The Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris Building, named in honor of two Cedar Rapids civil rights pioneers, will open on Friday

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Ribbon-cutting ceremony for Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris Building

1020 6th St SE, Cedar Rapids — Friday, Nov. 22 at 2 p.m.

Percy and Lileah Harris, pictured in their Bever Avenue home with 10 of their 12 children in 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.

“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,” Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker wrote in Little Village after Harris died in 2017 at age 89.

That same year, Walker and Supervisor Ben Rogers — who was delivered by Dr. Harris — looked for a way to honor the esteemed physician and his wife Lileah, who died in 2014 at age 83. The couple were civil rights pioneers and important community leaders in Cedar Rapids.

The Linn County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in May 2017 to name the new Linn County Public Health and Child and Youth Development Services building after the couple. Two years after that vote, the Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris building is finally ready.

A ribbon-cutting will be held Friday, Nov. 22 at 2 p.m. to celebrate the opening of the building at 1020 6th St SE, near the NewBo area. Walker and Rogers, along with David Sorg from OPN Architects, Linn County Public Health Director Pramod Dwivedi, Child and Youth Development Services Director Gloria Witzberger and Peter Harris (Percy and Lileah’s son), will speak at the event.

Percy, Lileah and their four oldest children moved to Cedar Rapids in 1957 after Dr. Percy accepted an internship at St. Luke’s Hospital. He was the city’s first black physician.

Four years after their move to Cedar Rapids, the couple was looking for a larger home for their family but found that property owners were refusing to sell to a black family.

Businessman Robert Armstrong had donated land next to his Bever Avenue home to the St. Paul’s United Methodist Church and suggested it should be sold to the Harris family. The issue divided the church’s members, but they eventually decided in the Harris family’s favor. By a vote of 460-291, the family was able to purchase the land.

The couple bought the land and built their home, moving in in 1963. When speaking about the vote and land decision in 2010, Lileah called it “quite a little fight.” The couple raised their 12 children in that home and lived there for their rest of their lives. Percy and Lileah Harris were married for 63 years.

Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris building, 1020 6th St. SE, on Nov. 14, 2019. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

While living 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.

“I never became a psychiatrist, but I think over the years I have been able to help people,” Percy once said. “Even more than that, people have helped me. I’m not a rich man by any means. But when it comes to friends, I’m a multimillionaire.”

Lileah was a pianist, active church member and advocated for lifelong learning. She earned a degree in Russian from the University of Iowa at age 62. She served on the board of the NAACP and of the Cedar Rapids Symphony guild, and was a member of the Cedar Rapids Human Rights Commission.

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Plans for the Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris building courtesy of OPN Architects.

Naming the building after the two community leaders seemed to be an obvious choice to Walker and Rogers.

“It’s one of the more proud moments I’ve had being on the Board of Supervisors, that I get to be in this time and space and be able to be part of naming a building after two people who have been such a huge part of my life and the entire community,” Rogers told the Gazette in May 2017. “It’s not that we’re trying to shoehorn a name on to a building, this actually makes sense.”

The Harris building will be a multi-use 63,000-square-foot facility, with the potential for expansion. Because it will be home to two departments, there will be classrooms, childcare spaces, offices, meeting rooms, clinics and a lab.

Until recently, the Child and Youth Development Center was housed in the county-owned Fillmore Center. After the center moved to the Harris building, the Fillmore was converted to an emergency winter overflow shelter.

The Harris building will also have a playground, gymnasium and green space. These features will be open to the public after business hours and on weekends. The building will meet Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) standards, which encourages green and sustainable building practices.

Tours of the building will be offered on Friday following the ribbon-cutting event.

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