Harrison was born September 28, 1864 in London, Ontario, Canada, the son of formerly enslaved parents who had escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad.
As a young man, Harrison moved to Detroit, Michigan and began dramatic studies at the Detroit Training School of Dramatic Arts. From 1892 to 1896, Harrison traveled the country performing as a dramatic reader. His repertoire included works from Shakespeare and the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Harrison became well known for playing “de Lawd” in the play “The Green Pastures.” The play opened on Broadway in 1930 and he appeared in over 1,650 performances. This was his only professional appearance in a play.
Harrison also taught elocution and dramatic courses at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. In 1931, Harrison received the NAACP Spingarn Medal and in 1934 he was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Howard University and honorary doctorate degrees in dramatic literature from North Carolina A&T and Lincoln University. He was featured on the cover of Time Magazine on March 4, 1935. The Richard B. Harrison Library in Raleigh, North Carolina, Richard B. Harrison High School in Blytheville, Arkansas, and the Richard B. Harrison Auditorium at North Carolina A&T are all named in his honor. The book, “De Lawd: Richard B. Harrison and the Green Pastures” was published in 1986.