‘Don’t let this remarkable story ever die’: The Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris Building in Cedar Rapids is now open

The children of Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris holding the ribbon at the dedication ceremony for a building named in their parents’ honor. Friday, Nov. 22, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

When his mother was growing up, she vowed she’d never marry a doctor, Peter Harris said. Lileah Furgerson was the daughter of a doctor, and knew the long hours they worked.

The audience at the dedication ceremony for the new Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris building laughed when Peter mentioned his mother’s vow. Lileah did, in fact, end up marrying a doctor: Percy Harris, the first black physician in Cedar Rapids. The couple was married for 63 years, and raised 12 children together. They were civil rights pioneers and important community leaders in Cedar Rapids.

Now, the building honoring their impact on Cedar Rapids and Linn County is officially open. More than 200 people gathered on Friday afternoon to celebrate the couple’s legacy. The Harris Building houses Linn County Public Health and Child and Youth Development Services.

“Public health and child and youth development [were] the highest values of their lives, and for that you honor them,” their son Peter told the audience at the dedication ceremony. “By this dedication, you also honor the many extraordinary Linn County citizens of their generation who Mom and Dad loved so dearly.”

Peter Harris, son of Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris, speaks during the ribbon-cutting at the new Harris building. Friday, Nov. 22, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Percy, Lileah and their four oldest children moved to Cedar Rapids in 1957, after Dr. Harris accepted an internship at St. Luke’s Hospital. Four years after their move to Cedar Rapids, the couple was looking for a larger home for their family, but property owners were refusing to sell to a black family.

Ultimately, the family was able to purchase land sold by the St. Paul’s United Methodist Church after a vote, but the issue divided the church’s members.

The couple built their home and moved in in 1963. Discussing the vote and land decision in 2010, Lileah called it “quite a little fight.” The couple lived there for the rest of their lives. (Lileah died in 2014 at age 83, and Percy died in 2017 at 89.)

“Don’t let this remarkable story ever die,” Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker told the audience at the Nov. 22 ribbon-cutting. “Let it light a fire in you to fight the good fights.”

During their years in Cedar Rapids, both Percy and Lileah were deeply involved in the community. Percy was Linn County’s medical examiner for 38 years, served on the board for a number of organizations in the community and was appointed to the Iowa Board of Regents. Lileah was often called a Renaissance woman; she was a painter, poet pianist and singer. Lileah served on the Cedar Rapids Human Rights Commission, was an active member of her church and of the PTA at her children’s schools. An advocate for lifelong learning, she earned a degree in Russian from the University of Iowa at age 62.

The building was completed on time and on budget, Walker said. Throughout the next few weeks, finishing touches will be completed, making the building “pristine, fit for the king and queen after which this building is named,” he added.

The Harris building is a multi-use 63,000-square-foot facility, with the potential for expansion.

Linn County Public Health will use the space to serve residents and keep the community healthy. Focuses include chronic disease management, immunizations, STI testing and treatment, refugee and immigrant services, and education.

The Child and Youth Development Services program will be enhanced by the Harris building. There will be increased classroom capacity, a community kitchen for nutrition education classes, a gymnasium and an accessible playground.

There will also be 12 conference rooms and meeting spaces, and each one will be dedicated to one of the Harris children. Linn County Supervisor Ben Rogers mentioned during his remarks at the ceremony that the number of those rooms equaling the number of Harris children was “totally a fluke,” but he was thrilled it worked out that way.

Members of the Harris family tour the newly dedicated Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris Building, Friday, Nov. 22, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

“I want to personally thank the family for allowing us to honor your parents’ lifetime devotion to health and education with this world-class building, but I also want to thank you for sharing your parents with our community,” Rogers said.

The playground, gym and green space will be open to the public after business hours and on weekends. The building is designed to meet gold-level standards in Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED), which encourages green and sustainable building practices.

“Here we are, in the gymnasium of a new community institution that bears the names of two black legends who overcame it all,” Walker said. “This building will treat patients of all colors and backgrounds. We will treat immigrants and refugees. We will teach and care for all children. We will show them that a better world is possible.”

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