This post is the tenth installment in our series highlighting African American history in the collections of the Iowa Women’s Archives. The series ran weekly during Black History Month, and will continue monthly for the remainder of 2020.
This past summer, we have seen a nationwide movement for change. In Iowa City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, and elsewhere, peaceful protests have faced backlash from citizens and the police. People seeking change today might be interested in Edna Griffin, who led a boycott of the Katz Drug Store in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1948 and pushed persistently for what she knew was right, even at personal risk. Born in Kentucky in 1909, Griffin attended Fisk University and moved to Des Moines with her husband in 1947. The Edna Griffin Papers, preserved in the Iowa Women’s Archives, include documents relating to the successful 1948 lawsuit against the Katz Drug Store – State vs. Des Moines – which are richly supplemented by Griffin’s 400-page FBI file that provides insight into an otherwise sparsely documented life of activism. You can view these documents in the Iowa Digital library.
During the 1940s, the United States remained a largely segregated country. Although Iowa had laws against segregation, they were not consistently enforced. Iowa’s first civil rights law was passed in 1884 to outlaw discrimination in “inns, public conveyances, barber shops, theaters, and other places of public amusement,” the law was rarely enforced. In 1892, the law was modified to include “restaurants, chophouses, lunch counters and all other places where refreshments are served.” Still with no practical enforcement mechanism, over the next 30 years, Iowa’s supreme court determined only three cases based on the civil rights law. Due to a strenuous effort by the Des Moines branch of the NAACP, the law was amended again in 1923 so that violations could be heard by a local magistrate rather than a grand jury.
On July 7, 1948, Edna Griffin, John Bibbs, Leonard Hudson and Griffin’s infant daughter, Phyllis, entered Katz Drug Store at the intersection of 7th and Locust streets in Des Moines. Hudson needed to make a purchase, so Griffin and Bibbs decided to sit at the lunch counter to order ice cream sundaes. A waitress came over, took their orders, then proceeded to fulfill them. In the process, “a young white man came and whispered a message into her ear” (Lawrence, 2008, p. 298). After this, the party was told that Katz’s lunch counter didn’t serve “colored” customers. The encounter resulted in a criminal case, a prolonged court battle, and a boycott of Katz Drug Store. During it all, Katz and his defenders tried to portray Griffin as disruptive and stirring up trouble rather than as a woman who had been denied her rights under Iowa law. You can read more about the Katz boycott in the article by Noah Lawrence, “Since it is my right, I would like to have it: Edna Griffin and the Katz Drug Store Desegregation Movement” published in the Annals of Iowa.
Edna Griffin’s activism eventually earned her fame and respect, but at the time, she was not universally lauded. Her FBI files, gathered between 1945 and 1967, are a testimony to the skepticism and derision she confronted on a daily basis. Only later was she recognized for her contribution to civil rights in Iowa. She was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1985 and the Iowa African Americans’ Hall of Fame in 1999. You can also see her featured in Katy Swalwell’s 2018 picture book, Amazing Iowa Women.
This post by IWA Graduate Assistant, Erik Henderson, is the eighth installment in our series highlighting African American history in the Iowa Women’s Archives collections. The series ran weekly during Black History Month, and will continue monthly for the remainder of 2020.
The once prosperous coal mining town, Buxton, Iowa, approximately thirty minutes southwest of Oskaloosa was the home of hardworking Black citizens from the Virginia to immigrants from Sweden and Slovakia. The Reuben Gaines memoir from the Frances Hawthorne collection details wise anecdotes, notable events such as Madame C.J. Walker visiting Buxton and the rise and fall of this ghost town. The memoir was donated to the Iowa Women’s Archives by Hawthorne in 2003, a part of research material on Buxton to uncover the history of Black Iowans. Some of the stories shared by Reuben Gaines Jr will not only entertain you with their delivery, tone, and descriptiveness, but give readers a diverse depiction of the town’s people and a vision for what life could be like without biases.
