The home of Cedar Rapids civil rights pioneers Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris was added to the National Register of Historic Places earlier this month, almost 60 years after the family challenged discriminatory housing practices to create that home. The house is the fourth site in Iowa honoring African American civil rights.
“The site is considered a contributing resource because the parcel on which the house was built was at the center of the debate over whether a Black family should be allowed to move into a white neighborhood,” according to the registration form.
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 hospital’s first Black intern and later became the city’s first Black physician.
Four years after their move to Cedar Rapids, the couple was looking for a larger home for their growing 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 the rest of their lives. Percy and Lileah Harris were married for 63 years.
“I was born a few months after the family moved into the house,” Anne Harris Carter recalled in a video from the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. “Growing up, … I just knew some houses were neighbors that enjoyed our presence and other houses it was best to avoid. I was away for 30 years and then moved back, and so now I talk to people who are my age who lived off in that direction generally or nearby neighborhoods who have shared with me what the experience was like for them because they heard their parents talking about it. … It never occurred to me until I had those conversations that it really made an impact on much more than just this family.”
The house at 3626 Bever Ave SE remains in the Harris family. Anne bought the home and lives there with her sister Sarah Harris.
“Don’t let this remarkable story ever die. Let it light a fire in you to fight the good fights,” Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker said in November 2019 at the opening of the Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris Building. The Harris Building at 1020 6th St SE is home to Linn County Public Health and Child and Youth Development Services.
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 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.