Actress Theresa Harris once shared with a reporter that her “greatest ambition was to be known someday as a great Negro actress.” Harris was born in 1911 in Houston, Texas to Anthony and Ina Harris. Her father was a construction worker and her mother was a well-known dramatic reader and school teacher. In the late 1920s, her family relocated to Southern California, where Harris graduated from Jefferson High School with scholastic honors and then studied music at the University of Southern California Conservatory of Music and Zoellner’s Conservatory of Music. She briefly pursued a career in theatre, gaining her most acclaimed role as the title character in the Lafayette Player’s musical production of Irene.
In 1933, Harris married John Robinson, a prominent Los Angeles physician. The same year, she received her first credited film role as a domestic in the drama Baby Face and subsequently became one of RKO’s most visible stock players. Although routinely donned in apron and head wrap, Harris refused to comply with the mammy stereotype and parlayed her dignified style in a plethora of Hollywood’s most classic films. Under RKO, Harris later graduated to glamorous film roles, semi-frequently showcasing her vocal abilities in solo segments. Recognition as one of the industry’s leading African American actresses followed rave reviews of her role as comedian Eddie “Rochester” Anderson’s costar in Buck Benny Rides Again (1940), which earned Harris a two-year, multi-picture contract with Paramount Studios.
While the majority of her appearances remained minor or uncredited, Harris maintained visibility in more than 60 films and offered on-screen companionship to many of Hollywood’s greatest icons – including Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Ginger Rogers, and Barbara Stanwyck.
As one of the industry’s first sable-toned actresses to receive credited and speaking roles, Harris also broke barriers by serving as a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), where she lobbied for dignified roles for African American actors. In 1974, Harris was inducted into the Black Filmmaker’s Hall of Fame. She died in Englewood, California in 1985.