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Remembering Adlene Harrison, Dallas’ Groundbreaking First Female Mayor

Dallas’ first female mayor died last month at the age of 98. She was a trailblazer, unafraid to speak her mind fight for things like integration and environmental justice.
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Adlene Harrison
Elizabeth Lavin

Adlene Harrison used to drag her daughter to the City Plan Commission meetings, parking her at the back of the room to do her homework while city business took place. It wasn’t that Harrison had a plan to raise a political mastermind of a daughter who understood the inner workings of municipal politics by the time she could drive a car; she just wanted to spend time with her child. Harrison didn’t break glass ceilings by sitting around and she made sure to bring her family with her.

Harrison became the first female and Jewish mayor of Dallas in 1976. She died last month at age 98.

Her daughter Jane remembers the hoops her parents had to jump through just to share a meal. Harrison and her husband Maurice rarely found time to sit down to dinner, so Harrison would pick up the usual order of burgers from Goff’s and bring it to the barbershop, sharing a meal while Maurice got a trim. Then it was off to her evening meeting.  

She served on the Dallas City Council between 1973 and 1977 and became acting mayor after Wes Wise resigned to run for Congress in 1976. She was the first Jewish woman to serve as mayor of a major American city, but her daughter says she never made too much of being a political pioneer. She was all about getting things done; beating her drum didn’t mesh with her fierce commitment to doing what she thought was right.

“She was about the issue at hand,” says former Mayor Mike Rawlings, who became friends with her during and after his time as mayor. “She was surprisingly humble when you turn the light on her. She didn’t even know there was a glass ceiling, and suddenly she’s busted right through all that stuff.”

Harrison grew up in South Dallas, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution from the Czar. Her father was a baker and always included her in discussions at the dinner table, educating her about how the world worked while encouraging her to do whatever she wanted. He told her she was “born old,” a nod to her wisdom and maturity even at a young age.

She was an avid tennis player and a member of the public speaking club in high school; both loves would follow her throughout her life.

She became involved in local politics and served on the boards of the Metropolitan YWCA, the Dallas Home for the Jewish Aged, and the Dallas Chapter of the Brandeis University National Women’s Committee.

She spent eight years on the Dallas Plan Commission and was elected to the Dallas City Council in 1973. On the eve of her election to the City Council, Harrison’s priorities wouldn’t be out of place alongside the platforms of 2022 City Council candidates: mass transportation and pollution. One of the earliest articles that mention the late mayor stressed good planning as essential to a thriving Dallas. 

She spent her time on Council fighting for environmental protection. She consistently battled against development on Dallas’ wetlands. She fought for railroads through Dallas to keep their right of way, seeing the future where rail provided an environmentally friendly way to move Dallas’ growing population.

“We were not going to be able to get people out of their cars unless we offered them something else,” she said in an interview with the Briscoe Center in 2000. 

Her daughter, Jane Fox, was acutely aware of her municipal dealings, which were often the subject of conversations when the family found the dinner table together. “It was all that was discussed at the dinner table, and usually she would just be on the phone screaming at people,” she says, jokingly.  

Fox remembers one of the more well-known battles of her mother’s career. Dallas Power and Light enacted a retroactive rate hike for its customers. Harrison’s husband discovered the hike on the family’s electric bill, and she went public with it. She earned all the customers a rebate on their next bill.

As the mayoral election of 1976 approached during her time as acting mayor, Harrison seriously considered running, but integration kept her on the council, she says. A federal judge was about to force Dallas schools to integrate, more than two decades after Brown v. Board of Education made school segregation illegal. She knew that many council members were going to speak out against being forced to integrate. She decided to stay on council to be a voice for integration.

It was just as well she didn’t win an election; President Carter named Harrison as Texas’ regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1977. She also served on the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Board in 1983, becoming its first chair. She was unafraid to speak her mind and never sugarcoated her opinions.

An example: While Harrison was with the EPA, President Jimmy Carter wanted to store the nation’s petroleum reserve in salt domes in the Gulf of Mexico. In order to do make room, they had to pump out saline from the domes into the gulf.

Harrison heard from fishermen that the saline would harm the marine life unless it was pumped further out. She was included in meetings about how to solve the problem, and she met with a general who ran the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

In a moment of chutzpah, she refused to refer to him with his military title, sensing that she needed a show of strength if she was to get her way. “I didn’t want him to think that general status was going to mean very much to me,” she told the Briscoe Center. “That probably wasn’t very nice of me, but as a woman and as someone that was in a department that wasn’t popular, you have to stake your claim, and I did that.”

Rawlings can’t forget first meeting Harrison. He met with Harrison to seek her endorsement when he ran for mayor. Even though she started the conversation by saying she wouldn’t be endorsing anyone, the conversation ended with her in Rawlings’ corner. He often fielded calls from her during his first term as she offered advice and guidance. In his second term, the two became friends, and he saw her change from “tough and funny” to “sweet and funny.”

“She was always about doing the right thing and treating people with respect. She cared that I took care of myself that in that period of time, but that I didn’t suffer fools,” Rawlings says. “She had a sense of urgency about her that resonates with me.”

When she wasn’t putting military commanders in their place or battling developers who wanted to pave the marshes, Harrison could be found working in her yard in long cut-off jean shorts and a button-up shirt. The family would gather with friends like the Tobolowskys to watch the Cowboy games on fall Sundays, meeting up for Tex-Mex at now-closed Spanish Village in Cedar Springs.

Harrison’s integrity was only matched by her doggedness, and unsurprisingly, she described her impact on Dallas better than anyone else.

“I never took on a battle; I took on a war,” she said. “If there was something really big, I didn’t mind being heard.”

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Will Maddox

Will Maddox

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Will is the managing editor for D CEO magazine and the editor of D CEO Healthcare. He's written about healthcare…

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