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 Graduate Research Assistant Heather Cooper is the seventh installment in our series highlighting African American history in the collections of Iowa Women’s Archives and other local repositories. The series ran weekly during Black History Month, and will continue monthly for the remainder of 2020.
The State Historical Society of Iowa holds rich collections on the history of Black women in Iowa, notably the records of the Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. A small fraction of those materials were digitized in 2010 to include in the Women’s Suffrage in Iowa Digital Collection. This blog post highlights that digitized material, but we hope that once the pandemic has subsided, you will be inspired to visit the State Historical Society to see what else makes up this remarkable collection. The physical records contain material related to over sixty years of club business, including two scrapbooks filled with meeting programs, photographs, newspaper clippings, and correspondence. You can read more about these records here.
2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote. It also marks the 150th anniversary of the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), which granted universal suffrage to African American men, but not women, following emancipation and the Civil War.In the years between 1870 and 1920, women across the nation continued to fight for the right to vote and worked to actively demonstrate their fitness for the full rights of citizenship. This post considers the ways that African American women in Iowa contributed to that struggle through their participation and activism in the Iowa State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, founded in 1902. When this group became affiliated with the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACW) in 1910, African American women in Iowa joined a nationwide network of over 10,000 Black clubwomen, committed to “Lifting as we climb” and demonstrating to “an ignorant and suspicious world that our aims and interests are identical with those of all good aspiring women.”
The Women’s Suffrage in Iowa Digital Collection includes digital copies of the Proceedings from several annual meetings of the Iowa State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. Annual meetings were held in cities across the state and brought together officers, delegates, and club members to hear reports on club business, listen to speeches and papers, and pass resolutions that signaled their commitment to particular projects. The meeting records included in the Iowa Digital Library represent just a handful of the Proceedings that are part of the Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs records at the State Historical Society. Dr. Denise Pate Spruill, who earned her Ph.D. in History from University of Iowa in 2018, conducted extensive research in these records for her dissertation, “‘From the Tub to the Club:’ Black Women and Activism in the Midwest, 1890-1920.” Spruill argues that, “In the upper Midwest, clubs and early community activism served as a conduit for black women, providing a venue for them to hone their organizational skills, create networks, recruit members and develop programs to aid in racial uplift, increasing their authority and power as women in their communities.” There is much to explore in the digitized Proceedings, but this post highlights just three examples of how African American women in Iowa used the club movement to perform and display their fitness for citizenship.
First, women used the annual meetings to practice and demonstrate their speaking skills and their ability to grapple with important issues. In her study of Black clubwomen in Iowa, Spruill notes that delivering speeches, reading papers, and leading discussions at such meetings “prepared these women to be more engaged in social, economic and political discussions” more broadly. Members wrote and spoke about a wide range of topics, including education, social ethics, and the importance of Black men and women’s service and support during the Great War (as World War I was known at the time). Women also discussed the vote directly with arguments about “Why Women Should Vote” and “What [the] Negro Race owes to Its Women.”
Second, women in the Iowa State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs engaged political candidates and elected officials directly, despite their own exclusion from the polls. In 1912, at the 11th annual meeting, held in Sioux City, club members voted to endorse George H. Woodson’s candidacy for state representative from Monroe County. Woodson was a prominent African American lawyer, a leader of the Black Republican Party in Iowa, and the first African American in the state’s history to be nominated to the state legislature. As part of their endorsement, members pledged “to him our influence and support as a brother and friend and we hereby offer him our active aid at the primaries and on election day, and we urge the colored women and men of Iowa and of Monroe county to stand by him as the Haytians stood by Tousant LaOverture [sic] in the days of olden times.” They noted further, “we believe Mr. Woodson will represent the county, in the very best way, and fight for Women’s rights.” This endorsement and the call for Black women’s active political engagement demonstrated that despite their exclusion from casting their own ballots, clubwomen were invested in the political landscape, had the power to influence public opinion, and wanted to support candidates who had the interests of women and African Americans at heart. In this and other instances, the group pointed to the history of Black participation in fights for independence (as in the Haitian and American revolutions) as a demonstration of their capacity and their fitness for citizenship.
