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Harper, Virginia
(December 23, 1929–September 3, 1997)

–civil rights activist—was born in Fort Madison, Iowa. A fifth-generation Iowan, she was descended from George Stevens, a freed slave who brought his wife and children north to Keokuk after emancipation, bought land nearby, and began farming. Virginia Harper was the eldest of five children of Lillie (Grinage) Harper, a domestic science teacher from Washington, D.C., and Dr. Harry Harper Sr. Her father earned a bachelor's degree from the State University of Iowa and a medical degree at Howard University and practiced in Fort Madison, where he was the longtime president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

    Inspired by her parents' commitment to social justice, Virginia Harper began her own civil rights activism at a young age. She often took her younger sisters to movies at the local theaters, where African Americans and Mexican Americans were forced to sit in the balconies or in several rows at the back. One day when she was 10 or 11 years old, she and her sisters sat in the middle of the theater, refusing to move to the segregated section even when an usher repeatedly asked them to do so. "To move would have betrayed everything my parents believed in and taught us," she recalled.

    Harper attended St. Joseph's School through ninth grade and graduated from Fort Madison High School in 1946. She entered the State University of Iowa in 1946, when the dormitories were segregated and African American students lived off campus in private homes or residences, such as the Iowa Federation Home for female students, operated by the Iowa Federation of Colored Women's Clubs. Harper and four other women integrated the dormitories, moving into Currier Hall. Harper attended the State University of Iowa for three years and also studied at Howard University before completing her education at the College of Medical Technology in Minneapolis. She worked as an x-ray technician and medical assistant in her family's medical clinic from 1952 until it closed in 1977.

    Harper joined the Fort Madison branch of the NAACP in 1949 and over the next five decades was a driving force in the organization. She worked alongside her father during his presidency, was secretary in the 1960s, and served as president from 1978 until her death in 1997. She edited the newsletter in the 1960s, and through its pages mounted a "selective buying campaign," urging readers to patronize stores that interviewed or hired minorities and to boycott businesses that discriminated against minorities. Each month the newsletter carried notices of which businesses to boycott. Perhaps her greatest achievement was the successful fight to prevent the Iowa State Highway Commission from rerouting Highway 61 through the Mexican American and African American neighborhoods of Fort Madison. Harper filed a discrimination complaint with the commission on behalf of the local NAACP, arguing that rerouting the highway would disproportionately harm black and Mexican residents. From 1968 to 1976 she wrote letters, circulated petitions, spoke at public meetings, and worked with the legal counsel of the national NAACP until highway planners and city officials abandoned the plan.

    In the 1960s Harper began volunteering at the Iowa State Penitentiary, where she assisted inmates and their families and helped establish a branch of the NAACP. Iowa Governor Robert Ray appointed Harper to the State Board of Public Instruction in 1971 and to the Iowa Board of Parole in 1979; she was the first African American woman to serve on either board. Her advocacy of education and equity in the Fort Madison Community School District in the 1980s included service on the committee that implemented state multicultural/nonsexist guidelines at the local level. Harper's civic involvement in the 1970s and 1980s also included membership on the Fort Madison Human Rights Commission and the Library Board of Trustees, of which she served as president.

    Harper continued to speak out against racism to the end of her life, despite declining health, and she was always willing to take on new issues as they arose. In the year before her death, for example, she wrote letters to the editor and addressed the city council about discrimination within the Fort Madison Police Department. When she was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame in 1992, she reflected on a lifetime of working for equality and justice, telling a reporter, "Iowa is home and I guess I always thought conditions could be made better for everyone here."She died at age 67 in Cedar Rapids.
Sources The Virginia Harper Papers are in the Iowa Women's Archives, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, as are the papers of Harper's sister, Lois Eichacker. The Iowa Women's Hall of Fame Records in the Iowa Women's Archives include Harper's nomination form. The Harry Harper Papers are held in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries.
Contributor: Kären M. Mason