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.
This post is by IWA Graduate Assistant Erik Henderson
Taking a risk can be one of the most difficult things you must do. However, how would it feel knowing that you cannot fail no matter what you do? One thing that holds us back in life is our clouded judgment when making a major move. Mary Grefe pushed herself and others to go for things they want and dream big by creating opportunities for young women to branch out into technical and scientific careers.
Mary Arlene Cruikshank Grefe was an educator, social activist, politician, and businesswoman. Grefe grew up on her family’s farm in the Algona area and graduated from Morningside College with a B.A. in English and Speech in January 1943. Grefe had been active in the women’s movement for many years through her involvement with the Educational Foundation of the American Association of University Women (AAUW).
Grefe was the national president of the AAUW from 1979 to 1981 and the AAUW Educational Foundation president. A few years prior, Grefe published articles relating to adult education, leadership techniques, the women’s movement, and a leadership manual with Claire Fulcher titled Techniques for Organizational Effectiveness (1973).
Within the Mary Grefe papers, there is a speech titled “What Would You Attempt To Do If You Knew You Could Not Fail?” She gave the speech for Career Conference, “The Road Less Traveled,” on October 13th, 1994, because Iowa State University (where the conference was hosted) wanted to break the stereotype that young women had to get pushed down a path of “gendered work.” She said they could cross over into other fields as well with a little “self-esteem and confidence…a person with self-esteem and confidence is halfway to any goal” The point of the speech for Grefe was to push back against the idea of gendered work while suggesting that young women can build a career in fields like math and science.
Many people, myself included, do not want to take risks because they are worried about what other people will think about them, and they stay in their comfort zone. Grefe stated, “as parents, we have to encourage our children to get out of the comfort zone. When your child fell off the bike the first time, did you say soothingly, it is too hard for you, let’s put the bike away and go back to the same and comforting tricycle? You know that you did not.” Grefe’s example of a young child trying to ride a bike for the first time and falling shows us we need to be consistent in the endeavors we are pursuing. We cannot give up or quit the first time we try something new because it does not go our way. What we should do is “remember that we are role models. Someone is watching to see how we handle crises.” Every day we are faced with temptation and fear. For young women and men coming up, they need a person to look to for motivation when things get tough. Having that role model works as a refresher to know that you can slip, but you will be able to get back up to keep going!
Though Grefe was committed to progressing the women’s movement, she was just as committed to education. In her early career, she taught high school, a junior college, then served twelve years on the Des Moines school board, twice as president. In 1972, President Richard Nixon appointed her as his personal representative to the UNESCO World Conference on Adult Education in Tokyo, Japan. President Gerald Ford appointed her to the National Advisory Council on Adult Education beginning in 1974 and was its chair in 1976. Grefe was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1980.
This post is the tenth installment in our series highlighting African American history in the collections of the Iowa Women’s Archives. The series ran weekly during Black History Month, and will continue monthly for the remainder of 2020.
This past summer, we have seen a nationwide movement for change. In Iowa City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, and elsewhere, peaceful protests have faced backlash from citizens and the police. People seeking change today might be interested in Edna Griffin, who led a boycott of the Katz Drug Store in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1948 and pushed persistently for what she knew was right, even at personal risk. Born in Kentucky in 1909, Griffin attended Fisk University and moved to Des Moines with her husband in 1947. The Edna Griffin Papers, preserved in the Iowa Women’s Archives, include documents relating to the successful 1948 lawsuit against the Katz Drug Store – State vs. Des Moines – which are richly supplemented by Griffin’s 400-page FBI file that provides insight into an otherwise sparsely documented life of activism. You can view these documents in the Iowa Digital library.
During the 1940s, the United States remained a largely segregated country. Although Iowa had laws against segregation, they were not consistently enforced. Iowa’s first civil rights law was passed in 1884 to outlaw discrimination in “inns, public conveyances, barber shops, theaters, and other places of public amusement,” the law was rarely enforced. In 1892, the law was modified to include “restaurants, chophouses, lunch counters and all other places where refreshments are served.” Still with no practical enforcement mechanism, over the next 30 years, Iowa’s supreme court determined only three cases based on the civil rights law. Due to a strenuous effort by the Des Moines branch of the NAACP, the law was amended again in 1923 so that violations could be heard by a local magistrate rather than a grand jury.
