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Richard B. Harrison (1864-1935) was born in London to parents Thomas Harrison and Isabella Benton, both former slaves who had escaped to Canada in the 1850s. The family remained in London until 1880 when they moved to Detroit, where Harrison trained as an elocutionist. His stage work, which took him all over Canada and the United States, was comprised of dramatic monologues, as well as readings of poetry and literature.

To supplement his acting wages, Harrison maintained a railway porter’s job for many years and taught drama and speaking at several colleges. He left his last teaching post to take up the role that would make him famous, that of “De Lawd” in the play The Green Pastures. Written by Marc Connelly, the play is a theatrical version of Roark Bradford’s Ol’ Man Adam and his Chillun. Seen today as somewhat patronizing and fostering African-American stereotypes, the play was well received in its time, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1931. That same year, Harrison received the NAACP’s Springarn Medal, presented annually for outstanding achievement by a Black American. Harrison played “De Lawd” for the last five years of his life, both in the Broadway production and on the road. When The Green Pastures came to London’s Grand Theatre in October, 1934, Richard Harrison was officially welcomed back to his home and given the “freedom of the city”.