Charles F. Harris, founder of Amistad Press and a pioneering African American book publishing executive, died December 16 in New York City after a battle with cancer. He was 81.
Harris was born in 1934 in Portsmouth, Va., graduated from Virginia State University and served in the U.S. Army as a first lieutenant. He began his career in book publishing at Doubleday & Co. in 1956, eventually becoming an acquiring editor. He was responsible for launching the Zenith Book Series, a line of African American history texts designed for middle grade and high school students, in addition to acquiring books by such distinguished historians as John Hope Franklin and Rayford Logan, and star NFL running back Jim Brown.
In 1965 Harris left Doubleday to become v-p, general manager of Portal Press, Inc., then an educational subsidiary of John Wiley and Co., and then, in 1967, joined Random House as a senior editor in the adult trade division. At Random House Harris specialized in acquiring titles aimed at the African American market, among them a collection on black history and culture called Amistad (named after the slave ship captured by an on-board slave rebellion), and boxer Muhammad Ali’s bestselling autobiography The Greatest. At RH he also launched a print literary journal, also called Amistad, aimed at the college market.
In 1971 Harris left New York City to found and direct the Howard University Press on the campus of the nation’s premier HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) in Washington D.C. There, in 1980, Harris launched the Howard University Book Publishing Institute, a program aimed at training African American applicants for jobs in the book industry. (Former S&S/Atria v-p Malaika Adero was a member of the institute’s inaugural class.)
Harris left HU Press in 1986 and returned to commercial trade publishing, founding Amistad Press. Amistad, created in a partnership with Time Warner, was the first independent, large-scale African American-owned general trade book publisher. Specializing in works by and about African Americans, Amistad also worked to expand the market for these titles. The company published popular works by a distinguished lineup of black authors that included tennis champion Arthur Ashe; Ebony publisher John H. Johnson; Essence editor Susan Taylor; and film historian Donald Bogle. In the Amistad Literary Series, the house also published critical studies of the works of significant African American authors such as Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Toni Morrison.
In 1999 Harris sold Amistad to HarperCollins, where it became (and continues to be) an imprint focused on the African American book market. Harris stayed on at HC after the acquisition, as v-p and editorial director of the Amistad and executive editor for the HarperCollins General Book Group.
In 2003 Harris left HarperCollins to found Alpha Zenith Media, a publishing firm launched in partnership with his sons, Charles Harris Jr. and Francis Harris. The company is planning to publish The Pictorial History of the African American Athlete, a four-volume reference work coauthored by the two Harris brothers, that tracks the achievements of African American amateur and professional athletes from the late 1800s to the present day.