Black Americans being the majority populace of Buxton, coexisting alongside White Americans, with no true sense of segregation or discrimination made this town noteworthy. In the 1905 census, the town boasted about the community having 2,700 Black Americans and 1,991 White Americans. Buxton was founded in 1873 by the Consolidation Coal Company (CCC) that worked for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Benjamin Buxton was the namesake of and main planner of the town of Buxton, then he took over as superintendent from his father, John Buxton, in 1896 until 1909.
The town thrived in its early days on the high demand for coal. Buxton’s community members enjoyed their days off by being together. Parades and large groups of people between Monroe Mercantile Store and the YMCA was something of the norm. Gaines remembers the good times they had at parties on weekends “on this Saturday night we had planned a party with music; dancing with card playing with a prize being contributed to the best Bridge Playing couple (21).” Then later reflects on one occasion a young fellow, Scottie Bolton, took on the nickname “the human fly (25)” after climbing to the top of the YMCA building with no ladder or support.
The life expectancy of the miners was shortened due to days being long and dangerous. However, to the citizens of Buxton, the risk was worth the reward. When Reuben first began work at the CCC, he got a piece of steel struck in his right eye and “every time I would lower the lid of my eye, it would scrape and cut going up or down (26).” Gaines Jr. later got it removed in Albia, a town not too far from Buxton, because no one in Buxton wanted that responsibility.
Along with the various tales, Gaines Jr described the range of personalities you would find in Buxton. In a way, it highlighted the members of upper-class while recognizing that they faced conflicts as well. There was tension between the CCC and a prominent inventor of Buxton named Jackson Brookins, Gaines expounded on the friction between the two, “he discovered something that science was unfamiliar with at this time…It was not long before he had a miniature locomotive and Railroad cars and was known as ‘the Jackson Brookins Train Control’…The engine had yellow; green and red lights that came on automatically according to its proximity to other trains in the same block.” Ultimately, the failed negotiation between the two parties resulted in the CCC backing out, taking the blueprints, and stealing Brookins invention without compensation. A lesson that I took from that experience is not to necessarily trust everyone with your goals because you never know the intentions.
On a lighter note, the description of what life was like for those of different socio-economic backgrounds was most riveting.
For Gaines, who moved from a deserted coal mining town to Buxton, the thought of his new community becoming a ghost town set in as a reality once people began moving out. Though, Buxton had it struggles, people from all walks of life were able to live together in harmony. But by 1919, the population dwindled down to about 400 people and around 1927 is when the last mine in Buxton closed. The lack of demand for coal due to the change in machinery drove people out of Buxton and into neighboring mining towns or segregated communities such as Waterloo and Des Moines. In those segregated communities is when Black Buxton community members witnessed the horrendous nature of racism and discrimination. The importance of remembering and acknowledging these lived experiences like Reuben Gaines’ in Buxton gets us one step closer to consider where we could be if we had the right vision of human relations.
This post by IWA Student Specialist, Erik Henderson, is the sixth installment in our series highlighting African American history in the Iowa Women’s Archives collections. The series ran weekly during Black History Month, and will continue monthly for the remainder of 2020.
Has anyone told you, you were going to be great in your youth? Have you been pushed to excel beyond levels you could imagine? Has there been something you wanted to fight for that became a lifelong journey? In her oral history interview from October 1986, Esther J. Walls, former librarian, administrator and educator, illustrates a few of her life goals and approaches used in accomplishing them. While exploring Walls’s papers, one embarks on a journey with her to change the perception of Black and brown adults and youth, through literacy and programming. On the path to legacy, what distinguished Walls’s journey from others was her distinctive childhood in Mason City, Iowa, her ability to connect with young people of color in New York, and her overall international presence. In the midst of global protest about the murder of George Floyd, the role of a Black leader is critical for change. Looking at the life of Esther Walls, we can look at her actions, her persistence, and her willingness to not give up as key attributes for a Black leader during movements like this.
