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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

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. […]

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