This fall, Yamila Transtenvot, an instructor in Spanish at Cornell College, has been working with IWA, The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Council 10, and the Davenport Community School District (DCSD) to bring primary sources about Latino/a/x history to Iowa schools. I sat down with Transtenvot this Latinx Heritage Month to discuss this exciting collaboration.
Transtenvot, originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, has a background in education. She trained as a high school literature teacher and spent time working for the government of Argentina in an after-school program aimed at getting disadvantaged youth excited about reading and writing. Eventually, the University of Iowa’s Master of Fine Arts in Spanish Creative Writing pulled her to the United States. While completing her MFA, she taught Spanish at UIowa. When members of LULAC Council 10 approached her about writing lesson plans with IWA’s Latina collections, it seemed like a natural fit.
Davenport schools introduce migration as a topic to students in elementary school, but the current curriculum lacks stories about Mexican migration, which began in the 19th century and accelerated in the 1910s during the Mexican Revolution. DCSD and LULAC Council 10 wanted to introduce new stories and more primary sources into migration lessons. IWA houses dozens of collections and over one hundred oral histories documenting the lives of Latinas in Iowa. Transtenvot used Migration is Beautiful, a website about these collections, and advice from IWA’s staff to choose just a few items and oral histories to highlight.
Transtenvot concentrated on the stories of young people. In one the three lessons that she’s created, students will use the memoir of Martina Morado, who immigrated to Iowa as a teenager in the 1910s to learn about migration. In another, a childhood photograph of Otilia “Tilly” Gomez in Cook’s Point, a Mexican settlement in Davenport, Iowa, will help students think about cultural heritage and what life was like for immigrants in Iowa during the first half of the 20th century. The way Transtenvot has planned the lessons offers several ways to engage with the topic including class discussion, a Kahoot quiz, and a migratory Monarch butterfly for them to color.
Her biggest challenge, Trantenvot said, was trying to keep her own ideas and biases from filling the page. Above all, she wants students to learn how to reflect on primary sources and form their own thoughts about them. The lessons are filled with questions that allow students to think and wonder. For example, after seeing a photograph of Angela and Martina Morado from 1913, classes will be invited to speculate in writing on the relationship between the women, how old the photograph is, and whether it reminds them of any old photographs they’ve seen of their own families. Transtenvot has also striven to center the voices of Latinas by using excerpts from oral histories by Rosa Mendoza and Otilia Gomez, and a memoir by Martina Morado. She says that the charm of primary sources is that they give a glimpse of people’s personal experiences. By making space for these voices and for reflection on what they say, Transtenvot hopes her lessons will help students build empathy.
The lessons will debut in Davenport, but Transtenvot sees this as a starting point. She’d like to see the project spread to other districts in Iowa and perhaps go further, resulting in lessons about other underrepresented groups in the state. Finally, she intends to have her lesson plans put on the Migration is Beautiful website, where they will become resources and inspiration for teachers across the country.
In Box 24 of the Lonabelle Kaplan Spencer papers, Andrew Seber finally found exactly what he was looking for: personal testimonies by rural citizens whose lives were turned upside down by the development of hog confinements near their Iowa homes. Seber’s dissertation, Neither Factory nor Farm: the Other Environmental Movement, will focus on industrial animal agriculture in Iowa, one of the world’s largest hog producers. As 2021’s Linda and Richard Kerber Travel Grant recipient, Seber was able to travel from the University of Chicago, where he is a doctoral student, to Iowa City and spend a week researching at the Iowa Women’s Archives.
Seber traces his interest in meat production back to high school, when an AP environmental science course first made him aware of meat as an environmental problem. He took this interest to college where he developed a scholarly interest in agriculture, ecology, and cultural studies. He believes that historically, the environmental movement has marginalized animal agriculture as a focus, in favor of fossil fuels and conservation. While recognizing that these are important issues, Seber says the irony is that animal agriculture is inextricably linked to both of them as it uses tremendous amounts of fossil fuel and causes air and water pollution. In his opinion, it cannot afford to be neglected, and he sees his work as a critique of the liberal environmental movement that became predominant in the 1970s and which informed the environmental social sciences.
