Kamala Harris Family History


Kamala Devi Harris was born on October 20th, 1964 to Donald and Shyamala Harris in Oakland, California.  A younger daughter Maya arrived three years later.  Their parents then divorced in 1971 and her mother was granted full custody of the children after a protracted custody battle.

Kamala went to high school first in Oakland and then in Montreal after her mother had accepted a teaching position there.  In 1982 she attended Howard Universiity in Washington DC and, after graduation, returned to California to study law at UC Hastings (where she served as president of its Black Law Students Association).  She was admitted to the California Bar in 1990.

Her legal career would be in public service:

  • in the late 1990’s as the deputy District Attorney for San Francisco
  • from 2004 to 2011 as its elected District Attorney
  • and from 2011 to 2017 as the District Attorney for the state of California.

She was elected as the US Senator for California in 2017.  Two years later she began campaigning for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 Presidential election.  In that she was unsuccessful.  But she was chosen as Vice President on the Biden-Harris ticket.  And she became in 2021 the first female and the first African American US Vice President.

Kamala’s Ethnicity

Is Kamala Harris seen as black or South Asian?  As the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, she would be both – that is biracial.

While some South Asian voters have been upset that this part of her identity has been downplayed, others have been excited about the historic nature of her nomination as Vice President and what it might mean for Asian Americans.  Meanwhile some black voters have debated whether she is truly “black enough.”

Indian?  Kamala herself has identified more with the Indian side of her heritage.  After her parents had divorced when she was seven, she and her sister lived with their mother, of whom she has said: “She was the one most responsible for shaping us into the women we became.”

Her mother would often take them to India to visit the family there.  Her Indian grandfather PV Gopalan in fact became an important guiding influence for Kamala – someone accomplished, civic-minded, doting, and playful – whose progressive political views helped spark her interest in public service.

After their mother’s death in 2009, Kamala travelled with her sister to Chennai to immerse her ashes in the Bay of Bengal according to the Hindu tradition.

Black?  In contrast Kamala’s relations with her father became strained over the years.

But that did not mean that she foresook a black identity.   When young she attended an African American church in Oakland where they sang in the children’s choir,   In 1982 she attended Howard University, a historically black university in Washington DC.

And today Kamala’s public perception is probably more as black than Indian.

That is because race is usually seen in America in terms of black and white.  So Kamala Harris has become the first woman Vice President but also the first black Vice President.  And her presence on the Democratic ticket was intended to attract more African American votes to the Democrat side.  This may hold true in 2024 as it did in 2020.

Kamala’s Indian Side

There were two things to know about Kamala’s Indian grandfather PV Gopalan.

The first is that he was a Brahmin, which is at the top of the Indian caste system.  The second is that he came from a small rural village named Thulasenthirapuram in Tamil Nadu.

He left there in the 1930’s to make his mark in the wider world.  He started out as a stenographer in the British government’s service and later climbed the ranks of the civil service to be a senior diplomat with the Indian government.

Meanwhile his wife Rajam, who had never even attended high school, became a skilled community organiser, taking into shelter women who were being abused by their husbands.

PV and Rajam had broad-minded views.  They raised four children and encouraged each of them to strive for execellence and lift others up.

Their eldest daughter Shyamala had been a gifted singer of South Indian classical music and won a national competition in it as a teenager.

In 1958, at the age of nineteen, she unexpectedly applied for a masters program in nutrition and endocrinology in America at the University of California in Berkeley.  Her parents supported her wish to study there and used some of their retirement savings to pay for her tuition and board during the first year.

Their other three children also excelled in their chosen fields:

  • their son Balachandran who received a PhD in economics from the University of Wisconsin and returned to an academic career in India.
  • a daughter Sarala who was an obstetrician who practised in Chennai.
  • and the youngest, another daughter Mahalakshmi, who was an information scientist working for the Government of Ontario in Canada.

None of them conformed to a traditional Indian pattern of life.

And Kamala’s Jamaican Side

Kamala’s father Donald Harris – born in Brown’s Town, Jamaica in 1938 – had come to California in 1963 to pursue a doctoral degree in economics.  He later became a fulltime professor of economics.  In his 2018 essay Reflections of a Jamaican Father, he wrote as follows about his Jamaican ancestry:

“My roots go back within my lifetime:

  • to my paternal grandmother Miss Chrishy (nee Christiana Brown).  She was a descendant of Hamilton Brown who is on record as a plantation and slave owner and the founder of Brown’s Town.
  • and to my maternal grandmother, Miss Iris (nee Iris Finegan), a farmer and educator from Aenon Town.  Her ancestry is unknown to me.