On July 7, 1948, Edna Griffin, John Bibbs, Leonard Hudson and Griffin’s infant daughter, Phyllis, entered Katz Drug Store at the intersection of 7th and Locust streets in Des Moines. Hudson needed to make a purchase, so Griffin and Bibbs decided to sit at the lunch counter to order ice cream sundaes. A waitress came over, took their orders, then proceeded to fulfill them. In the process, “a young white man came and whispered a message into her ear” (Lawrence, 2008, p. 298). After this, the party was told that Katz’s lunch counter didn’t serve “colored” customers. The encounter resulted in a criminal case, a prolonged court battle, and a boycott of Katz Drug Store. During it all, Katz and his defenders tried to portray Griffin as disruptive and stirring up trouble rather than as a woman who had been denied her rights under Iowa law. You can read more about the Katz boycott in the article by Noah Lawrence, “Since it is my right, I would like to have it: Edna Griffin and the Katz Drug Store Desegregation Movement” published in the Annals of Iowa.
Edna Griffin’s activism eventually earned her fame and respect, but at the time, she was not universally lauded. Her FBI files, gathered between 1945 and 1967, are a testimony to the skepticism and derision she confronted on a daily basis. Only later was she recognized for her contribution to civil rights in Iowa. She was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1985 and the Iowa African Americans’ Hall of Fame in 1999. You can also see her featured in Katy Swalwell’s 2018 picture book, Amazing Iowa Women.
This post by IWA Graduate Research Assistant Heather Cooper is the ninth installment in our series highlighting African American history in the collections of the Iowa Women’s Archives. The series ran weekly during Black History Month, and will continue monthly for the remainder of 2020.
In honor of Latinx Heritage Month (September 15 – October 15), this post draws attention to an individual and family history that sheds light on the intersection of Black and Latinx experience and activism in Iowa.
In recognition of his lifelong activism for the causes of labor, education, and civil and human rights, Ernest Rodriguez was inducted into the second Iowa Latino Hall of Fame in 2018. Beginning in the 1950s, Rodriguez helped to organize the Davenport council of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). In the 1960s and 70s, he served on the Davenport Human Relations Commission, served as director of the Area Board for Migrants, and as coordinator of the Spanish Speaking Peoples Commission. As a union organizer and advocate for workers’ rights, he co-chaired the Quad City Grape Boycott Committee to support the nationwide boycott of California table grapes led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Although Rodriguez identifies strongly with his Chicano heritage, his own experience growing up in an interracial family undoubtedly informs his broader commitment to fighting against the racism, discrimination, and inequality shared by Latinos, African Americans, and other minorities in Iowa and the U.S.
The Ernest Rodriguez papers are part of a rich set of collections in the Iowa Women’s Archives (IWA) that include letters, speeches, diaries, photographs, and over eighty oral histories documenting the experience of Latina women and their families and communities in Iowa. A large selection of that material is available in the Iowa Digital Library. These collections also inform the IWA website, Migration is Beautiful, a digital humanities project that “highlights the journeys Latinas and Latinos made to Iowa and situates the contributions of Latino communities within a broader understanding of Iowa’s history of migration and civil rights.” IWA also holds the papers of Ernest Rodriguez’s older sister, Estefania Joyce Rodriguez, who was also a member of the Davenport LULAC council and a great chronicler of her family’s history through the preservation of photographs.
Ernest Rodriguez was born in 1928 in the predominately Mexican settlement known as “Holy City” in Bettendorf, Iowa. His father, Norberto Rodriguez, was raised on a small ranch in the State of Jalisco, Mexico; his mother, Muggie Belva Adams Rodriguez, was an African American woman born in Balls Play, Alabama. Both migrated north and, eventually, to Iowa in pursuit of new opportunities in the 1910s. Following the death of her first husband, Muggie Adams ran a boardinghouse in the predominately African American town of Buxton, Iowa, catering primarily to “miners and Mexican laborers who worked as section hands on the railroad.” It was there that she met Norberto Rodriguez, who she married in 1920. The couple and their growing family settled in Bettendorf, Iowa in 1923.
