Ben Harshaw started his long and varied service to our country during World War II serving in a segregated Corps of Engineers unit. During three years in a Heavy Equipment Battalion he rose to the rank of Technical Sergeant and left the U.S. Army on his birthday in December of 1945.
That was the beginning of what would become a 40-year career of Federal service in Little Rock that saw great social changes in the Corps and across the country. Harshaw became one of those special people who helped bring about that social change.
After working a variety of jobs after his Army discharge, Harshaw returned to his high school and attended Dunbar Junior College in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Dunbar Junior College for African-American students was housed in one wing of Dunbar High School. The college was operated by the Little Rock School District and was in operation from 1930 until 1955.
In 1952, Harshaw returned to the Corps of Engineers and began his career with the Little Rock District as an auto equipment servicer in the Operations Division. He had many responsibilities while working in the motor pool but one of the most challenging requirements was delivering equipment to job sites or project offices across the district. Not that it was challenging for him to drive or make the deliveries, but because of the racial tensions and attitudes prevalent across the district during the 1950s. Many of these delivery trips required an overnight stay for white employees due to the distance traveled and hours worked. But for Harshaw, a black employee, the trips meant long days and driving into the night to get back to Little Rock with minimal stops because of concerns for his safety.
Harshaw was transferred to the General Services Administration in 1958 along with the transfer of all motor pool operations, but he was impacted by a reduction-in-force action just four months after the transfer. That forced him to make a career change and become a laborer in the district’s Office Services Branch. From there he held several positions before transferring to the Data Processing Center as a peripheral computer equipment operator in May 1969.
Never afraid of a new challenges, Harshaw was a dedicated employee who eagerly learned the operations duties of each new computer system installed at the district. He worked the late shift for many years which required him to work late in to the night or early hours of the morning to pull back reports at the end of each month. His dedication to duty ensured everyone in the district had vital reports needed to accomplish their mission and keep the district operating efficiently.
According to a former supervisor, Harshaw was very dedicated and loyal during the 22 years she had worked with him in the Information, Integration and Implementation Branch.
“He was always willing to do extra tasks and work (extra) hours to accomplish the mission,” said Holly Hartung. “He would spend time in the evening reading manuals to learn more about the systems we were operating.”
Mr. Harshaw not only excelled working with computers, he also shined when it came to working with people. He was a dedicated employee who spent a career helping others. He began his federal service working in a building that had separate water fountains for blacks and whites. This did not deter him from working with his fellow white and black coworkers. In fact, he was a pioneer in the area of race relations in the Little Rock District. He was one of the first Equal Employment Opportunity counselors in the district and he took this opportunity very seriously.
He worked tirelessly to encourage black high school and college students to apply for jobs with the Corps and for positions at other federal agencies. He also served as a mentor to these young students as well as other black employees. Throughout his career, Harshaw worked to improve race relations and encouraged black employees to stay with the Corps and strive to achieve higher positions.
During more than 40 years of service to the Little Rock District, and over 45 years of total federal service, Ben Harshaw retired in January 1993. But that was not the end of the story.
In 2003, Ben Harshaw was inducted into the Little Rock District’s Gallery of Distinguished Employees – the highest honor given to retired civilian employees of the district. Not only was he a pioneer in computer systems for the district, he was an African American mentor and pioneer in race relations at a time when black employees faced extreme challenges both at work and in the streets. And he faced all these challenges with grace and determination. At his induction ceremony he simply said…
“I deeply appreciate receiving such an award. It really means a lot to be honored by my peers.” Many in attendance at that ceremony probably did not see themselves as peers to Mr. Harshaw, but then who among us could match his long and storied career.
*Editor’s Note – this story was compiled from historical articles and documents. Ben H. Harshaw passed away January 18, 2009 and is buried in the Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery.
AR State Veterans Cemetery register: Harshaw, Ben H., b. 12/15/1918, d. 01/18/2009, Section G, Site 90, US ARMY, TSGT, WORLD WAR II.