By Kat Castagnoli
You might know Hill Harper, the award-winning actor, from his starring role in the hit CBS television drama CSI: NY, where he played the eccentric coroner-turned-crime scene investigator Dr. Sheldon Hawkes. Or more recently as plastic surgeon Dr. Marcus Andrews on the popular ABC television drama, The Good Doctor.
But while Harper is known for doing good on screen, it’s all he’s doing offscreen that’s making the biggest impact.
He’s running for U.S. Senate on the Democratic ticket in his beloved state of Michigan. He’s a fintech investor and co-creator of The Black Wall Street app. He’s a successful entrepreneur, businessman and co-owner of an award-winning New Orleans hotel and a successful coffee franchise in downtown Detroit.
Not to mention, the 57-year-old is also a bestselling author, passionate humanitarian and philanthropist, and proud dad to his son, Pierce, named after actor Pierce Brosnan.
But it’s his fervent advocacy for helping people in underserved communities, particularly in closing the racial wealth gap; that’s where Harper really comes alive.
“We’ve allowed government policy to create a whole generation of poorly educated people in a poor education system,” he says. “The system has not been invested in; it hasn’t been cared for and you’re seeing the results of that.
“And somebody needs to advocate for these folks; somebody needs to be their new mouthpiece,” Harper says. “So, I think that in my life and in my campaign, it’s really centered around people.”
The Resurgence of Black Wall Street
Being an actor and a fintech investor and creator may not exactly go hand-in-hand, but Harper says throughout his life, he’s always looked for ways to level the playing field.
“I think once you start peeling back the onion, you realize that there is an extreme amount of unfairness in our society,” he says. “Tipping the balance of money, power access, all of these things. [I want to] tip the balance in folks’ favor.
“And it just so happens that some of the people I’ve come across in my life that I know and love have always gotten the short end of the stick,” he concludes.
Technology and finance are two of the gateways, Harper says, that can lower barriers for people of color, giving them increased access to financial education, information, capital and more.
“Historically, the barriers to entry have been so vast and so difficult to overcome through traditional banking and finance that communities have been shut out of the opportunities that exist,” he said. “And so, what’s very encouraging to me is the idea that by using technology, it levels the playing field for folks for access, and that includes access to information.”
Harper has played his own part in furthering this idea. In 2020, just before the pandemic hit, he began working on what would become The Black Wall Street app, a digital wallet that empowers and educates Black and Latinx investors, as well as allows peer-to-peer payments of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum.
Partnering with Najah Roberts, an expert and early adapter in the crypto space, Harper focused on unbanked African Americans and other people of color who need financial education.
“It’s not just about transferring money to folks, it’s about transferring information, ideas and building community, and we see that that is the real value and the differentiator,” he told CNBC in 2021.
Harper launched the endeavor nearly a century after Black Wall Street—a center of Black business in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma—was destroyed in a racial attack. “I look back at communities that historically had created really strong economies in the face of a lot of discrimination, and say, ‘well, how did they do that?’
“To me, they all share three elements that seem to create these strong economies,” Harper says. “One was ownership. They owned their own businesses; they owned their own work product. Two was community or relationship. They trusted each other. They loaned each other money; they paid each other back; there was a trusted exchange.”
He continues, “Three was the movement of money or capital within the ecosystem, where dollars changed hands 60 to 100 times within a year before it left that Black community.”
Today, Harper says dollars now leave Black communities within about seven hours. “I truly believe that unless we start owning our own fintech platforms, our own digital wallets, the dollar will leave within six to seven seconds.”
However, “These are things that technology can directly impact,” he says. “There are so many good things that come out of giving people access to all of the tools they can use to have a real positive impact in their community and in their life.”
A Chance Meeting
Harper’s ambitions are just as impressive as his background. Born in Iowa City, Iowa, as Frank Eugene Harper, he adopted the name ‘Hill’ as a tribute to both his maternal and paternal ancestors. He was raised by a family of successful doctors—Dr. Harry D. Harper, II, a psychiatrist, and Dr. Marilyn Harper (née Hill), who was one of the first Black practicing anesthesiologists in the United States.
