College of Pharmacy’s First Black Female Graduate: Experiences “Just Made Me Stronger”

By Benjamin Waldrum

“I can’t believe I’ve been [a pharmacist] for 47 years now,” Thomas-Harris said. “It just kind of sneaks up on me. I’m like, where did the time go? It’s been a great experience, even with the difficult times. It just made me stronger.”

Sharon Thomas-Harris in white coat and glasses

Thomas-Harris has been a pharmacist for more than 40 years, and has no plans of retiring anytime soon.

Thomas-Harris grew up in Grady, Arkansas, a small town about 25 miles southeast of Pine Bluff. Her parents, Maxcie and Martha Thomas, were farmers, and she was the oldest of seven children. She graduated from Grady High School in 1971, and became the first member of her family to attend college, receiving her undergraduate degree from Henderson State University in 1973. Her best subjects were in science and math.

Pharmacy was not initially in her plans. Unsure of her career path, Thomas-Harris considered work as a teacher or stewardess. She liked to read, so her mother suggested work as a librarian. Inspiration finally struck toward the end of her undergraduate years.

“This schoolmate of mine was talking about pharmacy, and I was like, ‘well what is pharmacy like? Let me look at that,’” Thomas-Harris said. “Then, during my senior year, I visited my relatives, and there was a man over in Tennessee who had his own pharmacy. That was inspiring. I said, ‘I think I’ll like that. I’ll just try it.’ That’s what I did, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Thomas-Harris enrolled at the College of Pharmacy in 1973 as one of only two Black students among a student body of hundreds. Among a sea of white students, she felt like an outsider.

“There were times where you felt like you were definitely not wanted there,” she said. “You could feel the tension. Sometimes people would say derogatory things to us. Yeah, it was hard. Eventually, I got to be friends with a few of the guys. And you know, we made it. We were able to survive, but it was very difficult.”

Finding work after graduation was a challenge. At that time, even if a Black person received an interview, they were often turned away at the door, Thomas-Harris said.

“I wanted to practice in Arkansas, but when I got out, every time I asked, there were no jobs available. None,” Thomas-Harris said. “For my friend, they would say there’s an opening, and when he would go in and interview, the vacancy was filled. He ended up leaving the state. It was hard for Black pharmacists to find a job in Arkansas, but I lucked out and found one.”

Thomas-Harris’s first job as a pharmacist was only temporary. She worked as a student technician at UAMS Medical Center, where the assistant director helped her get part-time work because another pharmacist was taking maternity leave. From there, she made her way to Arkansas Children’s Hospital, where she worked as an evening supervisor and acting director of pharmacy from 1976 to 1980.

Right away, Thomas-Harris began sharing her experience and knowledge with pharmacy students. She made a lifelong friend in Alvin Simmons, Pharm.D., who shadowed her for most of her time at Children’s. He would graduate from the College of Pharmacy in 1978 and returned years later to obtain his Pharm.D. Simmons, a pharmacist and entrepreneur, said that Thomas-Harris was “paramount” for providing experiences that would normally be refused to him.

“For some of us, like in my case and Sharon’s case, we had virtually never been in a drugstore, except maybe coming in through the back door to pick up our prescriptions and to exit from the back door,” Simmons said. “The option of actually working in a store and getting paid was just out of the question. Being mentored by Sharon was wonderful. Dealing with her brought up a myriad of things that I was going to have to deal with later, in certain subtle ways.”

“I would help anybody,” Thomas-Harris said. “I didn’t have a preceptorship or anything, but if they started work, I would try to show them the ropes.”

Alvin Simmons in a long sleeve shirt

Alvin Simmons, Pharm.D., shadowed Thomas-Harris at Children’s Hospital. He called her a “super pharmacist.”

“Sharon is one of those people that we call a ‘super pharmacist,’” Simmons said. “She was able to talk on the phone to patients and doctors, mix a hyperalimentation [IV feed] at the same time, and if there’s such a thing as having a third hand, she could be running a cash register or giving out change to the window. That was a skill you later discovered was paramount if you were going to be a pharmacist.”

Beginning in 1980, Thomas-Harris worked at VA Fort Roots (now the Eugene V. Towbin Healthcare Center) in North Little Rock before transferring to the Dallas VA Medical Center in Texas. Then in 1985, she joined Methodist Charlton Medical Center in Dallas, where she remained until 2006.

Her College of Pharmacy education came in handy when she moved out of state.

“I’m very grateful for the education I got [at UAMS],” Thomas-Harris said. “When I came to Texas, they were more behind than Arkansas. Stuff I was doing in Arkansas, they were just starting to do there. So I had some good teachers and got a very good education.”

As much as Thomas-Harris loved hospital pharmacy, the long hours were difficult and she wanted a better work-life balance for herself and her family. So, in 2006, she switched to retail pharmacy, working as a pharmacist at Minyard Food Stores until 2017, when they became Cash Savers, and she and other staff were laid off. She was unemployed for a year before the new owners asked her to come back. Today, she still works there part-time as pharmacist-in-charge.

“You just didn’t have much of a life [at a hospital], because you’re going to be working a lot,” Thomas-Harris said. “Sometimes retail can be that way too, but at this stage in my life, it’s working pretty well. I don’t have to work all the time now. With retail, I get to know my patients, and I have a good relationship with them. I like that.”

Today, Thomas-Harris lives in Lancaster, Texas, a town of 40,000 about 25 minutes from Dallas. Her daughter, Stephanie, lives in nearby Lewisville, about an hour away. Most of her family is still in Arkansas, especially in Grady, so she still makes regular visits. In 2009, she returned to the College of Pharmacy to take continuing education classes and enjoyed the experience.

“I’m very proud to see [the diversity of the student body now]. I was pleased,” she said. “I was glad to see that they’re opened up, and that things are getting much better. A lot of stuff has changed, and that’s an awesome thing. People are getting along now, for the most part, and I’m glad I’m alive to see it.”

After a lengthy career at multiple locations across two states, is retirement on the horizon?

“Not yet,” Thomas-Harris said. “As long as I can keep this workload I have, I think I can handle it a little bit longer.”

Simmons said he’s thrilled for Thomas-Harris to be recognized — both as a trailblazer at UAMS and as pharmacist who serves as a role model for her longevity and dedication to mentoring.

“Some of those people who are so deserving of recognition get absolutely nothing,” he said. “In this case, her recognition is overdue, and for it to be done while she can still enjoy it is very important.”