Anna Eatman Harris's mother never let her young daughter attend performances at the Howard Theater, for fear she would join a traveling theatrical troupe. Her precocious daughter never did become an actress, but at 99, Harris is still beautiful, model thin and graceful--attributes that would have served her well on stage.
She did get close to the stage for about 15 years when she worked in New York as a personal maid for stage actress Marilyn Miller and as a seamstress for other stage personalities. In her files, Harris has playbills and other mementos from those years, and she loves to describe the plays she saw and the clothes the stars wore.
"Late at night, after Marilyn had been taken home in the limousine, her manager would send it back to the theater to pick me up," Harris said. "The car would be full of roses, and I'd take them home."
Harris won't tell all the details of her adventures because she is writing an autobiography in three parts: her childhood, her New York years and her return to Washington. She is calling it "Experience."
Of her marriage to Arthur Harris, she says little more than that they were married in 1922 and divorced in 1929.
Except for the time spent in New York beginning in the mid-1920s, Harris has been in Washington. During World War II, she was hired by the Pentagon to work in what she called the machine room, where employees tabulated military statistics. Her training as a seamstress served her well, she said, because she quickly learned to type. "I saw a man sitting there and just said, 'Show me how you do that,' and I caught right on," she said.
Harris retired from the Pentagon in 1969, she said. By then, her job was to check and correct computer information.
Raised near the Capitol, she lived with her parents, brother and half-brother on the first floor of a small two-story house in the 200 block of C Street SW. They rented out the two rooms upstairs for extra income, she said.
Her community was one of the few in racially segregated Washington where black and white residents lived close together. Now known as Old Southwest, the neighborhood had commercial strips on Fourth and Seventh streets and seemed to have a church on every corner. Harris's family home was destroyed, along with blocks of other houses, in the 1950s when a federal urban renewal program took out most of the neighborhood.
Although her family did not attend nearby St. Dominic's Catholic Church, she recalls a kindly priest there. Each Christmas he filled a wish list for her mother, Carrie Eatman, so her children would have presents to open. Harris's father, Thomas Eatman, had died when Harris was very young. "I always asked for a doll," she said. "Sometimes they were white and sometimes colored."
Harris said she uses the term "colored" to describe herself and other African Americans because her mother taught her that "colored" was the polite word to use.
"She told me if I said 'black,' she'd knock my teeth out," Harris said. "And, see, I have all my teeth."
Harris said her father, a roofer, kept a horse and wagon in the stables behind the house and used it to carry roofing materials. She said access to the stable area was through an alleyway next door, over which a two-room apartment had been built.
She went to the Bell School, since demolished, which was a short walk from her house. The public school was named for George Bell, an early black educator in the District who is credited with helping to build and staff the first school for free children during the early 1800s. Harris attended Armstrong Manual Training High School but transferred to the Margaret Murray Career Development School, where she learned dressmaking.
Harris still sews, recently making a comforter for her bed. She keeps a sewing machine and a dressmaker's mannequin in her one-room apartment for making her own clothes or tailoring the ones she buys.
While working at the Pentagon, she took an interest in women imprisoned at what was then known as Lorton Reformatory. She organized a women's group to visit the prisoners once a month and to help them get jobs when they were released.
One year, she raised $1,000 by making and selling aprons so women leaving prison would have some money in hand when they returned to the District. In 1990, she was honored by the Bureau of Rehabilitation Inc. for her 35 years of work with prisoners.
The bureau's former director, Harry A. Manley, described it as a private agency funded by the United Way to work with prisoners.
"Anna took over the rehabilitation program for women in the 1950s," he said. "She organized a band of about 20 women, and she even got someone to volunteer a bus. Without Anna, that program would never have survived."
Manley said Harris had a special talent for working with the prisoners.
"She did a great deal to turn around the lives of those wayward women," he said. "We treasured Anna."
Harris no longer does volunteer work with prisoners but is active in her church, Zion Baptist, where she has been a member since childhood. She does accept a ride with the hospitality car supplied by the church, but other than that likes to get around town on her own. She uses the bus often but prefers Metrorail because it's faster, she said.
Earlier this month, she lost her reading glasses and made an appointment with Jeffrey Kraskin for a new pair. Kraskin is a third-generation optometrist; Harris had been a client of Kraskin's grandfather, Lewis, and father, Robert.
"There is a little family story we tell about Anna Harris," Jeffrey Kraskin said. "One time she was in to see my father in the 1980s and asked him when he died who would he recommend for her to see. That was before I joined the business.
"Well, lo and behold, my father got sick and passed on in 1996," he said. "She outlived him just as she had predicted." Kraskin said he sees Harris annually for a checkup. "We call her 'Wonderful Mrs. Harris,' " he said. "I keep telling her to slow it down, I can't go that fast."
At her last appointment, Harris tried on several pairs of frames to find the right ones. When the glasses were ready, Kraskin gave them to her as an early gift for her next birthday, July 22.
Harris was delighted.
"I wanted to be the first one to give her a gift for her 100th birthday," he said. "I expect we will be seeing her for many more years."
CAPTION: Anna Harris, born and raised in Southwest Washington, has spent most of her life in her hometown, with a break of about 15 years spent working in New York for stage personalities.