For his research in IWA, Seber is relying heavily on the Lonabelle Kaplan Spencer papers to help him situate his work geographically. Spencer became an activist against Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in the 1970s when she learned that a hog lot was being built near a Girl Scout camp. Through her work, she discovered that hog confinement was more than an odor problem. It affected property values, poisoned ground water, polluted air, and overall amounted to a new health hazard for rural residents. This is where Seber’s favorite box 24 of the collection comes into play. Spencer built a network of Iowans experiencing this pollution and a network of scientists studying it. She lobbied for regulations that would limit hog odor and animal waste; her efforts were mostly unsuccessful.
Seber says Spencer’s 1970s activism is part of a larger pattern that tends to go in cycles. In the 1970s and 1990s there were movements that really pushed for regulations on CAFOS. He’s found similar headlines in both eras and similar outcomes. He posits that this is partly due to neoliberal businesses that capture the process when activists try to use, as Spencer did, government hearings and studies to build their cases. But this isn’t the only problem, in some cases hog manure storage needs increase more quickly than regulations can keep up with, and some people still don’t view agriculture as an industry, which thwarts regulatory efforts.
After his fruitful research in Iowa, Seber will work on writing his next chapter, tentatively called “A Plain Old Cesspool: Concentrating Animal Life in Neoliberal Iowa,” and then turn his focus to North Carolina, another state with large scale hog operations. He hopes to complete his dissertation and degree in 2023.
The following post is written by University of Iowa senior, Jack Kamp.
When I started my internship at the Iowa Women’s Archives (IWA), I knew I was interested in working with Black women’s history. As a student interested in the history of civil rights and social justice, I knew that this collection would give me the chance to gain some archival skills while also being immersed in a field that fascinated me. What I learned in the archives has added a layer of complexity to how I conceptualize historical research. My time at the IWA has allowed me to develop the skills that aid in analysis and organization regarding a wide range of materials in and contexts surrounding archival collections. Originally, I predominantly looked at research from the perspective of a student historian. My main concern was simply finding that certain document or photograph or piece of correspondence that would aid me in my research or simply out of interest. After first-hand experience with processing a set of papers, I can see that there are so many more connections to be made, even within one single set of papers.
There are many decisions to make regarding the organization of a set of papers. How should I order the folders? Which folders should I make? How will each series fit into the larger collection? Should it be chronological? How should the original organization of the creator be preserved? Each of these decisions has the capacity to impact future researchers looking at those papers and how they are presented to the public through such means as written papers and presentations. My experience at the IWA has led me to pay attention to how materials are grouped and to consider why they may be organized the way that they are within the collection.
During my time as an intern, I processed the personal papers of Madgetta Thornton Dungy, a professional Black woman who found success in education administration at college campuses across the United States. She was the first Black woman to graduate from Cornell College in Iowa and went on to earn a master’s degree and Ph.D. in higher education administration. When I began to process her collection, much of my interest was in the older materials: old family photos from the 1940’s, old church programs from 1955, and a teaching certificate from 1968. As a history student, and a historian interested in the postwar era Black Freedom Struggle, I was most interested in these materials out of the whole collection. However, as I began the processing procedure and began sorting the materials into the established series’, I started to find more interest in the materials I might have passed over had I not been involved in the processing of Dungy’s papers.
Through processing Madgetta Dungy’s personal papers, I began to see how the singular pieces that I was most drawn to were related to the greater collection. As I placed the Dungy family photos next to the materials relating to Dungy’s involvement with The Links, Incorporated, a Black women’s national organization, I began to see the political and personal sides of Dungy come together. As I placed the 1955 church program next to the church program that Dungy produced herself in 1978, I was able to see some of the impact that religion had on Dungy’s life and the way in which she understood and considered her own religion. As I placed her teaching certificate from 1968 next to her CVs and academic transcripts, I saw the hard work and dedication Dungy put in her education and professional life. As I continued placing the materials I had initially found interest in next to other materials, I began to see more dimensions and more complexity within the person whose papers I was processing. Madgetta Dungy became more than a name on a file. She became a dynamic, complicated, and multifaceted person with interests, goals, and relationships.
