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Iowa History Daily: September 3 - Virginia Harper's Battle for Equality

Iowa History Daily: On September 3, 1997, Iowa Civil Rights activist Virginia Harper died. Best known for helping integrate the residence halls at the University of Iowa and organizing opposition to the routing of Highway 61 through diverse communities in Fort Madison, Harper spent her life fighting for equality in Iowa.

Harper’s family history in Iowa stretched back for five generations. Her ancestor, George Stevens, arrived in Iowa after leaving enslavement following the Civil War. Born in December 1929, Harper’s father worked as a doctor while her mother taught science in Fort Madison. Harper graduated from Fort Madison High School in 1946, and often fought local segregation by refusing to follow a local movie theater policy stipulating Black patrons only sit in the cinema’s balcony.

The following fall, Harper enrolled at University of Iowa and helped to integrate the campus residence halls when she and four other African-American women moved into Currier Hall. After three years at Iowa, Harper transferred to Howard University before graduating from the College of Medical Technology in Minneapolis.

Harper returned to Fort Madison to work in her father’s medical practice and joined the local NAACP. From 1968 through 1976 Harper worked to oppose the rerouting of US 61 through the southwest corner of the city, the location of the city's Mexican-American and African-American neighborhoods. She worked with the legal team at the national NAACP office and wrote letters, circulated petitions, and spoke at public meetings until the Iowa State Highway Commission and the Iowa Department of Transportation abandoned the plan. #IowaOTD #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaHistoryCalendar


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