Finally, African American clubwomen used their voices and political influence to demand that white public officials take a stand against lynching and racial violence. Following a visit from journalist and activist Ida B. Wells in 1894, Black women in Des Moines formed an anti-lynching organization. Over time, the Iowa State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs passed public resolutions condemning lynching and mob violence, worked “to arouse public sentiment” on the issue, and advocated for anti-lynching legislation. At the 14th annual meeting in Cedar Rapids in 1915, the group praised local officials who they had pressured to take action in “eliminating the pictures which are objectionable to the Afro-Americans of the state.” They were referring to the “souvenir” postcards of lynchings that were common in the early twentieth century. These brutal scenes of racial violence and white spectatorship had apparently been disseminated in Iowa, including in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines. Denise Pate Spruill argues that, for Black clubwomen in Iowa, 1915-1920 was a critical period during which “Long-time anti-lynching activism evolved from passing organizational resolutions to taking a successful public stance against the dissemination of murderous images that resulted in a direct response from an elected official.”
These examples illustrate some of the ways that Black clubwomen built political skills and exercised political influence long before they gained access to the full privileges of citizenship. Do you want to know more about how these and other Iowa women campaigned for the ballot directly? Take a look at the rest of the annual meeting records – and other primary sources – in the Women’s Suffrage in Iowa Digital Collection. Thank you to the State Historical Society of Iowa for helping us share these remarkable records and to Dr. Denise Pate Spruill for providing a rich historical context for the Proceedings. All images in this post are from the Iowa Association of Colored Women’s Clubs records, 1903-1972, Special Collections, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines.
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
This post by IWA Graduate Research Assistant Heather Cooper is the fifth 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.
Over the past few months, social media has been filled with people bemoaning the temporary loss of their favorite salon or barbershop and the need to improvise at home for their hair care needs. More broadly, the crisis over Covid-19 has been a reminder of how important local businesses and services are in our daily lives and how much they contribute to our sense of community. This is a good moment to remember and celebrate the history of African American entrepreneurship in Iowa by highlighting the career of Pauline Robinson Brown Humphrey, who might fairly be called the Madame C. J. Walker of Iowa. A life-long resident of Des Moines, Pauline Humphrey opened the first beauty shop for African Americans in Iowa in 1935 and went on to establish the Crescent School of Beauty Culture in 1939. For many years these enterprises operated in the Center Street neighborhood, a thriving black business district in Des Moines.
An oral history with Pauline Humphrey’s daughter Barbara James in the Iowa Women’s Archives recalls the strong example she set for her daughter as a “career woman.” The interview was conducted as part of the Iowa Women’s Archives’ African American Women in Iowa Project in the 1990s.
Denied entrance to cosmetology programs in Iowa on account of her race, Pauline Humphrey traveled to Chicago with her young daughter in order to attend Madame C. J. Walker’s cosmetology school in 1934. There, she worked long hours to study both theory and practice and master how to care for the beauty needs of African American women. When the family returned to Des Moines in 1936, Humphrey passed the State Board of Examination to become a licensed cosmetologist and opened her first beauty shop.
But Humphrey wasn’t satisfied to simply provide services; she wanted to help create opportunities for others to become independent and self-sufficient and she saw a need for a beauty school in Iowa that would accept African American students. Humphrey commuted to Fort Dodge in order to gain certification and become licensed to teach and, in 1939, she opened the Crescent School of Beauty Culture in Des Moines. The school’s motto was “Aim High and Hold Your Aim.”
Around 30 students enrolled at Crescent each semester and trained in all the typical procedures found in African American beauty parlors at the time: “marceling, straightening, bleaching and tinting, permanents, pressing and styling, facials, manicures and pedicures, and cutting and conditioning.” Students learned by doing, offering discounted services for men and women at the beauty shop, as well as making monthly visits to local hospitals where they offered beauty care to patients free of charge. Humphrey sought to increase the availability of black beauty services in Iowa by recruiting students from underserved areas and then sending graduates back home to provide for their own communities. Reflecting on her grandmother’s life work, Julie James wrote that Pauline Humphrey “not only educated students, but did untold service to her community.” Furthermore, the Crescent Beauty School “was a stepping stone for many men and women to gain economic independence” as cosmetologists, stylists, and cosmetology instructors. Humphrey was an advocate for her students, her graduates, and the profession. She went on to lease a chain of beauty shops in the state and start her own line of hair and beauty products for African Americans.
