The Iowa Women’s Archives (IWA) will kick off Women’s History Month with an event at the Iowa City Public Library! Welcoming the Immigrants: Refugee Resettlement in Jewish Iowa will bring Dr. Jeannette Gabriel of the Schwalb Center for Israel & Jewish Studies at theUniversity of Nebraska-Omaha to Iowa City. In her talk, Gabriel will use IWA resources to examine the impact of WWII refugees on Iowa’s Jewish Communities. The event will take place 4:30 – 6pm simultaneously at the Iowa City Public Library, Meeting Room A and online, livestreamed on the ICPL’s YouTube channel.
The Iowa Women’s Archives has long held strong collections in Jewish history, including the papers of one of our founders, Louise Rosenfield Noun and the papers of Joan Lipsky, the first woman to represent Linn County in the Iowa General Assembly. Lipsky had a strong interest in preserving the history of women like her own Jewish ancestors who immigrated to Iowa. She gave $50,000 to IWA to establish the Jewish Women in Iowa Project and hire Jeannette Gabriel as its project archivist. For three years, Gabriel worked closely with potential donors around the state to bring Iowa’s Jewish history to the University of Iowa.
Welcoming the Immigrants is part of a semester long schedule of events celebrating Anne Frank and Jewish life in Iowa. This larger program, The Anne Frank Tree: Taking Root in Iowa, will culminate April 29th 2022 on the Pentacrest with a planting ceremony for a sapling propagated from the immense horse chestnut tree that grew in the courtyard behind the annex where Anne Frank and her family hid for 761 days during World War II. It will be only the 13th Anne Frank Tree planted in the United States. For a full schedule of this semester’s Anne Frank Tree events, see the project’s website or contact the Obermann Center.
Welcoming the Immigrants: Refugee Resettlement in Jewish Iowa
Where: Iowa City Public Library, meeting room A OR Iowa City Public Library YouTube livestream
When: March 1, 2022, 4:30 – 6pm
Individuals with disabilities are encouraged to attend all University of Iowa-sponsored events. If you are a person with a disability who requires as reasonable accommodation in order to participate in this program, please contact the Iowa Women’s Archives in advance: 319-335-5068.
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.
Above all, Transtenvot 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.
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 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 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.
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.”
Below is a reflection from Micaela Terronez, Olson Graduate Assistant, on a recent talk about her interest in the Mexican barrios of the Quad Cities at a local community gathering in Davenport, Iowa. She will be giving a version of this talk at “Workers’ Dream for an America that ‘Yet Must Be’ Struggles for Freedom and Dignity, Past and Present” March 30th 9:00 – 3:30 in Rm 101 Kollros Auditorium Biology Building East.
Despite my family’s history in the barrios, this was my first time attending the Cook’s Point/Holy City Reunion. The reunion took place at the League of United Latin Americans (LULAC) Council #10 hall in Davenport, Iowa. It began with a brief introduction of the night followed by a prayer from a local Catholic priest. Afterwards, the lights were dimmed for a candle lighting honoring past residents of the barrios. As names were called, families and descendants placed a candle in front of a decorated alter in remembrance of their loved ones. I was amazed by the number of individuals in the room, walking up as each name was called. In all, there were over 200 individuals in attendance! Then, it was my turn to take the podium.
My talk discussed my early interest in the barrios, as well as my findings in the Iowa Women’s Archives. I reflected on the Mujeres Latinas materials at the University, as well as the current use of the collections in classroom instruction. I argued that these stories are still relevant to students today as they explore their own pasts. I recalled one of my favorite classroom experiences instructing a group of 20 Latino/a/x students from Upward Bound, a program that brings first-generation students from the state to experience life as a college student for six weeks. The students gravitated toward stories of migration in the Iowa’s Women Archives, and I saw firsthand how archival materials can resonate with students and the potential impact on self-identity. Several students read aloud the speeches and writings of Ernest Rodriguez in Spanish, while others pointed to where their families migrated from on a reproduced map of Mexico and the United States. As marginalized communities continue to face challenges of social economics, racism, and violence, students and others can find comfort in these stories and see themselves as history makers, resilient in the face of adversities. My talk ended with a bilingual poem by Luis Valdez to acknowledge the recent migrants and refugees escaping environments of violence and fear in their homelands. Their stories may be lost, purposely destroyed, or criticized. For many, a culture and history cannot be easily suitcased for safekeeping. Thus, I asked the room to continue sharing stories vastly and to actively support today’s migrants and refugees by speaking out about their stories, as well. The more we do so, the more that we are actively acknowledging and reproducing migrant experiences.
Like my own family gatherings, there was a lot of food and music throughout the evening, as well as discussions and laughter amongst families and friends. In all, I was overwhelmed at the extent of togetherness within the room despite years of separation and unknown faces. Additionally, the night highlighted a performance by the Quad Cities Ballet Folklorico, a Mexican folk dance troupe of students with many also descendants of the barrios. Despite the many great moments at the reunion, my favorite moment of the evening occurred at the end of the event as one of my nieces asked me, “What are we doing here? What is Cook’s Point?” I smiled, quickly got up, and showed her the numerous photographs that scattered the room of past relatives and descendants of the barrios. I realized then that the reunion served as an additional way to engage and learn more about the rich histories of this area. From here on out, I plan to continue attending the reunion and connecting the barrio histories to my family and others.
Tú eres mi otroyo. You are my other me. Si tehagodaño a ti, If I do harm to you, Me hagodaño a mi mismo. I do harm to myself. Si teamo y respeto, If I love and respect you, Me amo y respetoyo. I love and respect myself.