For years, fans of Hill Harper were used to seeing him as a medical examiner-turned-detective on CSI: NY. Often referred to as “Doc” by his TV show colleagues, that role of a medical professional isn’t too far from his family’s real-life story. Both sides of Harper’s family have medical backgrounds. His maternal grandfather, Doc Hill, who he is named after, was a pharmacist who served the black community at Piedmont Pharmacy in Seneca, S.C., during Jim Crow segregation.
Harper, 48, says both of his grandfathers’ stories have encouraged him to speak out and be active in the black community. “They inspire me every day,” he tells The Root. “If I could just be half of the man that they were, then I feel like I would be a success.”
Like his grandparents before him, the actor’s commitment to service has never wavered. He started a nonprofit organization, Manifest Your Destiny, to empower underprivileged kids realize their dreams, and he has been touring the country for the past year talking to youth about making smart choices with their money.
In this interview, Harper tells The Root about how his grandfathers inspired him to be a man dedicated to service, why African Americans must create their own narrative and why he thinks it’s important to become “the architect of your own life.”
Tell us a bit about your family background and heritage.
My father’s side of the family is from Iowa and that goes back like six generations. Apparently, there were slaves in Kentucky who made their way to the Mississippi River and went North. And unlike a lot of other black folks who went as far away from the South to Northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, they got off at the first free stop, which was Keokuk, Iowa. It was the most southern point in the state of Iowa. So that’s how they ended up in Iowa. On my mother’s side, my family is from South Carolina. And my grandfather is named Doc Hill, who I get my name from. He was a pharmacist and served the black community in a small town called Seneca, S.C., during Jim Crow segregation. Black folks couldn’t go to RexAll or Walgreens. They had to come to his pharmacy, Piedmont Pharmacy. He’s a pretty special man.
How has your family influenced your career?
There’s no question that they influenced me in the sense that they were leaders in their communities. I’ve always sought to be a leader and a positive example in my community, whether it be Hollywood or as a black man in this country who has a measure of profile. I’m not like people who say I’m not a role model. I believe we all are role models and that our young people look to us and mirror our behavior. My grandfathers, they were respected men in their communities. They inspire me every day. If I could just be half of the man that they were, then I feel like I would be a success.
Speaking of role models, you’ve done a lot of activism for young people. Tell me about your nonprofit organization, Manifest Your Destiny.
I started it right after I wrote my first book, Letters to a Young Brother, and the subtitle was “manifest your destiny.” The concept of the foundation is to empower traditionally underserved youth. We want to grab kids who are falling through the cracks or who perhaps have been ignored and maybe don’t have access to the same educational opportunities that other kids have. Because we believe, and I believe, that no matter who you are, you can be the active architect of your own life. You can truly manifest your destiny. A lot of people have an intuition of what they want their life to look like. But in many ways they don’t have the encouragement or tools to actually create that life. I seek to actually create a foundation that does that.
You’ve also been educating kids about making smart choices with their money. Tell me why you think that is so important, especially for young African-American children.
Part of the problem that we see in a lot of the communities that my foundation serves is that oftentimes the financial base doesn’t exist in these communities. The saddest thing is that those who have the least amount of earnings and capital are preyed upon the most by payday lenders, with rent-to-own shops, with check-cashing places. I really believe that financial literacy and making financial choices can impact our community in a great way. Money should not be the scapegoat that stops us from creating meaningful and fruitful lives.
What can your fans expect from you next?
I’m doing a play in New York that debuts in late April at the Public Theater called Toast, written by Lemon Anderson. I’m really excited about that. I just finished a film with Will Smith and Alec Baldwin called Concussion, which is about the concussion issue in the NFL. That’s a very powerful piece and I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of it. It’s a really powerful film.
In 50 years, what do you hope your legacy will be?
It’s funny that you ask that question. I always talk about it in many of my talks. For me, I hope that in terms of my characters, they laugh and cry and that they have an experience. When they read my books, they should still have staying power. Not every piece of art that any artist does is a masterpiece. But you hope that at some point over the course of your life, you have a few masterpieces that stand the test of time and are around long after you’re gone. I hope that that’s what I’ll leave behind.