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‘Quite a little fight’ — the Harris family’s move to Bever Avenue was an early step forward in Cedar Rapids integration

Posted by Kent Williams | Apr 18, 2017 | Community/News

The Harris Family Percy and Lileah Harris pictured in their Bever Avenue home with ten of their twelve children, 1968. Photo from ‘A Healing Presence in Our Community: the Percy G. Harris Story’. This photo originally appeared in a Maytag advertisement in ‘Ebony’ Magazine.

At Percy Harris’ Memorial Service on Jan. 30 at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids, Ted Townsend, the president of St. Luke’s Hospital, began his eulogy for Dr. Harris by saying that before he met him, he’d heard so many good things about him that he was surprised to find out he was still alive. It was a funny line and on the edge of inappropriate for a memorial, but would have tickled Harris’ famous sense of humor. It would be difficult to find someone in Cedar Rapids who has a bad word to say about Harris. He devoted his life to serving Cedar Rapids, becoming its first black physician in 1957. He later served as the Linn County Medical Examiner, President of Medical Staff at St. Luke’s and for two terms as a member of the Iowa Board of Regents.

One of the most famous incidents of Harris’ life was the controversy that surrounded the 1961 decision of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church — where he was, according to fellow parishioner Carolyn Wellso, the only African American member — to sell him a lot on which to build his home. Robert Armstrong, owner of Armstrong’s Department Store, had donated land adjacent to his Bever Avenue home to the church as a contribution to its building fund; he proposed to the board that they sell a lot to Harris.

The parcel to be sold was in an affluent, all-white neighborhood. Indian Creek Hills, still an affluent area of town, is bordered by Cottage Grove Road on the north, Mount Vernon Road on the south, 34th Street on the west and East Post Road on the east. This southeast-side area of Cedar Rapids was and is the home to business people and professionals. In 1961 it was exclusively white. The race line was enforced by property owners, who refused to sell to black people, and by realtors who steered black families to black neighborhoods. Syrian and Lebanese families were also not allowed east of 19th Street until the mid-1950s.

Armstrong had become friends with the family when Harris opened his medical practice across the street from Armstrong’s Department Store. Harris told him he could not find a decent lot to build a home on for his rapidly expanding family, as no one would sell land in a white neighborhood to an African American. Armstrong proposed the church sell land to Harris as a win-win — the church would receive money for its building fund, and the Harrises would have their new home. A meeting was held in order for the congregation of St. Paul’s to vote on whether to allow the sale to go forward.

Growing up in Cedar Rapids, I’d heard the story of this famous St. Paul’s meeting, but never heard much detail; attending Harris’ memorial sparked my interest in finding out what information was available. I visited the African American Museum of Iowa to see what they had and was surprised to find a transcript of the meeting. There is an audio recording of the proceedings, currently archived at the University of Iowa Library. There are also articles about it from the Cedar Rapids Gazette and a report in the national African American magazine Jet.

The transcript of the meeting is at turns dramatic and bureaucratic. The last third is taken up with wrangling over the rules of order and how a vote would be taken. But Armstrong’s opening speech is remarkable for a well-to-do white man in 1961. In it, he said, “There is a world issue today and that world issue is whether there are second-rate people in the world. Whether the white race is a supreme race. And whether men and women are entitled a life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of their race, color or creed. And that is the reason that we can’t dodge this issue.”

Armstrong gave some of Harris’ personal history: losing both his parents, growing up poor, working his way through college and medical school at Howard University as a janitor at the Senate Office Building in Washington D.C.

“I feel that this man as a Christian brother in this church should be given the opportunity to live where he wishes to live, and if this man is good enough to become a member of St. Paul’s Church and take the oath of membership in this church, I believe that he is good enough to live beside me, or you, or any other member of this church.”

The opposition to selling the land among the congregation was substantial. Their unofficial leader was Jack Hatt, who lived across the street from Armstrong and the vacant lot Harris wanted to purchase. He was actually in business with Armstrong, as part owner of the Armstrong’s Parking Garage.

Hatt’s stated concern — and the concern of the other parishioners who opposed the sale — was the value of his home. The loss of property value if black families moved into a neighborhood was a long standing rationale for opposing integration of housing. Armstrong, in his speech, addressed this by citing an academic study and a story in the Saturday Evening Post magazine that he called, “When a Negro Moves Into Your Neighborhood” (actual title: “When a Negro Moves Next Door,” by Ellsworth E. Rosen with Arnold Nicholson, which was published April 4, 1959).

Hatt’s feelings ran high in his speech. He told the congregation, “You have a man right before you that went through more things than Percy Harris has ever gone through.” He then challenged the audience, “What would you do if it was next door to you?” before discussing delivering newspapers and his family being too poor to buy shoes.

The assumption of the statements against the sale were that the objection was not about race, or about the Harris’ character. Aside from property values, some people were upset that the church had become involved in the controversy, no matter the outcome, just because of the attention it generated amongst non-members and the news media. No one would say out loud that Harris’ skin color was the problem.

