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Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris' Cedar Rapids home receives historic designation honoring civil rights history

Sixty years after racist opposition to their homeownership, Harris House added to National Register

CEDAR RAPIDS — When Anne Harris Carter was a little girl in the 1960s on her way to Erskine Elementary School, she was diligent about following her route to class. She felt it could cost her family, the first Black family in her neighborhood, if she strayed off the path.

The Harris children could take a particular shortcut onto a neighbor’s driveway across from their home and through a backyard to school instead of going the long way up a hill. But she also knew there was one segment on this adjoining driveway on the other neighbor’s property that she couldn’t touch.

“I knew that there had been this controversy and I wasn’t going to be the one to mess up the Harris name,” she recalled thinking.

The controversy: Her parents had the audacity to search for a house suitable for their family. It was only their skin color that made it such an ordeal.

After her father, Dr. Percy Harris, completed an internship at St. Luke’s, the Harrises looked to stay in Cedar Rapids where he hoped to open a medical practice. They were shown homes in predominantly low-income, African American neighborhoods, but those wouldn’t do for their still-growing family. (There are 12 children in the Harris family.)

Prominent businessman Robert Armstrong and his wife, Esther, donated a building lot in a white neighborhood to their church, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, so it could be sold to the Harrises.

Hundreds of church members attended a meeting at St. Paul’s in 1961 to vote on the sale. After hours of debate, the Harrises won. They built the home the following year, and it remains in the family today.

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“I just grew up knowing some neighbors were neighborly and some neighbors weren’t, and you didn’t bother with the ones who weren’t,” Anne said. “And I really liked the way my parents modeled that: ‘Just do your thing. Don’t worry about those who might try to hold you back.’ ”

Despite discriminatory housing policies and racist neighbors, Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris prevailed to secure a home for their family, marking a watershed moment for civil rights history in Cedar Rapids. Sixty years later, their story of courage landed the Harris House at 3626 Bever Ave. SE a spot on the National Register of Historic Places this month — making it only the fourth site in Iowa specifically honoring African American civil rights.

Michael Morain, communications manager for the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, which oversees the State Historic Preservation Office, said Iowa received a grant from the National Park Service in 2018 for the office to launch a statewide survey to document sites with history connected to the struggle to achieve full civil rights for African Americans.

One property was required to be nominated to the National Register as part of this project. After staff collected information from across Iowa, Morain said the story behind the Harris House pushed it to the top.

‘Black history is Iowa’s history’

Felicite Wolfe, a curator at the African American Museum of Iowa, said in a statement many people take the ability to buy a home for granted, so it is important to recognize the barriers the Harrises faced to understand its significance.

Through practices such as redlining, residential covenants or unwritten customs that kept minorities out of white neighborhoods, families like the Harrises faced housing discrimination for decades. Iowa later passed an amendment to its civil rights act in 1967 to end legal housing discrimination and the federal government followed later.

Buying a home is “part of the American dream,” said Wolfe, who noted she is white. “The fact is that historically for many people of color this dream is nearly impossible due to established governmental policies and individuals who, consciously or not, hold biases towards certain people. Everyone should be asking why was this allowed to happen? Why was it OK to discriminate?”

That’s why people must learn history — to question themselves and understand how past events shape present views, and to grow from that process, she said.

The museum works to show that “Black history is Iowa’s history,” Wolfe said.

House stirs memories of Harris parents

For the Harris children, the house is less representative of the controversy their family faced and is, above all, their “family home.”

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After their parents died — Lileah in 2014, followed by Percy in 2017 — Anne bought the house and now lives there with her sister, Sarah Harris. Anne left Cedar Rapids for 30 years but the Harris roots planted here drew her back.

Sarah said her parents, especially her father, loved the house, and it’s meaningful to see Cedar Rapids on the map for civil rights history.

Now, it’s Sarah’s turn to relish in its sensory details — how the two-story home atop hilly terrain was built, how the light falls inside, its location by the woods, the creaks that sounded for decades.

When the wind blows from the northwest, she said, it sounds like someone is playing a harmonica. Lileah used to tell her children there was a boy up there playing the wind instrument.

It’s a fitting callback to their childhood memories of the sound of music filling their home — people playing the piano, violin or guitar, and singing. No matter how loud it was, the parents let the kids play on.

And they remember their dad, the city’s first Black physician, taking calls in a kitchen nook, speaking with the same friendly demeanor to anyone on the other end whether it was a patient or the medical examiner.

“He said, ‘Hi, this is Percy Harris,’ in this really beautiful, warm voice, and he’d listen and he’d reassure — just an amazing gift of empathy that he had for people,” said Lileah Harris, her mother’s namesake.

Through the belongings their parents left in the house, Anne said she has gained a deeper appreciation of her mother’s voice and the impact she had at various activities in the community. Lileah served on the city Human Rights Commission in the 1970s and 1980s, and led parent-teacher groups at Erskine Elementary and Washington High School.

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“It kind of inspires me as a mother, too, in terms of how I relate to my children and my grandchild, maybe to help them hear my voice, but also to figure out what their own voice is,” Anne said.

The children are proud of their parents’ profound impact on the community, but Lileah also remembered her eponymous mother having a sense of humor: “She’d laugh, she’d get a chuckle and say, ‘I’m going off to my multicultural, non-sexist, all-inclusive school meeting.’”

Part of the Harris parents’ legacy is not simply that they were engaged citizens, Lileah said.

“They were willing to take risk and to have hard conversations or difficult conversations with people, and what resulted in that was deeper understanding,” she said.

Carrying on the Harris name in her hometown, especially with the house now on the National Register, “feels like a big responsibility,” Anne said.

Sarah said her parents accomplished things in the community with other like-minded people, not just alone.

“They certainly were not the only Black people in this town that struggled, and they certainly were not the only Black people in this town who made a profound impact,” Sarah said. “But they are really special people.”

Comments: (319) 398-8494; marissa.payne@thegazette.com

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