With the passing of Dr. Percy Harris, we were reminded of his 1961 purchase of a lot from St. Paul’s Church where he and his family lived until his recent death.
Prominent merchant/businessman Robert Armstrong made only a conditional contribution of a lot adjacent to his own home. The church was required to sell to Dr. Harris, a black family doctor new in town. He wanted the church to declare itself in the growing civil rights movement by desegregating this upscale Bever Avenue neighborhood. He also may have wanted to receive the tax deduction for a charitable contribution not available if he sold directly to Dr. Harris.
Armstrong was among the first businessmen in our community to hire blacks in positions in which they worked directly with customers, not just maintenance and as elevator operators but also as sales clerks for his department store. Like anyone in civil rights before the majority joined in the movement, not everyone liked him for his efforts.
My parents were members of St. Paul’s and I accompanied them at the congregational meeting to decide on the lot purchase. The vote was 460 to 291, 61 percent in favor of the sale.
Many of those opposed left the church. Those in favor were pleased to learn, as the years went by, of the many achievements and contributions Dr. Harris, his wonderful wife and 12 children added to the neighborhood and our community. Armstrong left a legacy of action for good which is an example for all of us.