Like many other small towns across the rural South, Williamsburg spent most of the late 1800s struggling to recover from the catastrophic effects of the Civil War.
Abandoned by many of its residents after Federal troops occupied the area in May 1862, all but a few of its houses and businesses had fallen into disrepair or ruin by the conflict's end.
That added the burden of rebuilding to the challenge of replacing the devastated slave economy, and — when the cash-strapped College of William and Mary was forced to close its doors for several years in 1881 — the future of the stumbling old town rarely looked bleaker.
Not long after the war ended, however, a young black merchant walked down dusty Duke of Gloucester Street and saw nothing but potential.
Within a few years his bustling "Cheap Store" ranked as the town's leading business — black or white — and Samuel Harris was being celebrated across the nation as one of the richest and most enterprising African-Americans in Virginia.
"Williamsburg was devastated by the war and the Federal occupation. People lost fortunes. Others left and never came back. Houses and businesses were torn up and in some cases leveled," says Williamsburg author Wilford Kale.
"But something in Harris saw opportunity here. Making money was his talent, and he filled every little niche he could in a way that usually showed a profit."
Born into slavery, Harris was in his early 20s when he moved from Richmond in late 1872 with his new wife and a bankroll of $70.
Though the former colonial capital had a long history of relatively good race relations — and had made room for such ambitious black craftsmen as bootmaker James Dipper to buy his own freedom, grow prosperous and invest in real estate during the early 1800s — it had never seen an African-American do business with the kind of success and skill that Harris demonstrated from the beginning.
Within two years he had made enough money to buy a prime piece of property on the northwest corner of Duke of Gloucester and Botetourt streets, writes Williamsburg historian Julia Woodbridge Oxrieder in her 1998 book "Rich, Black and Southern: The Harris Family of Williamsburg (and Boston)."
Not long afterward he opened the "Cheap Store," luring black and white customers alike with a tantalizing array of merchandise that ultimately ranged from dry goods, household furnishings and groceries to hardware, building materials, coal, buggies, harness and horses.
"They are cheaper than the cheapest, better than the best. Prices to suit the times," crowed a 1895 ad in the Virginia Gazette.
"Harris keeps everything to eat and drink, everything to wear…if there is ANYTHING you want on which to save time, trouble and money, go to the Cheapest merchant in Williamsburg — SAMUEL HARRIS."
Harris plowed his profits back into this "mammoth establishment" for more than 30 years, building a sprawling entrepreneurial empire that eventually boasted a stable, barber shop, coal and lumber yards, blacksmith and saloon as well as a ship and crew to transport goods from Richmond.
So successful was his business plan, which focused on "Quick sales, small profits, buy and sell for cash," that when he bought his sales-based business license in 1901 his $203 fee completely eclipsed the $10 or less paid by 50 of Williamsburg's other 57 business owners.
"This was a sleepy Southern town. It was a traditional Southern town, and he probably made some whites very uncomfortable with his success and wealth," says Beatriz Hardy, former director of special collections at the College of William and Mary's Swem Library, who mounted an exhibit on the town's post-Civil War changes in 2009.
"But Harris couldn't have become Williamsburg's most important businessman without some white support."
Harris' elevated standing among the town's whites can be seen in his real-estate partnership with Judge Richard L. Henley, with whom he purchased and developed 417 acres northwest of today's Merchants Square in the mid-1890s.
He also made substantial personal loans to such prominent white residents as Benjamin Ewell, enabling the retired and nearly bankrupt W&M president to put in a crop on his James City County farm. In 1897, the African-American entrepreneur expanded this role as an influential lender by becoming a founding shareholder of the town's first major bank.
During Reconstruction, Harris served as Commissioner of Revenue and school board trustee, too, working tirelessly if not always successfully to further the education of black youths studying in the town's revealingly named Public School No. 2.