HARPER, WILLIARD FLEMMETT (1 August 1922-23 November 2015), was an educator, United Nations diplomat and administrator, and philanthropist. He was born in Conyers, Georgia, and moved to Cleveland with his parents, Annie Mae Veal Harper and Huel Harper. He grew up in the MOUNT PLEASANT neighborhood, where he was fascinated with, and learned some of, the languages spoken by his diverse neighbors. Because of his talent for languages, he participated in the innovative Cleveland Public Schools French program of EMILE DE SAUZE. Harper graduated from John Adams H.S. (1941) and then served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps (1942-46). He pursued higher education at Morehouse College, receiving a B.A. in French and Spanish; WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY, earning an M.A. in Romance Languages (1948); and the Sorbonne, University of Paris, receiving a Ph.D. in French Literature (1954).
Dr. Harper started his career teaching French and Spanish at Wiley College, Marshall, TX, and at Dillard University, New Orleans, LA; and taught French and directed the Humanities Division of Albany State College, Albany, GA (1948-58). For one year, he returned to Cleveland and headed the language department at Audubon Jr. H.S., and was a consultant to the Board of Education (1958). Following this, he worked for the U. S. Department of State as a cultural affairs officer in Morocco, a trainer of teachers of English in Mali, and head of the English Department at a language institute in Tunisia (1959-62).
Harper applied, and was accepted for a position at the United Nations. He held senior language expert and chief technical advisor positions at teacher colleges in the Congo and Rwanda (1965-70). Many of his students in Africa went on to become leaders in their respective fields. In 1970, Dr. Harper began working for the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) at its headquarters in New York as a project officer, and, then, one year later, he was promoted to become UNDP’s Director of the Bureau for Central Africa and the Indian Ocean Section. Living again in Africa, he directed economic and social development, overseeing, for example, the building of roads, schools, and a dam, in recently independent countries such as The Gambia, Senegal, Chad, and Sierra Leone. In recognition of his administrative and diplomatic accomplishments, he gained the highest job classification of Director D-2, which was, reportedly, only the second time an African American had held such an advanced position in the United Nations, following Dr. Ralph Bunche in an earlier generation.
After his retirement from the U.N. in 1984, Harper returned to Cleveland, and worked part-time until 2001 for the U.S. State Department as an Escort Officer, hosting visiting foreign diplomats, and teaching them about the United States. During his work and travels to many countries in Africa, Dr. Harper became a collector of fine traditional African art and artifacts. Some of the art was given to him by former students and some by others in appreciation for his outstanding service. He donated 100 pieces of his art collection to the CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY (CMNH), to further education about the countries where he worked and their people, cultures, art, and traditions. The Museum held a large exhibit of this art in 2004, entitled, “Senenkunya: Many Voices, One Family.” Senenkunya is a tradition in Mali that promotes good will and respect among diverse groups of people.
Receiving numerous honors, appointments, and memberships, Dr. Harper was a life member of the NAACP, the Association of Former International Civil Servants, and the National Fulbright Association; he was a trustee of the CMNH. He served his country, community, and the world for over 50 years. Harper is buried in LAKE VIEW CEMETERY.