As a female business owner and a woman of color, Humphrey faced many challenges owning and operating her own business. She couldn’t get a small business loan; many people weren’t willing to rent business property to African Americans; and suppliers weren’t always keen on working with a female business owner. Humphrey was also fighting to claim a place in a beauty industry dominated by whites and white standards of beauty. Recalling her mother’s career, Barbara James said, “It was hard for a woman being in that position. . . She fought the racial fights and also the gender fights.” Humphrey built a life around creating opportunities for her daughter to pursue her education through graduate school without financial hindrance and for other men and women to become independent professionals. Citing her mother as the greatest influence in her life, James recalled, “. . .the biggest thing she wanted to do with me was to make sure that I was an independent woman, who could take care of myself, who was educated, and who was able to make a life for myself.” Her mother’s image and her accomplishments provided, for James, the clearest example of how to approach one’s life – “Enjoy it, and savor it, and push yourself to make things better for other people.”
Pauline Humphrey and the Crescent Beauty School are featured in the African American Museum of Iowa’s current temporary exhibit, “Untangling the Roots: The Culture of Black Hair”: https://blackiowa.org/untanglingtheroots/
Material on Pauline Humphrey can be found in the Iowa Women’s Archives collection Giving Voice to their Memories: Oral Histories of African American Women in Iowa. This collection includes an oral history interview with Humphrey’s daughter, Barbara James; a brief remembrance written by Humphrey’s granddaughter, Julie James; and a copy of the article “Iowa Women of Achievement” published in the Iowa State Historical Society’s The Goldfinch: Iowa History for Young People (Winter 1993). Useful information on Crescent Beauty School and other African American businesses in Iowa was also found in Jack Lufkin’s chapter, “‘Higher Expectations for Ourselves’: African-Americans in Iowa’s Business World,” in Outside In: African-American History in Iowa, 1838-2000, ed. Bill Silag et al. (Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa, 2001). The photographs are shared by permission of the African American Museum of Iowa, which holds the Humphrey Family papers.
This post by IWA Student Specialist, Erik Henderson, is the fourth installment in our series highlighting African American history in the Iowa Women’s Archives collections. The series has run weekly during Black History Month, and will continue monthly for the remainder of 2020.
The Martha Ann Furgerson Nash papers are filled with information about her activism as part of the National Council of Catholic Women (NCCW) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), plus insight related to the legacy of Furgerson and her family. Furgerson was born September 26, 1925 in Sedalia, Missouri. She later attended school in Waterloo, Iowa, graduating from East High School in 1943. While earning a BA in history with honors from Talladega College in 1947, Furgerson found love and married Warren Nash. While raising all of their seven children, Nash focused on community engagement, on the local, national, and international level.
For over a decade, beginning in 1962, Nash served as the director of the Black Hawk County Chapter of the NAACP. Throughout her time with the NAACP, Nash was a part of the Cities Task Force for Community Relations with the League of Iowa Municipalities, which emphasized housing, employment, education, and community relations with law enforcement as pressing issues for Iowa’s Black community. As director of the Black Hawk County Chapter of the NAACP, Nash had the opportunities to display her research and the work of the League of Iowa Municipalities. Within this collection there are a series of six editorials addressing issues of civil rights in metropolitan Black Hawk County on the KWWL television station. KWWL went on air in 1947 as Ralph J. McElroy, founder of KWWL, “realized that Waterloo needed more radio stations.” KWWL-TV aired in November of 1953.
The scripts for the KWWL editorial series, preserved in Martha Nash papers, aired between February 12-17, 1968. They addressed topics such as housing, education, employment and community relations which were areas of concern for the task force that Nash was a part of. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the program returned for a final address and call to action on April 8, 1968.