After graduating from Bell Vista High School in 1984, Harper went on to attend Brown University, where he graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s in economics and sociology, and was named valedictorian of his department.
In 1992, Harper received his juris doctor, cum laude, from Harvard Law School. During his time there, he met Barack Obama on the basketball court while they were both law students. “He [Obama] went to law school knowing why he was going. I went straight from undergrad to grad school. He had a sense of gravitas and judgment. I looked up to him then and I look up to him now. He gets it right,” Harper told NBC’s Today back in 2008.
Harper went on to receive his Master of Public Administration degree from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School. He currently holds eight honorary degrees, including honorary doctorates from both Westfield State College and Howard University.
During his time at Harvard, Harper was also a full-time member of Boston’s Black Folks Theater Company—one of the oldest and most acclaimed Black theater troupes in the country. He subsequently moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting; something he had been doing since the age of seven.
Harper’s first roles in television began in 1993, in a recurring role on the Fox series, Married…with Children. He had his first acting role in a feature film with Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus (1996), which cast him as a UCLA film student riding a bus to the Million Man March in Washington, D.C.
His profile subsequently rose on both the mainstream and independent film circuits, thanks to roles in films ranging from Beloved (1998) and independent romantic comedy Loving Jezebel (1999) to The Skulls (2000).
Harper played Dr. Sheldon Hawkes on CSI: NY for nine seasons, for which he won three NAACP Image Awards for Best Lead Actor in a Drama Series. He subsequently returned to CBS, starring in Covert Affairs, the fast-paced drama, Limitless, and Showtime’s award-winning drama, Homeland.
It hasn’t been confirmed whether Harper will leave The Good Doctor, where he has portrayed Dr. Marcus Andrews on the ABC medical drama for six seasons, in light of his 2024 U.S. Senate bid. Only time will tell.
A Seat at the Table
In his home state of Michigan, Harper was initially galvanized into action after seeing communities struggle during the Flint water crisis, where, after the city changed its water supply source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, the water distribution pipes corroded, thus contaminating the city’s drinking water with lead and other bacteria.
“I think when you love people and you see suffering and you see problems; you want to do something to lean in and get involved early on,” he said.
Fast forward to July 2023: Harper announces he’s running as a Democrat in Michigan’s
2024 U.S. Senate election to replace the retiring Debbie Stabenow. Interesting fact— if elected, he will be the only U.S. Senator who is also a union member, since Harper remains a member of the SAG-AFTRA union.
Representation, diversity and inclusion are at the heart of why he decided to run.
“Having a seat at the table matters,” Harper says. “If you look at the U.S. Senate historically, I believe it is the most powerful single body in all of politics. And yet, it is by far the least diverse historically. There’s only been 12 [Black senators] in the history of the entire Senate, so there’s an extreme lack of representation in that body.
“[Just like] right now, for the first time in 57 years, Michigan does not have a Black Democratic representative in Congress.”
And the need for representation, Harper says, doesn’t just stop politically. “It runs through all of our institutions and all of our bodies that have the ability to form policy, to decide where resources go and to make decisions that truly impact people’s lives.”
No stranger to the political arena, Harper, in addition to supporting Obama’s initial presidential campaign, is also a member of the Obama for America National Finance Committee. In 2012, following his bout with thyroid cancer, Harper was also appointed to the president’s cancer panel; the fully vetted three-member body assigned to work with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and make recommendations to the White House around cancer policy.
Describing himself as the “most progressive candidate in the field,” Harper says he is excited to be a new voice in this arena. “I’m definitely not coming from it from a party point of view. I’m coming at it from a people point of view,” he said. “And I think we need more leadership and more governance like that—less about parties and political cronyism. We just need people being truly represented.”
To learn more about Harper and his campaign, visit hillharper.com.