Dungy’s educational, personal, and professional achievements and experiences play a crucial role in the story of Black Iowa women’s history. As a successful professional, her papers illustrate what it is like to be a Black woman in the professional sphere during the mid to late 20th century. It is because of this that I hope Madgetta Dungy’s papers are researched and utilized by many historians in a range of areas. Additionally, the experience of processing Dungy’s papers has allowed me to expand my skill set and has exposed me to more ways of viewing and understanding archival collections and papers. My time at the IWA has certainly set me up for success, as it has allowed me to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes in an archives, what archivists have to consider when processing various collections, and allowed me to develop new skills in research and navigating archival spaces as a historian.
I would specifically like to thank Janet Weaver and Anna Holland for their guidance and assistance in the archives. Additionally, I really valued the support I received from Erik and Heather over the course of my internship in the archives and regarding prospective graduate study. I have greatly appreciated my time in the IWA over the summer and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to an archives so crucial to the University and the Iowa City community.
After the pandemic postponed her research trip, Yazmin Gomez, the 2020 Linda and Richard Kerber Travel Grant recipient, finally made it to IWA! Linda Kerber, May Brodbeck Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of History Emerita, and her husband Richard founded this grant to help researchers, especially graduate students, travel to the Iowa Women’s Archives. Thanks to the Kerbers, IWA can award $1000 every year to a promising researcher like Gomez, whose work would benefit from travelling to Iowa and using IWA’s collections for an extended period.
Gomez, graduate student from Rutgers University is focusing her dissertation research on the labor and educational activism of Latinas in the Midwest. Her work has been years in the making. As an undergraduate at Marquette University, she enrolled in the Ronald E. McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement Program, aimed at helping first generation students and students from underrepresented groups prepare for graduate school. It was her first taste of independent research and archival work. By the time she’d finished her senior thesis, “Viva La Raza, Viva Las Latinas: Late 20th Century Female Activism in Milwaukee’s Latinx Community” she knew she wanted to keep studying Latina activism at Rutgers.
At IWA, Gomez is seeking to broaden the scope of the research she did on Latina activism in Wisconsin to include a larger picture of the Midwest. She believes that the region, though it has a smaller Latinx population than other areas of the US, has greater internal diversity within its Latinx communities that has created a unique situation for activism. She’s particularly interested in the intersection of gender and race among the Latinas she has studied. “They weren’t exactly Gloria Steinem, women’s liberation feminists, their activism was community-based,” Gomez said. They were focused on things like unionizing and expanding the role of women in established organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).
She’s also finding connections to other civil rights activists and battles. The oral history of Mary Campos, whose work on behalf of Latinx people in Iowa earned her a place in the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame, introduced her to a wider web of activism. Campos worked for a Dr. Griffin, the husband of civil rights activist Edna Griffin, known for her fight to desegregate Katz Drug Store in Des Moines. Reading Griffin’s FBI file, Gomez found a familiar story in how female activists of the mid 20th century were underrated. Even the government agents assigned to trail Griffin didn’t understand why they were following “just a housewife.”
Aside from the connections to her own research, Yazmin Gomez has enjoyed finding personal items in the collections she’s seen mixed in with community activism. While learning about Cesar Chavez’s visit to Iowa, she might see a graduation cap and tassel, photographs of a first communion, or her favorite, a newspaper clipping about a local man who grew a potato that looked kind of like an elephant. By encountering items like these in the Archives, Gomez has been able to spend the last two weeks in IWA immersing herself in the lives and community networks of Latinas over 50 years ago. She’s excited to take what she’s learned back to Rutgers as she moves closer to a PhD.
Are you interested in applying for the Linda and Richard Kerber Fund for Research in the Iowa Women’s Archives? We will be accepting applications again next spring. You can keep tabs on the deadline and learn more on our website.
This post was written by IWA Graduate Assistant, Erik Henderson
In 1891, James Naismith invented the sport of basketball in Massachusetts at what is now Springfield College. In the early 1900s, the game was adopted for women throughout America especially in small town Iowa. The first Iowa State Championship for girls was played in 1920, the same year women received the right
to vote. In 1934, Iowa transitioned into two-court, six-on-six women’s basketball. However, the introduction of Title IX began to slow the popularity of 6-on-6 women’s basketball. The opportunity to play basketball at the collegiate and state level pushed more women towards 5-on-5. Ultimately, 6-on-6 play began to phase out and was officially discontinued in 1993.