This was the “Iowa Nice” of 60 years ago. Iowa has historically been progressive with regard to civil rights. Schools were integrated and black men allowed to vote before the turn of the 20th Century. Compared to some places in the United States, black folks had it relatively good in Cedar Rapids. But it would be naive to say — even now — that there is no racism in Iowa. In 1961 and now, it was simply impolite in the extreme to express it openly.

In the context of St. Paul’s congregation, it was even less acceptable. The minister Dr. Jackson Burns, the church board members and most of the congregation had welcomed Harris enthusiastically. The social concerns committee of the church had passed resolutions supporting civil rights since the 1950s. Burns went so far as to say, if the congregation did not vote for the sale, “it will break my heart.”

Wellso, a lifelong member of St. Paul’s United Methodist, was at the meeting 56 years ago. She identified several speakers in the transcript for me, and recalled vividly the speech of Mrs. Shirley Finger, who she described as “thin and soft spoken, wearing her beige cloth coat and matching hat.” Finger reiterated the opposition’s arguments against the sale, and against the church even being involved at all.

But then she got right to the point with her blunt counterargument: “This is the issue: Are we a Christian church or not?” Finger asked. “And if we are not, then this is a good time to decide it and get it decided definitely and not go on being hypocritical about it. If the majority of this church do not believe that people are equal in the sight of God, then let’s say so to the world. I look at this congregation from a place where I stand Sunday after Sunday, and I cannot believe that this congregation will not vote for this man. There will be nothing in my life which would ever break my heart as much as to have this congregation vote ‘no’ on this issue tonight.”

She continued, raising the stakes for the congregation, “This is not just St. Paul’s Church here tonight … This is the world, the whole world is here tonight. And this is one of the great problems of the world. And to say that the church should not be involved in facing the great problems of the world is to say that the church should not do its job. Where else should this problem be solved if not in the church?”

In the end the congregation voted 460 for the sale and 291 against. But the story did not end there. Some of the parishioners who voted “no” left and formed their own congregation called Lovely Lane United Methodist, which, it should be noted, now explicitly welcomes all people to their congregation.

Percy Harris and his wife Lileah built their house and raised their 12 children there. And as Armstrong predicted it did not change real estate values at all.

The teachings of the Methodist Church were central to the decision made. Churches have led the way in the civil rights movement throughout the country. In 2017, we have a secular tradition of social justice and racial equality. In 1961 and before, the teachings of the New Testament — arguably the the most important moral force in the United States then — were crucial in those fights. The teachings of Jesus and Christianity were argued effectively to be fundamentally incompatible with segregation.

The black community in 1961 was generally supportive of Harris, according to Harriet Johnson, who attended grade school with Harris’ son Bruce and whose mother was the first black nurse at St. Luke’s Hospital, where Harris interned. She told me, “The attitude was that he should be able to live wherever he wanted to live as long as he had the money.”

Relating these events to the current thought and rhetoric around civil rights, it might be easy to minimize what occurred at St. Paul’s. The congregation was a group of white people, secure in their own privilege and standing, granting a small concession to one black family. At the same time, just standing for the integration of one of the whitest and most affluent neighborhoods in the city was not a decision to be taken lightly. The congregation had a lot of businessmen and professionals who had to interact with people not as forward thinking as the congregation of St. Paul’s.

The vote at St. Paul’s did not end housing discrimination in Cedar Rapids. But it was a beginning. In the 60s and 70s a small number of black professionals bought homes in the city’s more affluent neighborhoods. Since African Americans are on balance less affluent, they are still concentrated mostly in traditionally black neighborhoods, where house prices are lower and rental units plentiful. The black middle class has expanded as well, and events like Rotary Club lunches and Symphony Concerts, where the Harrises were for years the only black people in attendance, have become more diverse.

Though discrimination against African-Americans has diminished since 1961, it has not gone away. Former director of the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission Karl Cassell told me, “There’s absolutely still housing discrimination happening. It’s coded in different language, but you have property managers who are steering people away or not giving people the opportunity to live in their units.” Some realtors are “directing black people to lower income or ‘tough’ neighborhoods because they believe it’s the only place they should live,” Cassell said.

Harris’ greatest contribution to civil rights may have been what now might seem like an old fashioned idea. As a black man, he engaged the overwhelmingly white population of Iowa personally. He and Lileah would visit small towns and have Sunday teas to bring together two or three families to discuss race, humanizing African Americans for white people who had never personally encountered them before.

In later years, Lileah Harris referred to the dispute over the Harrises buying the land from the church as “quite a little fight.” It was, but it was a seminal fight for the Harrises, the church, the city and the country. To the Harrises, civil rights was a long war fought over many years, but one with hundreds of “little fights,” fought not with weapons or harsh words, but kindness, compassion and humor.

Thanks to Felicite Wolf, curator at the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids, for her invaluable assistance.

Kent Williams (CR Washington 1975) has had an uneasy relationship with his adopted hometown, Cedar Rapids. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 219.

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Blog Comments

Correction: Mrs Harris’s name is Leah. Their eldest daughter is Lileah, whom I met at St. Paul’s during middle school. Getting to know this family was one of the most formative experiences of my life and I’m forever grateful to them for their kindness and love.

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