The first report provided the audience with an overview of recurring issues that the Black community encountered. The second report pressured members of the Waterloo, Cedar Falls and Evansdale communities to lend formal support in dismantling discrimination against non-white people seeking to buy a home or rent, by writing their city council in favor of an open housing ordinance. The third report detailed a “crash, saturation program” on appropriate techniques for police communication with Black residents. Not to be one sided, the report pushed the Black community to invite police officers to as many functions as possible to alleviate tensions between the two groups. The remaining reports encouraged businesses and labor organizations to “adopt resolutions supporting the elimination of racial discrimination in employment” and highlighted the disadvantages of segregation in schools.
These issues raised by the NAACP and the League of Iowa Municipalities are still being fought over today. Nash envisioned, that, as she stated “if our determination lags, if we become petulant, if we delay in facing up to the tough decisions immediately ahead, we will pay a huge price in the future.” While young Black and Brown people across the world continue to be targets of racial injustices, mass incarceration and murder, we all need to act now before it is too late. In the wake of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, the final report stated:
“We ask that Americans everywhere dedicate themselves to this proposition and work together toward the fulfillment of the dream of Martin Luther King. If we can’t, the future of this noble experiment in government by the people looks bleak. If we can, America has a chance to really be the land of the free and home of the brave.”
Sentiments such as the one above spoke to the need for societal change. Nash challenged Black people to advocate for themselves, while challenging non-Black community members to join the movement. Martha Nash will forever be an example of an individual who was optimistic for the future.
This post by IWA Graduate Research Assistant Heather Cooper is the third installment in our series highlighting African American history in the Iowa Women’s Archives collection. The series will continue weekly during Black History Month, and monthly for the remainder of 2020.
If you’re looking for a local history of civil rights activism, look no further than The Iowa Women’s Archives, where our stacks are filled with the papers and records of remarkable individuals and organizations devoted to the ongoing struggle for civil rights and social justice – the Virginia Harper papers are one such collection. Harper was born in Fort Madison, Iowa in 1929. She studied at the State University of Iowa (now the University of Iowa) and was one of five African American women to integrate the first residence hall on campus (Currier Hall) in 1946. Harper worked as an x-ray technician and medical assistant in her family’s Fort Madison clinic and was actively engaged in her community, serving on the state Board of Public Instruction, the Iowa Board of Parole, and as Secretary and then President of the Fort Madison branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from the 1960s through the 1990s.
As NAACP Secretary, Virginia Harper took on local issues with national import. Beginning in 1967, the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) and Iowa State Highway Commission endorsed a plan to improve U.S. 61 in Fort Madison by re-routing the highway through the southwest corner of the city. These plans were meant to improve traffic conditions and ease of access to the city, but at the expense of the effected neighborhood, whose residents would be forced to relocate. The area in question represented what Virginia Harper called “the only truly multi-ethnic area in the city,” home to a significant number of African Americans, Mexican Americans, and low-income whites. Acting as Secretary of the Fort Madison branch of the NAACP, Harper filed a legal complaint against the project, alleging that it violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act because a disproportionate number of those who would be displaced were members of the minority population. This was the beginning of a struggle that went on for several years as Harper and others joined forces with leaders of the Mexican-American community to protest the plan, gather signatures for multiple petition campaigns, and correspond with various government agencies and national civil rights groups.
At the heart of Harper’s analysis was a critique of the racist and classist views which deemed this area of the city worth sacrificing. In a letter to the Department of Transportation on June 30, 1970, Harper outlined fourteen reasons why the relocation plan was objectionable. She wrote, “The corridor which has been chosen for the Highway relocation, follows the tradition of disrupting minority group neighborhoods. … Chosen because it is the ‘cheapest’ area of the town, it is this way because the citizens of this area have been systematically denied the privilege of living in other areas of the community.” In a letter to the editor of the Evening Democrat, Harper added, “This is not quite the time for sitting back and telling minority group members and lower income whites that they must sacrifice for the good of society. They’ve been sacrificing all their lives and are accustomed to being used.”
Part of a larger series on “Iowa Racial Issues,” the Highway 61 material in Virginia Harper’s papers provides insight into historic patterns and practices of redlining and defacto segregation in Iowa. Come to the archives to learn more about Harper and civil rights struggles in the state.
For more information on this topic, check out Kara Mollano’s article about Highway 61 in the Annals of Iowa: “Race, Roads, and Right-of-Way: A Campaign to Block Highway Construction in Fort Madison, 1967-1976.” The Annals of Iowa, Vol. 68, No. 3 (Summer 2009): 255-297.