In 1993, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Janice Beran delivered her speech “Why Only in Iowa North [illegible] of Sport History.” It describes some key factors in why 6-on-6 women’s basketball survived in Iowa an era when all other programs were being disbanded. Beran was a professor in the College of Education at Iowa State University until her retirement in 1994. The Janice A. Beran papers primarily consist of published and unpublished articles, and research files concerning her work on women and African Americans in sport. Her research on the history of Iowa girls’ high school basketball culminated in a book published in 1993, From Six-on-Six to Full Court Press: A Century of Iowa Girls’ Basketball. This post will not be a highlight of Beran and her book, rather a dive into why the 6-on-6 basketball lasted in Iowa after other programs around the country were eliminated.
Beran first positions the reader to consider the importance of high school sporting events to small towns. She wrote:
In the rural areas where the tradition is strongest everyone from newborn babe to the oldest great grandma attends this most important event on the week’s calendar. Those great grandmas were once on the court vividly recall the heady excitement, the ups and the downs, the centrality, basketball had in their lives as high school students.
As a former high school and collegiate athlete, I have those same feelings about my athletic journey. The energy athletes receive from the community and from the opposition can fuel someone beyond their known potential. Small town engagement and passion for sporting events in Iowa was the catalyst for the longevity on women’s 6-on-6 basketball.
For this speech and many others, Beran sought advice and information from experts through interviews, some of which are preserved in her papers at IWA. From the information received from interviewees, Beran listed ten possible reasons why 6-on-6 basketball survived in Iowa, while other states disbanded the program. Many of the reasons other programs were ended was often due to preconceived stereotypes placed on young women due to the ideologies of the early 20th century. She lists the ten reason as well as brief explanation (we list the first few), leaving the reader with possible future concerns.
Male advocacy for girls’ basketball was a principal factor. She mentions four men who “were instrumental in starting the federation and ensuring that girls had a competitive basketball program.”
There was no single dominant female physical educator in Iowa like in surrounding states; “leading female physical educators were against competition between schools and favored providing a broad range of participation opportunities rather than using the limited gym time to training a few girls to play basketball.”
In rural and small-town schools between 1920’s-60s there was less demand on gym space. “In the small towns the girls’ coach was often the boys’ coach so it was simple for him to arrange for equal practice for both teams.”
Basketball was not viewed as too physical[ly] taxing for girls in rural communities. “Descendants of pioneers, rural women were accustomed to heavy farm work.
High schools became the hub of rural community life and “basketball for girls filled an entertainment void in rural communities.”
The list above are just the first five reasons for the durability of Iowa women and girls’ basketball. It details the collaborative effort not just from women athletes but also community members.
After a good run in the NCAA Basketball tournament by the Hawkeyes, and be a D-III athlete, I realize we all cannot we be Caitlin Clark and be the leading scorer for the Iowa women’s basketball team as a freshman and hold two state records for Iowa as a high schooler. Nor can we be Luka Garza, named the best player in Iowa men’s basketball history and named Player of the Year. However, some of us can be and are the people that watch, analyzes, and research the nature of sports, just like Janice Ann Beran. We can be a part of a sector of society that we enjoy without being the focal point. As a beacon of hope for retired collegiate athletes like myself, in 1992 Beran was the first to win the Central District Scholar Award from the Central District Association of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.
This post is by IWA Graduate Assistant Erik Henderson
Taking a risk can be one of the most difficult things you must do. However, how would it feel knowing that you cannot fail no matter what you do? One thing that holds us back in life is our clouded judgment when making a major move. Mary Grefe pushed herself and others to go for things they want and dream big by creating opportunities for young women to branch out into technical and scientific careers.
Mary Arlene Cruikshank Grefe was an educator, social activist, politician, and businesswoman. Grefe grew up on her family’s farm in the Algona area and graduated from Morningside College with a B.A. in English and Speech in January 1943. Grefe had been active in the women’s movement for many years through her involvement with the Educational Foundation of the American Association of University Women (AAUW).