Ernest Rodriguez was part of an extended interracial family that included his mother and father, eight siblings, relatives in Mexico, and the families of his maternal aunt and uncle, Monroe Milton Adams, Jr. and Adaline Adams (known as “Aunt Tiny”). Rodriguez described his mother as being “of a very light complexion with mixed African American, White, and Native American Indian bloods.” Growing up in Iowa, Rodriguez recalled the way his mother’s cooking blended all of these cultures. She made Mexican rice and fideo, cornbread and cobblers, chitterlings, posole, and “fried Indian bread.” This she fed to her family, as well as to the needy men and women that came their way during the Great Depression. Both Ernest and Estefania Rodriguez recalled their mother’s generosity and the fact that “She never looked down on anybody.” Witnessing her struggles with poverty and racism, they both saw her as a model of independence, determination, and perseverance.
The Holy City barrio where Ernest Rodriguez was born was a working-class, mostly Mexican community which offered sparse accommodations to workers in the Bettendorf Company’s foundries. Although most of Holy City’s residents were Mexican immigrants by the 1920s, a few Greeks and African Americans also lived there. Latinos and African Americans shared many experiences in Iowa, including racial stereotyping; limited employment opportunities that often relegated men to the most dangerous, low-paying work and women to domestic service; housing discrimination; and segregation in churches, movie theaters, barbershops, and schools. When the Rodriguez family moved to Davenport, Iowa in the late 1930s, they immediately faced a petition campaign organized by white residents who wanted to drive them out of the neighborhood. Rodriguez recalled,
I remember that it was then I began to really know what prejudice and discrimination meant, because I felt it all around me. The kids in the neighborhood were all white and when they got mad at you, they [hurled racial insults]. As I grew older I found out that there were certain places you couldn’t get a job because of employment discrimination. Certain taverns and restaurants you avoided for the same reason. You were more likely to be stopped for questioning by the police. It seemed that a disproportionate number of minorities were arrested and convicted for crimes than whites. This is true today.
Although much of Ernest Rodriguez’s activism has focused on issues that impact Chicano communities in particular, he has also operated from an understanding of the shared oppression faced by all minorities living under systemic racism. Rodriguez was a Chairman and leading member of the Minority Coalition, which he described as “a banding together of organizations such as NAACP and LULAC whose aims are to work for the betterment of the black and Chicano (Mexican-American) Communities.” He challenged the racism and classism that undergirded the education system, not only for ESL students, but for all “Children of minority groups [who] are victims of discriminatory middle-class thinking.” As a leader in LULAC Council 10, he nurtured a strong relationship with Davenport’s League for Social Justice and the Catholic Interracial Council as they worked to combat racism and demand equal access to housing and employment. And as a member of the Davenport Human Relations Commission he worked to address “race discrimination in housing, employment, and education” and developed a police-community relations program meant to challenge the racist treatment of Chicano and African American citizens by police in the Quad Cities. Rodriguez was also an early feminist, noting in a 1970s radio broadcast that Chicano women, like African American women, faced “the double discrimination of race and gender.”
Even after he retired from his position as Equal Employment Manager at the Rock Island Arsenal in the 1990s, Ernest Rodriguez remained active in the Davenport LULAC council and regularly wrote opinion pieces published in local newspapers about racial justice. He stands as an example of the power of community activism and the impact of local leaders who relentlessly work to promote social justice at the local, state, and national level. Ernest Rodriguez’s life and activism also illuminate the longstanding presence and contributions of Latinos and African Americans to the Hawkeye state, as well as our long history of racism.
Latinx history is Iowa history.
Black history is Iowa history.
The ongoing fight for racial justice is Iowa history.
Omar Valerio-Jimenez, “Racializing Mexican Immigrants in Iowa’s Early Mexican Communities,” Annals of Iowa, vol. 75, no. 1 (Winter 2016): 1-46.
Janet Weaver, “From Barrio to ¡Boicoteo!: The Emergence of Mexican American Activism in Davenport, 1917-1970,” Annals of Iowa, vol. 68, no. 3 (Summer 2009): 215-254.
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 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.