This post by IWA Assistant Curator Janet Weaver and Graduate Research Assistant Heather Cooper is the second installment in our series highlighting African American history in the Iowa Women’s Archives’ collections. The series will continue weekly during Black History month, and monthly throughout 2020.
The Iowa Women’s Archives is honored to be the repository for a collection of oral history interviews recorded with southern African American women who worked as maids for white families and later migrated to Waterloo, Iowa. These women were interviewed for the 2012 book, The Maid Narratives: Black Domestic Workers and White Families in the Jim Crow South, written by Katherine van Wormer, David W. Jackson III, and Charletta Sudduth. The Maid Narratives collection at IWA includes nineteen of the original audio interviews (now digitized) and abridged transcripts of several of the interviews included in the book. In the oral histories, women engage with topics such as education, family, sharecropping, Jim Crow laws, sexual assault, and the civil rights movement.
Mamie Johnson was born outside Jackson, Mississippi in 1922 and spoke to David W. Jackson about growing up on a sharecropped farm and working for whites from a young age, just as her mother had. “I started working for white people when I was just big enough and old enough to do the dishes, and that was about seven or eight.” Speaking about the Tates, the first family she worked for, Johnson recalled having to learn and navigate the racial etiquette of the household.
You had to go to the back door. It was just a rule and you knowed it! And when the children got to be teenagers, it was Mister or Miss. When I’d be working in the house, they would show me what to say. They would tell me, ‘When you clean up Mr. David’s room, do this or fix his so-and-so, or don’t do so-and so.’ When they said, ‘Mister,’ that is for you to say it—‘Mister.’ And you know them little children and the teenagers—they loved it for you to say that! Yeah, they loved for you to say Mr. So-and-So. You know one thing, I was so glad when the time come around when black people would talk to white people to say what they thought. Now you talking about a shouting time, I felt just like shouting when black people stopped having to say Mr. So-and-So. And they would say it just for you to say it.
A keen observer of human behavior, Johnson also spoke about the terrible consequences of not understanding the social deference that was expected and demanded of African Americans in the South. She vividly remembered the details of Emmett Till’s murder and watching the trial unfold over three short weeks. “The boy just whistled at the woman, you know, didn’t know the danger he was in.” What she remembered most from the trial was the accused murderers “kissing their wives, hugging their wives, and rejoicing” when they were found not guilty. This stood in stark contrast to the image of Emmett Till, whose funeral service she also watched on TV. The interviews included in this collection are a testament to these women’s work, family ties, humor, and survival.
This March we will celebrate Women’s History Month by learning more about these remarkable women whose lives were shaped by domestic service in white households in the Jim Crow South. Recently described in a Time Magazine article as a “landmark collection of oral histories,” the interviews conducted by Charletta Sudduth and David Jackson III shine a light on the daily lives, struggles, and courage of the thousands of African American women who labored as domestic servants in the South but about whom relatively little is known.
Join us at the Iowa City Public Library on March 3 for a conversation with historians, social workers, and civil rights activists who are tied to this history:
Annie Pearl Stevenson is a civil rights activist and former domestic worker who was interviewed for The Maid Narratives.
Charletta Sudduth, Ed.D., is co-author of The Maid Narratives and Early Childhood Consultant with the Waterloo Community School District.
David Jackson III, Ph.D., is co-author of The Maid Narratives and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the African American Studies Program at the University of Iowa.
Katherine van Wormer is co-author of The Maid Narratives and Professor Emerita, Department of Social Work, University of Northern Iowa.
Catherine Stewart, Professor, Department of History, Cornell College, is currently an Obermann Fellow-In-Residence, and working on a book, “The New Maid: African American Women and Domestic Service During the New Deal.”
What: Iowa Women of the Great Migration: The Maid Narratives
When: Tuesday, March 3, 4:00pm to 5:30pm (Reception at 3:30pm)
Where: Iowa City Public Library, Meeting Room A
Co-sponsors – Iowa City Public Library, Obermann Center for Advanced Studies (University of Iowa)
This post by IWA Graduate Assistant, Heather Cooper, is the first of a series highlighting African American history in the Iowa Women’s Archives’ collections. The series will continue weekly during Black History month, and monthly throughout 2020.