Grefe was the national president of the AAUW from 1979 to 1981 and the AAUW Educational Foundation president. A few years prior, Grefe published articles relating to adult education, leadership techniques, the women’s movement, and a leadership manual with Claire Fulcher titled Techniques for Organizational Effectiveness (1973).
Within the Mary Grefe papers, there is a speech titled “What Would You Attempt To Do If You Knew You Could Not Fail?” She gave the speech for Career Conference, “The Road Less Traveled,” on October 13th, 1994, because Iowa State University (where the conference was hosted) wanted to break the stereotype that young women had to get pushed down a path of “gendered work.” She said they could cross over into other fields as well with a little “self-esteem and confidence…a person with self-esteem and confidence is halfway to any goal” The point of the speech for Grefe was to push back against the idea of gendered work while suggesting that young women can build a career in fields like math and science.
Many people, myself included, do not want to take risks because they are worried about what other people will think about them, and they stay in their comfort zone. Grefe stated, “as parents, we have to encourage our children to get out of the comfort zone. When your child fell off the bike the first time, did you say soothingly, it is too hard for you, let’s put the bike away and go back to the same and comforting tricycle? You know that you did not.” Grefe’s example of a young child trying to ride a bike for the first time and falling shows us we need to be consistent in the endeavors we are pursuing. We cannot give up or quit the first time we try something new because it does not go our way. What we should do is “remember that we are role models. Someone is watching to see how we handle crises.” Every day we are faced with temptation and fear. For young women and men coming up, they need a person to look to for motivation when things get tough. Having that role model works as a refresher to know that you can slip, but you will be able to get back up to keep going!
Though Grefe was committed to progressing the women’s movement, she was just as committed to education. In her early career, she taught high school, a junior college, then served twelve years on the Des Moines school board, twice as president. In 1972, President Richard Nixon appointed her as his personal representative to the UNESCO World Conference on Adult Education in Tokyo, Japan. President Gerald Ford appointed her to the National Advisory Council on Adult Education beginning in 1974 and was its chair in 1976. Grefe was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1980.
This post is the tenth installment in our series highlighting African American history in the collections of the Iowa Women’s Archives. The series ran weekly during Black History Month, and will continue monthly for the remainder of 2020.
This past summer, we have seen a nationwide movement for change. In Iowa City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, and elsewhere, peaceful protests have faced backlash from citizens and the police. People seeking change today might be interested in Edna Griffin, who led a boycott of the Katz Drug Store in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1948 and pushed persistently for what she knew was right, even at personal risk. Born in Kentucky in 1909, Griffin attended Fisk University and moved to Des Moines with her husband in 1947. The Edna Griffin Papers, preserved in the Iowa Women’s Archives, include documents relating to the successful 1948 lawsuit against the Katz Drug Store – State vs. Des Moines – which are richly supplemented by Griffin’s 400-page FBI file that provides insight into an otherwise sparsely documented life of activism. You can view these documents in the Iowa Digital library.
During the 1940s, the United States remained a largely segregated country. Although Iowa had laws against segregation, they were not consistently enforced. Iowa’s first civil rights law was passed in 1884 to outlaw discrimination in “inns, public conveyances, barber shops, theaters, and other places of public amusement,” the law was rarely enforced. In 1892, the law was modified to include “restaurants, chophouses, lunch counters and all other places where refreshments are served.” Still with no practical enforcement mechanism, over the next 30 years, Iowa’s supreme court determined only three cases based on the civil rights law. Due to a strenuous effort by the Des Moines branch of the NAACP, the law was amended again in 1923 so that violations could be heard by a local magistrate rather than a grand jury.
