In 1853, at age 16, Harris Kempner left Poland and arrived in New York, where he would learn to speak and write English and quickly grasp America’s free enterprise system.
He would make his way to Cold Springs, Texas, where he opened a small general store. His neighbors could count on him for credit when needed. They often paid him in cotton or entrusted their cotton to Kempner, who served as a factor or agent, which ultimately led him to Galveston and into the cotton exporting business. The bustling commercial center that was Galveston in 1868 suited the enterprising Kempner, who moved here, established a wholesale grocery and liquor importing business and later enterprises that would include railroads, banks and real estate.
When he died in 1894 at age 57, his wife, Eliza, was determined to keep the estate and family together.
Harris and Eliza Kempner had 11 children, eight of whom lived to adulthood — four sons and four daughters. The oldest son, I.H. “Ike” Kempner, was 21 and about to graduate with a law degree from Washington & Lee. Eliza Kempner was determined to keep the estate in tact so that all could share equally, including the girls, who would be assured a secure upbringing and education.
Ike Kempner took the reins of the enterprises. Harris and Eliza Kempner also had a lasting fellowship with the Jewish Reform Congregation B’nai Israel. The children all went on to expand the family enterprises, and they were involved heavily in civic affairs and philanthropy, a tradition that continues today.
In his book “Recalled Recollections,” Ike Kempner wrote: “We can be thankful for the larger vision of our parents which bid us try to emulate their wisdom, their benevolence, their reverence for God and devotion to their country.”
Since 1946, the family has maintained a foundation, originally called the Galveston Fund, which, since Eliza’s death in 1947, has been called the Harris and Eliza Kempner Fund. Many of Harris Kempner’s descendants continue to live on the island, including his great-granddaughter Lyda Ann Thomas, who served as the city’s mayor for three terms, stepping down in 2010 because of city-imposed term limits. She lives in Galveston, as does her daughter, Eliza Kempner Quigley, who is executive director of the Galveston Independent School District Educational Foundation and vice president of the Harris and Eliza Kempner Fund. Harris Kempner’s great-grandson, Harris L. “Shrub” Kempner, is president of island-based Kempner Capital Management Inc. and is active in many civic organizations.