Jean Harnish, equality advocate, dies at 89

BALTIMORE – Jean Harnish, a social worker and an advocate for race and gender equality, died in her sleep at the home of friends March 30, her 89th birthday.

She was a reader of the People’s Weekly World and contributed generously to sustain this paper.

Just over a decade ago, a former client bilked Harnish of her life savings, plunging her into debt. She was so destitute she lived for a time in a homeless shelter. She fought her way out of debt and moved into a modest downtown apartment.

Instead of bitterness, she decided to live frugally and contribute half her $30,000 yearly pension to scholarships for students at Peabody Institute, a music conservatory three blocks from her home.

Joyce Ritchie, an associate dean at Peabody, told the World she would meet with Harnish twice a year to accept her gifts.

“We would go for coffee. Our conversations would touch on the books we were reading, women’s history, and the music students she loved to see developing,” Ritchie said. “She came to all our free concerts and eventually Peabody held a seat for her at all our concerts. She told me it was what sustained her through some horrible years. I loved Jean as a person. Her contributions will help Peabody students for many years to come.”

She was so beloved at Peabody that when she visited, students would gather and serenade her.

In a July 1997 interview with Baltimore Magazine, Harnish spoke of how she loved living downtown with its mosaic of races and nationalities. The modern feminist movement opened her eyes, she said.

“You know, when you read the list of Black women writers, its enormous,” she said. “But we didn’t know it existed back then. Oh, we had such a self-contained world!”

In the late 1970s, she became active in the movement to free the Rev. Ben Chavis and the Wilmington 10, where she met Margaret Baldridge, a leader of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.

Harnish was an avid reader. She and Baldridge joined the Book Club at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. “She was the oldest member and she was loved by everyone,” Baldridge said. “People are really devastated by her passing.” She also joined a discussion group on Marxism-Leninism that met monthly at the Govans Branch of the library.

Mary Jean Harnish was born in Mechanicsburg, Pa., March 30, 1915. Her father was a high school principal and her mother was the director of a church choir. She earned a degree in social work at Bryn Mawr College in 1947. She moved to Baltimore and worked as a social worker for 45 years, counseling troubled families.

“She is known for giving wise advice,” a friend, Ellen Barnum, told People Magazine in a 1998 profile. She is survived by a sister, Ruth Zentmeyer of Hershey, Pa.

In her memory, contributions can be sent to the PWW or to the Peabody Institute’s Jean Harnish Endowed Scholarship. Please specify that the gift is in honor of Jean Harnish. Gifts can be sent to the Peabody Institute Development Office, 1 East Mount Vernon Place, Baltimore MD 21202.