On July 7, 1948, Edna Griffin, John Bibbs, Leonard Hudson and Griffin’s infant daughter, Phyllis, entered Katz Drug Store at the intersection of 7th and Locust streets in Des Moines. Hudson needed to make a purchase, so Griffin and Bibbs decided to sit at the lunch counter to order ice cream sundaes. A waitress came over, took their orders, then proceeded to fulfill them. In the process, “a young white man came and whispered a message into her ear” (Lawrence, 2008, p. 298). After this, the party was told that Katz’s lunch counter didn’t serve “colored” customers. The encounter resulted in a criminal case, a prolonged court battle, and a boycott of Katz Drug Store. During it all, Katz and his defenders tried to portray Griffin as disruptive and stirring up trouble rather than as a woman who had been denied her rights under Iowa law. You can read more about the Katz boycott in the article by Noah Lawrence, “Since it is my right, I would like to have it: Edna Griffin and the Katz Drug Store Desegregation Movement” published in the Annals of Iowa.
Edna Griffin’s activism eventually earned her fame and respect, but at the time, she was not universally lauded. Her FBI files, gathered between 1945 and 1967, are a testimony to the skepticism and derision she confronted on a daily basis. Only later was she recognized for her contribution to civil rights in Iowa. She was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1985 and the Iowa African Americans’ Hall of Fame in 1999. You can also see her featured in Katy Swalwell’s 2018 picture book, Amazing Iowa Women.
This post by IWA Graduate Assistant, Erik Henderson, is the eighth installment in our series highlighting African American history in the Iowa Women’s Archives collections. The series ran weekly during Black History Month, and will continue monthly for the remainder of 2020.
The once prosperous coal mining town, Buxton, Iowa, approximately thirty minutes southwest of Oskaloosa was the home of hardworking Black citizens from the Virginia to immigrants from Sweden and Slovakia. The Reuben Gaines memoir from the Frances Hawthorne collection details wise anecdotes, notable events such as Madame C.J. Walker visiting Buxton and the rise and fall of this ghost town. The memoir was donated to the Iowa Women’s Archives by Hawthorne in 2003, a part of research material on Buxton to uncover the history of Black Iowans. Some of the stories shared by Reuben Gaines Jr will not only entertain you with their delivery, tone, and descriptiveness, but give readers a diverse depiction of the town’s people and a vision for what life could be like without biases.
Black Americans being the majority populace of Buxton, coexisting alongside White Americans, with no true sense of segregation or discrimination made this town noteworthy. In the 1905 census, the town boasted about the community having 2,700 Black Americans and 1,991 White Americans. Buxton was founded in 1873 by the Consolidation Coal Company (CCC) that worked for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Benjamin Buxton was the namesake of and main planner of the town of Buxton, then he took over as superintendent from his father, John Buxton, in 1896 until 1909.
The town thrived in its early days on the high demand for coal. Buxton’s community members enjoyed their days off by being together. Parades and large groups of people between Monroe Mercantile Store and the YMCA was something of the norm. Gaines remembers the good times they had at parties on weekends “on this Saturday night we had planned a party with music; dancing with card playing with a prize being contributed to the best Bridge Playing couple (21).” Then later reflects on one occasion a young fellow, Scottie Bolton, took on the nickname “the human fly (25)” after climbing to the top of the YMCA building with no ladder or support.
The life expectancy of the miners was shortened due to days being long and dangerous. However, to the citizens of Buxton, the risk was worth the reward. When Reuben first began work at the CCC, he got a piece of steel struck in his right eye and “every time I would lower the lid of my eye, it would scrape and cut going up or down (26).” Gaines Jr. later got it removed in Albia, a town not too far from Buxton, because no one in Buxton wanted that responsibility.
Along with the various tales, Gaines Jr described the range of personalities you would find in Buxton. In a way, it highlighted the members of upper-class while recognizing that they faced conflicts as well. There was tension between the CCC and a prominent inventor of Buxton named Jackson Brookins, Gaines expounded on the friction between the two, “he discovered something that science was unfamiliar with at this time…It was not long before he had a miniature locomotive and Railroad cars and was known as ‘the Jackson Brookins Train Control’…The engine had yellow; green and red lights that came on automatically according to its proximity to other trains in the same block.” Ultimately, the failed negotiation between the two parties resulted in the CCC backing out, taking the blueprints, and stealing Brookins invention without compensation. A lesson that I took from that experience is not to necessarily trust everyone with your goals because you never know the intentions.
On a lighter note, the description of what life was like for those of different socio-economic backgrounds was most riveting.
