Grandison Harris

Slave
and
Resurrection Man

Grandison Harris was a slave, who was purchased in Charleston, South Carolina in 1852, for the sum of $700. He was purchased by the Medical College of Georgia for the sole purpose of procuring cadavers to be used for medical training. Dissection of human cadavers was illegal in Georgia until 1887, and prior to the purchase of Harris, cadavers were bought from various urban slaves at a price that was ever increasing. As supply and demand dictated, the cost of bodies "rose dramatically." Grandison Harris became the solution to that problem and by the grandiose nature of his swift and efficient work, he soon became known as the resurrection man.

The Medical College of Georgia was, and is, located in Augusta, Georgia. In the late 1800's, nearby Cedar Grove Cemetery was the principal burial site reserved for Augusta's black community. This was one of Harris' chosen repositorys for his work. Late at night, Harris would sneak in and quickly dig into the freshest grave he could find. Approaching the upper end of the coffin, he would pull out the body, place it in a sack, and with the use of a wagon, transport it back to the medical school. His duties didn't end there; He preserved the bodies, prepared them for classroom use, cleaned up afterwards, and discarded the remains. As the saying goes; somebody had to do it.

Harris held an unusual place in the slave hierarchy. There were usually four types of slavery experiences;(1)free blacks,(2) urban slaves, (3) plantation house servants, and (4) skilled workers. Harris was an urban slave but was treated, in essence, as a freeman. He was paid for his efforts as well as given free room and board and a plentiful supply of liquor. He became popular among the students and faculty and at times served as a teaching assistant. Obviously smart, Harris was also considered a powerful Gullah,referring to his original culture of the West African Gola, and spoke English with a distintive Gullah accent that garnered great attention. Considering that his work was both illegal and morally reprehensible, it was odd that as far as the authorities were concerned, he was practically invisible and never detected.

Harris frequently appeared in pictures with the all-white staff and student body, and was allowed to make trips to Charleston to visit his wife and son, which in 1858, the college also purchased for the amount of $1,250. During the Civil War, the college was closed and used as a Confederate Corps hospital. Afterwards, with emancipation, Harris moved to Hamburg, South Carolina and was appointed as a judge in the carpetbagger regime. He eventually returned to Augusta and the college and was re-hired as a janitor. Harris retired in 1905 and was awarded a pension of $10 a month. He passed away in 1911 and was buried in, where else, the Cedar Grove Cemetery, his old stomping grounds.

Recollections passed along by college administrators, by their parents and grandparents, described Grandison Harris as;

..a smart old bastard. He would really sneak down and rob those graves. He was powerful. He made money. He was influential. Local blacks feared him because they did not know who he was going to dig up next. He was a flashy dresser, who wore a Panama straw hat in the spring and a derby in the winter. He always wore a boutonniere in his lapel on Sunday.


Sources:
Branch, Murial 1995 The Water Brought Us: The Story of the Gullah Speaking People. New York:Cobble Hill/Dutton.
Blakely Robert and Harrington Judith 1997 Bones in the Basement Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press
Allen, Lane 1976 Grandison Harris, Sr. Slave, Resurrectionist and Judge. Bulletin of the Georgia Academy of Science 34:192-199

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