D.C. police yesterday identified one of two men found dead in the trunk of an abandoned car this week as James Harris, 65, a former labor organizer who spent more than a decade in Africa discovering his roots and improving the condition of workers.
Investigators said they still do not know the identity of the second man and were awaiting autopsy results on both.
The men were discovered in a stolen red Buick LeSabre about 12:45 p.m. Monday in the 4600 block of Martin Luther King Drive SE, police said. Investigators believe the men had been in the trunk of the car for about 10 days.
"This was senseless," said Harris's daughter, Makeda Harris, 34. "He was a peaceful man. . . . This is a horrific way to end a man's life."
Family members saw Harris for the last time early May 25, when he left his ex-wife's home in Upper Marlboro and drove to his basement apartment in the 1800 block of U Street SE, his daughter said.
When Harris did not show up to take his grandsons to the zoo later that morning, Makeda Harris and other family members grew concerned.
The next day, the family reported Harris missing when they could not find his blue 1984 BMW. His apartment lights were on, and his answering machine had more than 30 messages, family members said.
D.C. police discovered Harris's BMW on Interstate 295 on May 28.
The gruesome death ended the life of a jazz enthusiast who had worked for labor unions in the United States and helped organize workers in Africa, according to family members. Harris self-published a book in 2002 about his life, titled "Coming Home to the Motherland: A Journey From Self Hate."
Born in Kentucky to a coal-mining father, Harris moved to Cincinnati with his family at a young age and grew up in suburban public housing projects. He eventually earning his high school diploma, college degree and master's degree in education, according to his daughter.
In the late 1960s, he moved to the District to work for labor organizations and volunteer in the civil rights movement. He felt passionately about the right of workers to form unions, the legacy of growing up the son of a coal miner, Makeda Harris said.
Harris was a recovering alcoholic who wrote in his book about battling the addiction and who frequently attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
In 1980, he eventually visited Africa and fell in love with the continent and its people, according to his family and the book. He spent much of the next 15 years there, working as a labor organizer, part-time actor and model for some print advertisements, family said.
In his book, Harris describes battling racism and other problems in America and how Africa taught him to change his outlook. "I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up," Harris wrote. "Actually, I never knew who I was. . . . Living in Africa helped me see that I didn't have to live a lie anymore. It provided me the opportunity, for the first time in my life, to experience a Black world."
In South Africa, his final stop, he was robbed twice at gunpoint and found that the country had become too dangerous, so he returned to the United States, his daughter said.
Splitting time between relatives in Ohio and the District, he returned to live full time in Southeast Washington last fall. He wanted to spend more time with his daughter, grandsons and ex-wife, and he often visited city nightclubs to belt out tunes on his trombone, his relatives said.
They plan to cremate Harris and release his ashes in Africa.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.