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Former slave becomes prominent businessman
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Black History Month
Self-made man

Former slave becomes prominent businessman

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Editor’s note: During the month of February, in honor of Black History Month, The News Herald is highlighting local African-Americans who have dedicated themselves to serving their communities and distinguished themselves as leaders in Burke County or abroad.

One of Burke County’s first prominent African American citizens rose from slavery to become a skilled craftsman and one of the most influential entrepreneurs in the area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Philo Gaither Harbison was born in the Irish Creek area of the county on Jan. 28, 1856, according to a historic narrative compiled for the “In the Shadow of Table Rock” exhibit created by the Historic Burke Foundation.

“He spent his first nine years as a slave,” the narrative reads. “He and his mother lived in the master’s house, and he later recalled the kindness of his mistress, who taught him to read and write and to locate the Big Dipper in the night sky.”

Harbison moved to Morganton when he was 18 years old and built a house on a lot he purchased for $15. Historical records compiled by local resident Ann Moncrief note that he left the area for a while to attend a school in Salisbury, but withdrew from the school in 1878 and returned to Morganton to marry Lillian Perkins, a local teacher.

By the 1890s, he had earned enough money to become the first African American to purchase a building in downtown Morganton at 128 W. Union St. The Harbisons opened a grocery store there.

“When he needed more income to pay for the building, he went out to California to work, and sent the money home to Lillie, who was running the store,” the HBF narrative reads.

An article published by Catherine W. Bishir for the North Carolina Architects and Builders – A Biographical Dictionary in 2017 reports that Philo left for San Francisco in 1899, but a letter he sent home that was published in the Morganton Star in August of that year suggests he did not find conditions favorable there.

“He wrote that, while he liked California very well, he urged those who had homes in North Carolina should ‘stay at them, and listen not to those lies the agents tell you,’” Bishir wrote. “He subsequently returned to Morganton.”

Philo also had become a skilled carpenter and contractor and opened a carpentry shop at the corner of South Sterling and Erwin streets.

“He made blinds, windows, caskets, and all kinds of household furniture, and became widely known for the quality of his work,” the Historic Burke Foundation said.

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He owned a planing mill as well, believed to be the only one in the area at the time.

Philo built several houses, including his own, in the Jonesboro neighborhood in Morganton, starting in 1895. The Jonesboro Historic District comprises an area bordered by West Concord, Jones, South Anderson, Bay and Lytle streets, according to the nomination and inventory form compiled by Suzanne Pickens Wylie for the National Register of Historic Places in July 1986.

“Harbison was very well respected by the white community and, according to city records, was frequently consulted by the city council on matters of importance to the black community,” Wylie wrote. “He and his family were instrumental in the forming of the St. Stephen’s mission of Grace Episcopal Church.”

Local resident Allen Fullwood, a member of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Morganton (now St. Stephen’s and St. Mary’s Episcopal Church) researched the church’s history. He mentioned in a previous News Herald article that after Grace Episcopal’s congregation segregated, Philo opened the upstairs room of his store for the Black members of St. Stephen’s Mission (which eventually became St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church) to meet and worship.

The historical record notes that Harbison was one of the founding members of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, but he attended Gaston Chapel AME Church and served as its superintendent of Sunday school classes.

He is most known for building the Gaston Chapel AME Church building at 102 Bouchelle St. in Morganton.

Bishir noted that by 1899, Philo was commended by The News Herald in its Nov. 9, 1899, edition as “one of the most progressive colored men in Burke.”

Philo Harbison died on Aug. 2, 1957, at age 101. His obituary reports that he was in good health up to the last year of his life.

“Mr. Harbison, one of Burke County’s oldest citizens, observed his 100th birthday by chopping a little wood,” his obituary reads.

Lillie had died years earlier in 1949 at the age of 82. Philo and Lillie had eight children, 27 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren.

“Mr. Harbison numbered white residents, as well as members of his own race, among his many friends,” his obituary reads. “He was one of the most widely-known members of his race throughout Burke County.”

Laurie Johnston, curator of the North Carolina Room at the Burke County Public Library, researched Philo for a presentation on the Jonesboro neighborhood and shared her thoughts about his legacy in the community.

“I feel like he served as a wonderful example in the community of the success a person could have when they have a combination of education, hard work and ambition,” Johnston said. “Although he was born a slave, he was fortunate to have been taught to read and write, which was unusual. Along with education, he had great marketable skills and a drive to succeed. He knew how to work hard and had good business sense, too. He was skilled in carpentry, and he put these skills to work in making quality furniture and other wood products, as well as building homes and other buildings, such as Gaston Chapel AME. He was also active and vocal in his church and in the community and was respected by both black and white.”

Staff writer Tammie Gercken can be reached at

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