The Harris name came from my paternal grandfather Joseph Alexander Harris, a landowner and agricultural produce exporter (mostly of pimento and all-spice).  He died in 1939, one year after I was born, and was buried in the churchyard of the magnificent Anglican Church which Hamilton Brown had built in Brown’s Town.”

These Afro-Jamaican Harrises have been traced from Joseph two generations further back in the parish of St. Ann where Brown’s Town is located.  Thomas Harris was born there in 1791; and his son James in 1825.

They seem to have had loose views on marriage.  James Harris and his partner Elizabeth Brown had at least ten children, but only reportedly married in 1890 after the last child was born; while Joseph Harris and Christiana Brown (Miss Chrishy) may not have formally married at all, their children being baptized as Brown.

Donald focused in his comments on his two grandmothers – Miss Chrishy and Miss Iris – suggesting that maternal figures was important in this family.

He described Miss Chrishy as a disciplinarian who was “reserved and stern in look.”  She owned and operated the popular dry-goods store on the busy main street of Brown’s Town.  Her death in 1951 left him heartbroken as a teenager.  Miss Iris who died in 1981 “was the sweetest and gentlest person one could meet.”  Yet she was tough inside, a farmer and an educator.

Miss Chrishy’s probable ancestor was the Irish slave-owner Hamilton Brown.  He had been born in county Antrim in 1776 and came to Jamaica around the year 1795.  Starting out humbly as an estate book-keeper, he rose to become a large landowner.  He died in 1843, reportedly after having been thrown from his gig in a horse-and-carriage accident.

Kamala Harris’s’ Family Tree

  • Kamala’s Indian Maternal Line
  • P.V. Gopalan (1911-1998) m. Rajam Ramanathan (died in 2009) in Tamil Nadu, India
  • – Shyamala Gopalan (1938-2009)
  • – son Balachandran Gopalan (b. 1940)
  • – daughter Sarala Gopalan (b. 1944)
  • – daughter Mahalakshmi Gopalan (b. 1946)
  • Shyamala Gopalan m. Donald J. Harris (b. 1938) from Jamaica in California in 1963, divorced in 1971
  • – Kamala Harris (b. 1964 in California)
  • – Maya Harris (b. 1967 in Illinois) m. Tony West
  • Kamala Harris m. Doug Emhoff (b. 1964) in California in 2014
  • Kamala’s Jamaican Paternal Line
  • Thomas Harris (b. 1791) from St. Ann, Jamaica m. Catherine Watson (1792-1883) in 1815
  • – Joseph Harris (1816-1892)
  • – Edward Harris (1819-1890)
  • – Thomas Harris (1820-1890) m. Jane Lawson
  • – James Harris (1825-1905)
  • – Robert Harris (1828-1900)
  • James Henry Harris m. Elizabeth Brown (1834-1907) in 1890
  • – Elizabeth Harris (1850-1928)
  • – David Harris (b. 1852 -1929)
  • – Thomas Harris (1860-1916)
  • – Solomon Harris (1864-1944) m. Frances Wisdom
  • – Ann Harris (1866-1941) m. Thomas Harris
  • – James Harris (1867-1931) m. Margaret Treasure
  • – Adelaide Harris (1869-1933)
  • – Joseph Harris (1871-1939)
  • – Nancy Harris (1875-1933)
  • – Marie Harris (1880-1973)
  • Joseph Alexander Harris and Christiana Brown aka Miss Chrishy (1888-1951)
  • – Hildred Brown (1904-2000) m. Milton Hamilton
  • – Reginald Brown (1906-1980) m. Drusilla Brown
  • – Vera Brown (1907-1988) m. Carlos Chapman, died in Canada
  • – Oscar Brown (1914-1976)
  • – Newton Brown (1916-1985)
  • – Ena Brown (1919-2005), died in New York
  • Oscar Joseph Brown Harris m. Beryl Finegan (1921-1960), the daughter of Orah Finegan nee Allen aka Miss Iris (1888-1981)
  • – Donald J. Harris (b. 1938)
  • Donald J. Harris from Jamaica m. Shyamala Gopalan (1938-2009) from India in California in 1963, divorced in 1971
  • – Kamala Harris (b. 1964)
  • – Maya Harris (b. 1967)


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Written by Colin Shelley

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