Harris attended the Philadelphia High School for Girls (Class of 1948). There, she excelled in music and wrote a weekly column for the Philadelphia version of the Pittsburgh Courier called “High School Notes by Bobbi”. After graduation, Harris attended the Charles Morris Price School of Advertising and Journalism in Philadelphia where she earned a Certificate in 1950.
Harris has long been active in civil rights issues, participating in freedom rides and marches in the 1960s, including the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, led by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.. Harris spent summer vacations registering black voters in Greensville, Mississippi. She dismissed the risks she took, saying only, “Everyone was in danger.”
Throughout her various careers, she has been noted for her liberal views and her outspokenness. As early as 1989 she was reported as lambasting the Episcopal church for racism and sexism, and arguing for gay rights.
Her rector at the Church of the Advocate on the north side of Philadelphia, the Rev. Paul Washington, became convinced of Harris’s serious interest in seeking holy orders, and recommended her to Bishop Lyman C. Ogilby of Pennsylvania. Ogilby ordained her as a deacon in 1979 and a priest in 1980. She served as an acolyte in the service in which the first eleven women were ordained priests in the Episcopal Church on 29 July 1974. She was the priest-in-charge of St. Augustine of Hippo Church in Norristown, Pennsylvania from 1980–1984, served as chaplain to the Philadelphia County prisons, and also as counsel to industrial corporations for public policy issues and social concerns. She was named executive director of the Episcopal Church Publishing Company in 1984, and publisher of The Witness magazine. In 1988 she served as interim rector of the Church of the Advocate
Election as Bishop
Harris was ordained Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts on February 11, 1989. As the first woman bishop and an African-American, she received death threats and obscene messages. Though urged to wear a bullet-proof vest to her ordination, she refused. A contingent of the Boston police were assigned to her consecration. Her comment was merely, “I don’t take this in a personal way.”
Speaking of her work as bishop, Harris said, “I certainly don’t want to be one of the boys. I want to offer my peculiar gifts as a black woman…a sensitivity and an awareness that comes out of more than a passing acquaintance with oppression. “
In 2010, Harris suffered a stroke in her home in Massachusetts. She appears to have made a full recovery and preached at an ecumenical worship service in the historic Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts on Sunday, September 5, 2010. Her sermon was entitled, “It Isn’t Easy Being Green.”