The Grace Morris Allen Jones collection at the Iowa Women’s Archives consists of only one folder, but inside it you will find the history of three generations of remarkable African American women. Jones was born in Keokuk, Iowa in 1876 and grew up in Burlington, where she would later establish the Grace M. Allen Industrial School for African American students. After her marriage to Dr. Laurence Clifton Jones in 1912, the couple moved to Piney Woods, Mississippi, where together they built and taught at the Piney Woods Country Life School. Jones maintained contact with family and friends in Iowa and, in 1927, she wrote and published an article about her family history in The Palimpsest, a magazine published by the State Historical Society of Iowa.
In “The Desire for Freedom,” Jones tells the story of her family’s journey from slavery to freedom in the 1850s. Jones’ grandmother, Charlotta Pyles, was enslaved by the Gordon family on a large plantation in Kentucky, along with her twelve children. Her husband, Harry Pyles, was a free man, but under the laws of slavery he had no legal authority to protect his own wife and children. When she was fifty-four years old, Pyles was granted her freedom, along with most of her kin, and they made the arduous journey from Kentucky to free territory just as winter set in. The group, which ultimately settled in Keokuk, Iowa, included Charlotta and Harry Pyles, eleven of their children, and five of their grandchildren. The family lived in a large brick house, built by Harry Pyles, and belonged to the First Baptist Church of Keokuk. It was there that Charlotta and Harry Pyles were legally married in 1857, a right denied to them under slavery, where husbands, wives, and children could be separated at the whim of slave owners and traders.
But, as Jones describes, freedom did not bring an end to heartache, for Charlotta Pyles was forced to leave behind one of her sons, Benjamin, and two of her sons-in-law. Pyles was determined to purchase the freedom of her sons-in-law, who had wives and children that needed them. Clearly aware of the antislavery movement and fugitive slave activists like Frederick Douglass who wrote and spoke publicly about their experience, Pyles traveled to the East Coast to engage audiences and raise the necessary money. Speaking in major cities like Philadelphia and New York, she gained the attention of prominent figures like Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Lucretia Mott. Immensely proud of her grandmother’s bravery and commitment, Grace Morris Allen Jones wrote,
It was a difficult task for a poor, ignorant woman, who had never had a day’s schooling in her life, to travel thousands of miles in a strange country and stand up night after night and day after day before crowds of men and women, pleading for those back in slavery. So well did she plead, however, that in about six months she had raised the necessary three thousand dollars, returned to Iowa, thence to Kentucky where she bought the two men from their owners, and reunited them with their families.
Jones rightly noted that “the spirit of Charlotta Pyles found worthy expression in her children and grandchildren,” who made their own remarkable impacts on Iowa and the nation. The Pyles family is a reminder of the long history of African American settlement, community-building, and activism in the Hawkeye state. Check out the Grace Morris Allen Jones papers to learn more about the family, as well as Jones’ work in Piney Woods
In addition to the Grace Morris Allen Jones papers, this post references Betty DeRamus, Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad (New York: Atria Books, 2006), 109-123. A copy is available at Iowa Women’s Archives.
Ella Wagner, a PhD candidate from Loyola University is this year’s Linda and Richard Kerber travel grant recipient. Linda Kerber and her husband Richard founded this Fund for Research in the Iowa Women’s Archives that awards $1000 annually to a researcher, especially a graduate student, whose work would benefit from travelling to Iowa and using IWA’s collections.
Wagner, a public historian and graduate student, plans to use the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) of Iowa records in her dissertation, “’The Saloon is Their Palace’: Race and Politics in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1874 – 1933.” When Wagner entered the PhD program at Loyola in 2015, she knew her future would be in public history, but wasn’t sure what her dissertation topic would be. But a class assignment in the Frances Willard House Museum and Archives led her to the WCTU.
Frances Willard served as the president of the WCTU from 1879 – 1898, during which time it became one of the largest women’s organizations in the country. The Frances Willard House keeps the papers of Willard herself and a variety of records related to the national WCTU organization. After her class, Wagner worked part time at the Frances Willard House as a public historian to curate a digital resource entitled “Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells” that focused on racial conflict within the WCTU. Wagner realized that her dissertation topic was right there: the racial and sectional politics of the WCTU.