For Gaines, who moved from a deserted coal mining town to Buxton, the thought of his new community becoming a ghost town set in as a reality once people began moving out. Though, Buxton had it struggles, people from all walks of life were able to live together in harmony. But by 1919, the population dwindled down to about 400 people and around 1927 is when the last mine in Buxton closed. The lack of demand for coal due to the change in machinery drove people out of Buxton and into neighboring mining towns or segregated communities such as Waterloo and Des Moines. In those segregated communities is when Black Buxton community members witnessed the horrendous nature of racism and discrimination. The importance of remembering and acknowledging these lived experiences like Reuben Gaines’ in Buxton gets us one step closer to consider where we could be if we had the right vision of human relations.
This post by IWA Student Specialist, Erik Henderson, is the sixth installment in our series highlighting African American history in the Iowa Women’s Archives collections. The series ran weekly during Black History Month, and will continue monthly for the remainder of 2020.
Has anyone told you, you were going to be great in your youth? Have you been pushed to excel beyond levels you could imagine? Has there been something you wanted to fight for that became a lifelong journey? In her oral history interview from October 1986, Esther J. Walls, former librarian, administrator and educator, illustrates a few of her life goals and approaches used in accomplishing them. While exploring Walls’s papers, one embarks on a journey with her to change the perception of Black and brown adults and youth, through literacy and programming. On the path to legacy, what distinguished Walls’s journey from others was her distinctive childhood in Mason City, Iowa, her ability to connect with young people of color in New York, and her overall international presence. In the midst of global protest about the murder of George Floyd, the role of a Black leader is critical for change. Looking at the life of Esther Walls, we can look at her actions, her persistence, and her willingness to not give up as key attributes for a Black leader during movements like this.
The interview begins with Esther Walls introducing herself and answering the question how she got involved with the Black experience. Walls answers with examining her childhood. She says, “as a youngster in Mason City, Iowa, I do remember my mother and my sister and myself frequently going to the library and coming home with the equivalent of a shopping cart full of books.” Those growing up in communities that do not reflect them must obtain positive images, outside of family, through books, music, movies, etc. For Walls, she found an escape through reading literature by Black authors. “Living in Mason City, Iowa, where there weren’t very many Blacks, meant anything that we could read about the Black experience was something that was terribly important to us.” Her love for books began at a young age but her drive to excel scholastically took off in the seventh grade. Walls stated in the interview that she was determined to be valedictorian of her class, and she completed that mission.
Walls attended Mason City Junior College before transferring to the State University of Iowa (University of Iowa), where she received her B.A. in 1948. She was the first Black woman at the University to be elected to the Alpha of Iowa Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest and most prestigious undergraduate honors organization in the United States. However, Walls was most known for being one of five Black women to officially desegregate university dormitories.
In 1946, during an era plagued by the Jim Crow laws, Esther Walls, Virginia Harper, Leanna Howard, Gwen Davis and Nancy Henry, all Black women, protested against the segregated housing at the University of Iowa. “It seemed to be something so normal that should’ve happened. I had a right to be in Currier Hall. Why not?” Walls shared. “I was the valedictorian of my high school class, and I was from the state of Iowa.” Ironically, Walls was excluded from and had to fight to live in a building that was named after a university librarian, yet, she became a librarian herself that did remarkable things for her community and people. None of the women allowed the values and “norms” of the time to deter her from achieving greatness.
After Walls and the other four women succeeded in desegrating housing at UI, years later another instance of discrimination arose. Martha Scales-Zachary and Betty Jean Furgerson, Black women living in Currier Hall, had to switch residences when students’ parents objected to desegregated living quarters. During that same school year, a policy was implemented where no out-of-state student could reside in Currier, only Iowa residents, which applied to Black women and not Black men. Sadly, there is not any information we could find regarding how Black men made an effort to get to live on campus but we will continue digging to uncover hidden stories.
After graduation, Esther Walls obtained employment at the Mason City Public Library then headed to attend Columbia University, receiving an M.S. in Library Science in 1951. Walls began working for the New York Public Library in 1950, carrying out various professional assignments: including serving as director of the North Manhattan Library Project and as head of the Countee Cullen Regional Library. Her reign at the Countee Cullen Library, “was the thing that really opened up all kinds of horizons for me and made me understand in depth, what the Black experience was all about,” she describes.
