CEDAR RAPIDS —Lileah Harris was the wife of Cedar Rapids’ first black doctor, a civil rights leader and the mother of 12, all of them college graduates.
She was a classical pianist, singer, poet and painter. She gardened. She finished her college degree, in Russian, at the University of Iowa at age 62.
“She really was a Renaissance woman,” said her namesake daughter, Dr. Lileah Harris, who practices with Cedar Valley Pathology at UnityPoint/St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids.
Harris died Thursday, surrounded by her family, at Hallmar, where she’d lived the past several years after suffering a stroke in 2011. She was 83.
“It’s obviously been a very difficult three years in our lives,” son Bruce Harris said Saturday. “But our lives have been enriched by all of the friends who helped us grow and supported us during this very difficult time. We can’t thank people enough for being part of our family.”
Harris’ friends and family describe her as a woman who combined compassion with toughness, intelligence with humor. By way of example: The woman who always carried her father’s NAACP card in her wallet also could imitate a ukulele by pinching her nose and humming.
Harris grew up in Waterloo, where her father, Lee Furgerson, was the city’s first black physician and president of the NAACP chapter.
When movie theater owners directed blacks to the balcony, the Furgersons told their children to stay on the main floor. When one piano teacher declined to continue giving lessons to a black child, Lileah and her family found a better teacher. When an ice cream parlor would not allow blacks inside, Lileah filed a civil rights complaint. She was in junior high.
As a young woman, Lileah — pronounced “La-LEE-ah” — stood shoulder to shoulder with her husband in a watershed moment in Cedar Rapids’ civil rights history.
The Harrises moved to Cedar Rapids in 1957, when Dr. Percy Harris accepted an internship at St. Luke’s. They lived in a home owned by the hospital but were unable to find suitable housing when Dr. Harris wanted to stay and open a medical practice in the city.
Prominent businessman Robert Armstrong and his wife, Esther, donated a building lot in a white neighborhood — next to their own home — to their church, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, with the understanding it be sold to the Harrises. In 1961, almost a thousand church members attended the meeting at St. Paul’s to vote on the sale. The discussion took hours; in the end, the Harrises had their land.
“It was quite a little fight,” Lileah Harris recalled in an oral history video recorded in 2010. “Some of the people in the neighborhood didn’t like the idea.”
The Harrises built their seven-bedroom home in the 3600 block of Bever Avenue SE, where they’ve lived since.
The Harrises were prominent in civil rights efforts after that. Percy Harris, the Linn County medical examiner for 38 years before he retired in 1999, spoke in small towns, seeking to dispel prejudice, his wife said in the oral history interview.
The Harrises invited couples — white and black — into their home for Sunday “interracial” teas. Lileah Harris served on the city’s Human Rights Commission in the 1970s and 1980s. She volunteered in her children’s schools, leading parent-teacher organizations at Erskine Elementary and Washington High School.
PRide in her children
But Lileah Harris was always quick to say that her children — who would become attorneys, a doctor, teachers, artists, musicians, business executives — were her greatest accomplishment.
Her children are just as quick to cite their mother’s compassion, faith, intelligence and work ethic, along with her acceptance and encouragement of each one of them.
Bruce Harris, an attorney, general counsel of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and mayor of Chatham Borough, N.J., said his mother told him she’d always wanted to be a mom “more than anything else. … With all of her intelligence and talent, she could have been many other things — but I’m glad she chose to be a mom.”
“She was our chief taxi driver and logged countless hours in the car,” said daughter Anne Harris Carter, a Yale University graduate and business executive with Alliant Energy in Cedar Rapids. “One method Mom used to keep track of things was list-making. She always had a spiral notebook at hand.”
Grant Harris, a teacher in New Orleans, recalled his mother driving children to lessons, school and sporting events, but “she would not drive on the highway.” He was impressed when she started classes at the University of Iowa — “not because she was going to finish college but because this meant she would have to overcome her fear of driving on the highway.”
She did it, too, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1993.
Philip Harris, an attorney in Chicago, said his mother was the biggest UI basketball fan in the family. His twin, Paul Harris, general counsel at KeyBank Corp. in Cleveland, added that when the Hawkeyes were losing and he’d stop watching the game, his mother would say, “Have faith.” That response, he said, “typifies Mom’s perspective on life.”
Peter Harris, a musician in California, said one of his favorite memories of his mother was “listening to her accompany herself on the piano while singing ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ at Christmastime.”
His mother, he added, “often said, ‘God first, everyone else second, and myself last.’ ’’
To watch a recorded interview with Lileah Harris, go to http://www.blackiowa.org/education/childrens-oral-history-project/stories/lileah-harris/
Visitation for Lileah Harris will be 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday in the chapel at Cedar Memorial Park Cemetery, 4200 First Ave. NE
Funeral service will be 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at All Saints Catholic Church, 720 29th St. SE.