In the late 1800s, the WCTU under Frances Willard was striving to expand from its original strongholds of support in the Northeast and Midwest and become a larger national organization. They formed sections of the group to attract members among black women, immigrant women, and southern women. The racial and party politics were never far from this effort as some members made publicly racist comments and couldn’t tolerate any affiliation with the traditionally abolitionist Republican party.
Iowa’s role in this dramatic conflict drew Wagner to IWA’s holdings. In the 1880s, the WCTU in an effort to subvert the two party system, officially endorsed the Prohibition Party. In response, the Iowa chapter of the WCTU elected to separate itself from the national organization and still other Iowa members split from the Iowa chapter and affiliated with the national group as the WCTU of the State of Iowa. The two would Iowa organizations would remain separate until 1906. Wagner hoped to find details illuminating that schism here and also look for the voices and involvement of women of color within the WCTU at this time. She hasn’t been disappointed. She’s found the minutes of the WCTU of the State of Iowa and also found records of several black women’s WCTU chapters in Iowa all the way to the 1960s. After a week in the Archives, Wagner can see there is plenty left to do, but she’s already imagining using the WCTU of Iowa records in the conclusion of her dissertation in 2021.
Taryn D. Jordan was researching Ella Fitzgerald at the Schlesinger Library in the Radcliffe Institute when she first encountered the papers that would bring her to the Iowa Women’s Archives. Jordan is a doctoral candidate in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Emory University and an ACLS Mellon Dissertation Completion fellow who has been researching in the papers of Aldeen Davis this December.
Her dissertation, A Peculiar Sense: Feminist Genealogy of Soul is drawn from her interest in the domestic work black women did in their homes and how this created “soul,” which Jordan defines as “black collective feeling.” Soul provided a space of respite from racism and anti-blackness and helped to articulate a philosophy of endurance within black communities.
Jordan’s dissertation initially only touched on the concept of soul broadly, but after receiving an e-mail from a friend of friend she was inspired to dig deeper. The Ella Fitzgerald papers at the Schlesinger Library contained a number of cookbooks, the friend said, that complemented Jordan’s work. Although her prospectus was complete, Jordan arranged for a trip to Massachusetts to see these books and the three folders donated with them. Within one of these folders was a draft of ‘Miss Aldeen’s cookbook,’ by Muscatine, Iowa woman, Aldeen Davis. It captivated Jordan because unlike so many of the other cookbooks about black cooking that she had encountered, it treated cooking as more about feel than measurements, something that came from the soul. Jordan tracked down a published copy of the book, now titled Soul Food for Thought, at the University of Alabama but discovered that it had radically changed from the draft in Ella Fitzgerald’s papers that had been so captivating. Why were the books so different? This was the question that drove Jordan to the IWA and the Aldeen Davis papers.
Aldeen Davis, the author of Soul Food for Thought was a writer and community activist who moved to Muscatine, Iowa in the 1940s. She became thoroughly involved in Muscatine and its black community, serving on the Muscatine Human Rights Committee and the Equity Committee of the school board, and published articles in The Iowa Bystander, an African American owned newspaper. Her book was based on her long running column “Soul Food and Thought,” that combined recipes with African American history and descriptions of daily life.
In the late 1990s, Davis donated scrapbooks of her columns along with personal papers that recorded her community involvement in numerous causes and women’s clubs to the Iowa Women’s Archives. In these papers, Jordan found the answer to the question that had brought her to Iowa. The published book substantially changed from its draft, but not because Davis had changed her mind about it. In fact, she had written the draft in response to a soul food cookbook that she didn’t like because it was too precise. But the publishing world wouldn’t print a cookbook that measured by feel. Davis was forced to re-write. Soul, Food for Thought was published in 1984.
After spending a week immersed in Davis’ papers, it’s an open question how much of this will find a place in Jordan’s final dissertation. But she says the trip to Iowa has been worth it, to get to know Aldeen and her work. It’s “like she found me,” Jordan said, “I feel like we’re talking to each other across time.”