As a black business owner in the 1930s, NJ Harris left his mark on Chandler

As a black business owner in the 1930s, NJ Harris left his mark on Chandler

In the 1930s, it was difficult for a black-owned business to thrive, let alone survive. Jim Crow laws were widespread throughout the country, restricting black people from having access to many countries and being able to own property.

But that didn’t stop NJ Harris from establishing one of the first black-owned businesses in Chandler, which served as a center for the black community and their culture.

Harris’s Bar-BQ was established in 1932 on Saragosa Street and was unique because it was built around Chandler’s first water tank. Glen Lavon Woods, Harris’ granddaughter who helped at the restaurant when she was in high school, said Harris bought a piece of land from a Mexican family in Chandler before saving the water tank, which was decommissioned by the city, and turning it into a complete pit of barbecue.

Woods said she didn’t quite know how Harris overcame the barriers to create his business, but credits his people and networking skills with helping him avoid controversy surrounding the business.

“It was hard for black people to create something, but because he was the kind of person he was, he had a great rapport with everybody,” Woods said. “We got some pictures of him hunting with John Hamilton, who was, I believe, the county sheriff at the time, and fishing with some other dignitaries in the area at the time, and he was hanging out with them, so I don’t think he had too many problems (with keeping the business afloat).

Woods described Harris as a Renaissance man of many talents. He was a goldsmith, photographer and furniture maker. Woods said she doesn’t know how Harris learned all these skills; she just knows he did. She still has furniture in her home that Harris made from cacti and some pieces made from silver.

“I really can’t tell you,” Woods said. “But I tell everybody, I believe he was a self-made man because (there were) a lot of things he didn’t share with us about how he learned the things he knew, but he just knew he did them. He was a quiet man, not a great talker, but he would share with us what he wanted to see us do.”

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How barbecue became a staple of the city

Harris’s Barbecue became more than a place to eat. It was a gathering place for people from all walks of life to enjoy food, conversation and entertainment.

Woods worked at the restaurant on Saturdays, being tasked with filling the pop box, waiting on customers and helping in the kitchen. She said Harris’s food drew a lot of people, but the sauce, which is a family secret only Woods knows now, was the restaurant’s signature brand.

“People would drive all the way to Tucson to get some of Gramp’s barbecue, and the sauce was something everyone talked about,” Woods said. “There was a man who was always asking for more sauce on his sandwich, and my grandmother would say, ‘You want a soft sandwich, not a barbecue.’

While the barbecue was loved for its food, it turned into something more than just a restaurant. It was a center where many different people came to talk and relax. Lots of gear in the pit livened up the atmosphere and kept people coming back for more.

“Everybody came to the barbecue pit to come hang out,” Woods said. “Eventually, after (my grandfather) died, my grandmother put in a pool table, so people would come over to play pool. They’d sit in the backyard and talk to him and play dominoes and cards for years. It was a place gathering in the neighborhood”.

Because segregation laws prohibited black people from dining in many restaurants, the pit became a center for the neighborhood’s black community, but it also attracted customers from all walks of life.

“There would be a bunch of people coming from the reservation. Tex Earnhardt’s dad used to come here every day to have lunch there, so it was a great variety,” Woods said.

The legacy of Harris’ Bar-BQ and the possibility of a comeback

Woods’ grandmother took over the business when Harris became ill, and Woods continued to run the pit until the 1980s. She had to close it when her health declined and no one else in the family could take up the mantle. The building still stands today; a comeback is not off the table.

Woods said her son has considered reopening the business after learning from his grandmother how to cook the meat served at the restaurant. However, he will need his mother’s help, as she is the only one who knows the recipe for the sauce, because her grandmother promised she would never write it down.

Whether or not the barbecue reopens, the legacy Harris left behind will live on through his family.

“There’s quite a legacy that Gramps left because of his relationship with people, his reputation as a God-fearing, law-abiding citizen,” Woods said. “That’s something that we, of course, my children and grandchildren were enjoying. . . . Those who knew him and knew him know that he was a great man. He was truly a man before his time.”

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