Black History Month Spotlight – Dr. William Harvey Higgins
Dr. William Harvey Higgins‘ story is just one of many that helps to show the interconnectedness of Asheville’s African American community. Though Asheville was his home only a brief part of his life, he went on to achieve prominence and touch many lives through his family’s legacy of work and service.
Darin Waters, Phd. wrote about Harvey Higgins in Endeavors magazine, recounting how he was
…a young Biltmore butler who dreamed of becoming a doctor. Vanderbilt paid for Higgins’ tuition, books and travel costs for attending Livingstone College in Salisbury, NC. Then Vanderbilt covered costs when Higgins attended medical school at Shaw University and saw to it that Higgins eventually became a prominent doctor in Providence, Rhode Island.1
William Harvey Higgins was born in 1873, likely in Marion, McDowell County, NC the son of Alfred Higgins and Clerisa Greenlee. (As an aside, William’s sister Florence was married to Samuel Barnes, who worked keeping the grounds at the Biltmore Estate and was the Biltmore Forest Country Club’s first greenskeeper. Samuel’s grandson Samuel Abdul-Allah continues to honor his family’s legacy by sharing their history and wider African American history with the entire community.)
On December 28, 1898 William married Bertha Grant Delard (or Dillard) in Manhattan, NY. Bertha was once a dressmaker, but
…her real genius was for manipulating the social fabric. She plunged waist-deep into every important civil rights cause of the early 20th century, from the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill to woman’s suffrage.2
William and Bertha moved to Providence Rhode Island in 1903.2 Their only child, Prudence Higgins Irving, became Rhode Island’s first black social worker. She received her BA degree from Howard University, her BS degree from Simmons College and master’s degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and Boston University. She was a member of many clubs including the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Rhode Island Council of Community Services, Providence YWCA, LINK’s Inc. and more. She passed away in 1987 with no immediate family survivors.3
In addition to his work as a physician, Dr. William Harvey Higgins was an editorial writer for the Providence Advocate, a trustee of Watchman Industrial School, member of Providence City Council, Trustee of Winter St. AME Zion Church, Grand Master of Rhode Island and Director of the endowment department of the Odd Fellows, and a member of the Knights of Pythias.4 Sadly Dr. Higgins took his own life on May 23, 1938, after suffering from poor health. Although he ultimately didn’t make Asheville his home, I have to think his family encouraged him to reach for every opportunity, and through his own hard work and the support and philanthropy of George Vanderbilt and others he was able to achieve great heights. He is another son of Asheville we can be proud of!
- Waters, Darin. “More than Biltmore” Endeavors Magazine 1 Sept 2009. Web. 1 Feb 2014.
- Liberman, Ellen. “Bertha Higgins: Marshaling the black vote” Black Women: Then and Now Providence Journal Bulletin. 6 Mar 1997.
- “Prudence H. Irving, at age 74; 1st black R.I. social worker” Providence Journal. 20 Feb 1987.
- Mather, Frank Lincoln. Who’s who of the colored race: a General Biographical Dictionar of Men and Women of African Descent. 1915