New Linn County building likely to honor Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris

Husband and wife were 'consummate humanitarians' in Cedar Rapids

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris were “consummate humanitarians,” with lasting impacts on public health, education and civil rights, said Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker.

So when Percy Harris died earlier this year at age 89, Walker and fellow Supervisor Ben Rogers wanted to find a way to recognize he and his wife, who died three years earlier at age 83.

The two supervisors said it felt fitting to name the county’s future Public Health and Child and Youth Development Services building — a building dedicated to public health and education — after the couple.

“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 said. “It’s not that we’re trying to shoehorn a name on to a building, this actually makes sense.”

The Linn County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to discuss a resolution to name the facility the “Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris Building” during its meeting at 9 a.m. Monday at the Jean Oxley Linn County Public Service Center, 935 Second St. SW. Plans call for the building to open next year at 1019 Seventh St. SE.

Anne Carter, one of the Harris’ 12 children, said the two supervisors approached her and her siblings earlier this year with the proposal.

“First of all, it was a tremendous honor. It is somewhat humbling at the same time and I would say, from my perspective, it’s just a very appropriate recognition,” she said.

Humanitarians

Percy and Lileah Harris came to Cedar Rapids in 1957 for his internship with St. Luke’s Hospital. He was the city’s first black physician and just a few years after arriving in town, the Harrises found themselves at the epicenter of the local civil rights movement.

In 1961, Cedar Rapids businessman Robert Armstrong urged St. Paul’s United Methodist Church to sell one of its lots in the 3600 block of Bever Avenue SE to the Harris family.

The matter proved controversial and eventually split the congregation.

Of the 751 church members who attended a vote on the issue, 460 agreed to sell the lot to the Harris family.

Percy Harris, who became medical staff president at St. Luke’s Hospital, was appointed as the first black member of the Iowa Board of Regents in 1977.

He held several leadership positions over the years, including president of the NAACP Cedar Rapids chapter in 1964 and member of the Black Culture Advisory Board at Coe College. He was Linn County’s medical examiner for nearly 40 years.

“He taught us what it means to be a humanitarian, he taught us what it means to respect each other and to see each other as human beings in brotherhood, because of that, he’s got a place in the history of the civil rights movement, he’s got a place in the history of Cedar Rapids,” Walker said.

Lileah Harris grew up just to the north in Waterloo, where her father, Lee Furgerson, was the city’s first black physician and president of the NAACP chapter.

She was a classical pianist, singer, poet and painter and was always learning — she finished her college degree, in Russian, at the University of Iowa at age 62.

Much like her husband, Lileah became a community leader. She served on the board of the NAACP and on the Cedar Rapids Human Rights Commission, among others.

“Lileah Harris in her own right is sort of a legend ... here in the community, so we felt it was only appropriate to honor them both in this way,” Walker said.

And if Percy and Lileah Harris weren’t already fitting names to attach to the future public health and child and youth development services building, Supervisor Rogers said a recent discovery that the building will be home to 12 conference rooms, made the idea seem almost too perfect.

The Harrises were parents to 12 children — daughters Rebecca, Sarah, Anne and Lileah and sons Grant, Matthew, Mark, Paul, Philip, Peter, David and Bruce.

Rogers said he plans to recommend that the board name each of those 12 conference rooms after one of the Harris children.

“Each Harris child, they are also part of this story,” he said. “It’s really important that the children are also acknowledged.”

More than just a building

Linn County’s current Public Health building, 501 13th St. NW, has been short on space for years.

In the meantime, the Options of Linn County building — formerly at 1019 Seventh St. SE — was inundated with water during flooding in 2008, which forced the county to relocate services to the Linn County Community Services Building, 1240 26th Ave. SW.

That left a full city block of county-owned property open for potential development.

“We knew eventually that we were going to have to do something with the public health building, it’s been in such disarray that we knew we needed to do something, but that land is too big for just public health,” Rogers said.

Soon it was decided to include the also cramped Child and Youth Development Services department, currently at 520 11th St. NW, in the project.

The county hopes to select a contractor later this summer and break ground on the project this year. Construction should be completed in 2018.

But the estimated $20 million, 55,000-square-foot building is meant to be much more than a space for county offices, said Darrin Gage, Linn County director of policy and administration.

“From the start, one of the primary focuses of the building was to be a community asset,” Gage said.

David Sorg, principal with OPN Architects, said that was something taken to heart as the building was designed.

To get a feel for the community needs and desires, Sorg said OPN held several neighborhood meetings to gather input for the building.

Designed to have a minimal impact on existing houses and structures, the building also will include a playground, basketball courts and green space. The building’s gymnasium also will be open to the public.

In addition, the building, which is aiming for LEED Gold certification, will include sustainable features like natural lighting elements, green roofs and permeable pavers.

“It’s a building that is truly inspired by it’s use,” Sorg said. “It’s a unique project, it’s been very community driven and mission driven.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3175; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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