Sr.’s cultural legacy must also include his influence on a brightly shining family constellation that includes, among others, son Donald Harrison Jr., a world-renowned jazz musician and passionate New Orleans musical educator; grandson Christian Scott, a rising young star in the world of mainstream jazz; and daughter Cherice Harrison-Nelson, a career educator recognized both for her innovative efforts incorporating cultural studies in the K-12 curriculum and her advocacy initiatives on behalf of New Orleans culture, embodied especially in the founding of the Mardi Gras Indians Hall of Fame.
But Donald Harrison Sr.’s greatest influence may have been on his wife and life-partner Herreast (pronounced herr-EESE), a strong-minded woman who brought to the marriage her own cultural legacy as a fifth-generation quilter and her own set of accomplishments as a pre-K educator and businesswomen who for several decades successfully ran a small chain of child daycare centers. Widely recognized as a cultural leader and community activist in her own right, Herreast Harrison has served for many years as a community-based affiliate of Tulane University’s Newcomb College Center for Research on Women and most recently traveled last fall to Washington, D.C. to receive a Community Leadership Award from FBI Director Robert Mueller. In the earliest days of recovery and rebuilding, Herreast Harrison and daughter Cherice Harrison-Nelson joined forces to address some of the most-pressing needs children in a post-Katrina landscape, forming the Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. Book Club as a conduit for placing both curriculum-based and recreational reading materials in the tiny hands of the city’s youngest citizens. On January 27—which would have been the Big Chief’s 80th birthday—they will hold a dedication and opening ceremony for the Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. Neighborhood Activity Center for Children, built on land Mrs. Harrison previously purchased adjacent to the Harrison family home in the Upper Ninth Ward. The facility was constructed with financial sponsorship from Johnson Controls, Inc. as a Tulane University School of Architecture faculty/student design-build project carried out under the auspices of Tulane City Center, an innovative, post-Katrina civic-engagement program. Once put into use, the new structure will serve as headquarters for the mother-and-daughter team’s Book Club and other programs designed to enrich the post-Katrina lives of New Orleans’ children.