Photo courtesy of the Harris family
By Stacey Walker
Every now and again it seems the universe bestows upon humanity one of those ethereal and affable personalities that end up changing the world for the better. Here in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, we had one of those personalities in Dr. Percy Harris. As far as heroes go, he was the exemplar.
Born during America’s Jim Crow era in 1927 in Durant, Mississippi, Percy Harris lost his father at the age of 2 and his mother at 12. He spent two years of his life in a tuberculosis sanitarium before finding his way to the home of his aunt who lived in Waterloo, Iowa. He graduated from East High School and went on to attend the Iowa State Teacher’s College, which later became the University of Northern Iowa. He completed his bachelor’s and M.D. degrees at Howard University in 1957, serving as class president for all four years of medical school.
Most people know that Dr. Harris went on to become one of the preeminent physicians in the state of Iowa, but few know of the struggles he and his family endured along the way. When he began his private practice Dr. Harris struggled because, despite his impressive credentials, many companies refused to hire a black doctor, and most would-be white patients would not dare to be treated by him. His office was damaged by rocks thrown through the windows, and his life was threatened on more than one occasion. But still he pressed on, refusing to let the hatred of the times get in the way of the care he could provide the few citizens of his town who would see him.
With a growing family, Dr. Harris tried to purchase a larger home, but realtors refused to sell to him. After hearing about this a wealthy citizen donated property to St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, where the Harrises were members. After hours of debate that continued past midnight, the church voted to approve the sale of the property to Dr. Harris. This controversial vote split the congregation in half and caused many members to leave the church. Dr. Harris was the first African American to integrate the Bever Avenue neighborhood on the southeast side of town. He remained in this home until his death, raising 12 kids there with his wife Lileah.
Dr. Harris practiced the kind of medicine that healed the soul, and in these trying times that we face, it is my hope that everyone seek his prescriptions. His very legacy encourages us to stare injustice in the face and stand together for what we know to be right. He gave his life over to curing a community afflicted by the menace of racism. He did it with grace and compassion, and he stayed at it, breaking down one barrier after the other.
A true prince of a man who will always stand out in the pantheon of African American pioneers, Dr. Harris’ impact reached far beyond his grasp. He was the best of humanity and taught us all about the virtues of good citizenship. And while he was never my doctor, I am better off because he lived, as are we all.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 215.