In a speech for the New York College Department of Library Education-Geneseo, about her work with youth, Walls explains how her focus on interactions with teens, and her open approach, made a lasting impact on them. Walls was persistent about leaving a positive influence on the patrons she served, and challenged the community as well. In her speech, “Experiences as a Young Adult Librarian,” Walls reflects on her earliest lessons learned as a librarian, one being: one has to be knowledgeable in all aspects of their job. She was not only knowledgeable of her library plus the Schomburg Collection that was connected but also of what her patrons valued, cared about, and needed to succeed and thrive in their neighborhoods. She was able to stimulate the Harlem community by bringing people such as Malcolm X in for weekly lectures, Langston Hughes to do poetry reading and Michael Olatunji to come and play his drums for teen programs. Within the interview she expresses her compassion for meeting these prominent figures in the restaurants of Harlem during the 1960’s:
“What intrigued me no end was meeting all these people that I, either meeting and getting to know some of these outstanding Blacks in the community at that time….So then for me it was an opportunity to meet all of these people, if not to get to know well, at least to be in the presence of all these people that we had read about in the newspapers and who were really making waves and making headlines, and I found that quite exciting.”
Walls believed that the best way to be connected to those she served, was to recommend books that they would enjoy. Accomplishing this task took getting to know her patrons, spending time asking them questions to fully understand their position in, and perspective on, the world. Additionally, this meant reading materials young adults gravitated towards. Walls attests that she “read as many books on dating, hotrods (cars) and space travel, as she could.” This is a speech that provides the audience with qualities and tools to be successful when working with young adults.
With few other Black people in Mason City, besides her skin color, Walls did not have anything that identified herself as part of the Black community. It was not until an interaction with a library patron at one of her first programs that said, “are you Esther Walls? We’re so glad and we’re so glad you’re Black.” Although, only mentioning it briefly, Walls’ discussion of her situation moved me. Myself, being a Black man from Chicago, a city with a large Black population, hearing that sentiment touched my heart. Black people living in small, rural parts of America, do not experience life the same way that as ones from the intercity and vice versa. However, a medium such as books connects those people from different backgrounds because, even though we are not walking down the same path, we are walking in the same shoes. Learning about Esther Walls’s legacy, opens up dialogues about the importance of having your own identity and community. Developing a sense of identity, whether through literature, art or cinema, no matter where you reside geographically is crucial for connecting with those that look like you.
The Esther J. Walls papers are one of the few collections that is fully digitized onto the Iowa Digital Library (IDL). You are able to explore everything that you could see in our reading room! A useful tool to have open when diving into Esther Walls’ material on IDL, is her finding aid, which you can also find online, on ArchiveSpace at the University of Iowa.
Esther J. Walls interview, October, 1986 https://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/islandora/object/ui%3Aaawiowa_3991
Esther J. Walls papers, Iowa Women’s Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. http://aspace.lib.uiowa.edu/repositories/4/resources/2406
Franklin, V. P., & Savage, C. J. (2004). Maintaining a Home for Girls. In Cultural capital and black education African American communities and the funding of black schooling, 1865 to the present (p. 133). Greenwich, CT: IAP, Information Age publication
Jensen, C. (2015, October 19). Iowawomensarchives: EstherWalls-librarian and… Retrieved May 22, 2020, from https://womenoflibraryhistory.tumblr.com/post/131488735229/iowawomensarchives-estherwallslibrarian-and
Due to the ongoing closure of library facilities around the country, the Iowa Women’s Archives has extended the application deadline for the Linda and Richard Kerber travel grant to June 1st, 2020. Because we are uncertain about when the Archives will be accessible, the time period in which recipients can use the funds has been extended to December 31, 2021.
The Linda and Richard Kerber Fund awards $1000 to a scholar each year to help them travel to Iowa City and use the Iowa Women’s Archives for their research. The Archives accepts applications from graduate students, academic and public historians, and independent researchers and writers who reside outside a 100-mile radius of Iowa City, Iowa, and whose research projects would be substantially enriched by the use of materials held by the Iowa Women’s Archives.
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