The interview begins with Esther Walls introducing herself and answering the question how she got involved with the Black experience. Walls answers with examining her childhood. She says, “as a youngster in Mason City, Iowa, I do remember my mother and my sister and myself frequently going to the library and coming home with the equivalent of a shopping cart full of books.” Those growing up in communities that do not reflect them must obtain positive images, outside of family, through books, music, movies, etc. For Walls, she found an escape through reading literature by Black authors. “Living in Mason City, Iowa, where there weren’t very many Blacks, meant anything that we could read about the Black experience was something that was terribly important to us.” Her love for books began at a young age but her drive to excel scholastically took off in the seventh grade. Walls stated in the interview that she was determined to be valedictorian of her class, and she completed that mission.
Walls attended Mason City Junior College before transferring to the State University of Iowa (University of Iowa), where she received her B.A. in 1948. She was the first Black woman at the University to be elected to the Alpha of Iowa Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest and most prestigious undergraduate honors organization in the United States. However, Walls was most known for being one of five Black women to officially desegregate university dormitories.
In 1946, during an era plagued by the Jim Crow laws, Esther Walls, Virginia Harper, Leanna Howard, Gwen Davis and Nancy Henry, all Black women, protested against the segregated housing at the University of Iowa. “It seemed to be something so normal that should’ve happened. I had a right to be in Currier Hall. Why not?” Walls shared. “I was the valedictorian of my high school class, and I was from the state of Iowa.” Ironically, Walls was excluded from and had to fight to live in a building that was named after a university librarian, yet, she became a librarian herself that did remarkable things for her community and people. None of the women allowed the values and “norms” of the time to deter her from achieving greatness.
After Walls and the other four women succeeded in desegrating housing at UI, years later another instance of discrimination arose. Martha Scales-Zachary and Betty Jean Furgerson, Black women living in Currier Hall, had to switch residences when students’ parents objected to desegregated living quarters. During that same school year, a policy was implemented where no out-of-state student could reside in Currier, only Iowa residents, which applied to Black women and not Black men. Sadly, there is not any information we could find regarding how Black men made an effort to get to live on campus but we will continue digging to uncover hidden stories.
After graduation, Esther Walls obtained employment at the Mason City Public Library then headed to attend Columbia University, receiving an M.S. in Library Science in 1951. Walls began working for the New York Public Library in 1950, carrying out various professional assignments: including serving as director of the North Manhattan Library Project and as head of the Countee Cullen Regional Library. Her reign at the Countee Cullen Library, “was the thing that really opened up all kinds of horizons for me and made me understand in depth, what the Black experience was all about,” she describes.
In a speech for the New York College Department of Library Education-Geneseo, about her work with youth, Walls explains how her focus on interactions with teens, and her open approach, made a lasting impact on them. Walls was persistent about leaving a positive influence on the patrons she served, and challenged the community as well. In her speech, “Experiences as a Young Adult Librarian,” Walls reflects on her earliest lessons learned as a librarian, one being: one has to be knowledgeable in all aspects of their job. She was not only knowledgeable of her library plus the Schomburg Collection that was connected but also of what her patrons valued, cared about, and needed to succeed and thrive in their neighborhoods. She was able to stimulate the Harlem community by bringing people such as Malcolm X in for weekly lectures, Langston Hughes to do poetry reading and Michael Olatunji to come and play his drums for teen programs. Within the interview she expresses her compassion for meeting these prominent figures in the restaurants of Harlem during the 1960’s:
“What intrigued me no end was meeting all these people that I, either meeting and getting to know some of these outstanding Blacks in the community at that time….So then for me it was an opportunity to meet all of these people, if not to get to know well, at least to be in the presence of all these people that we had read about in the newspapers and who were really making waves and making headlines, and I found that quite exciting.”
Walls believed that the best way to be connected to those she served, was to recommend books that they would enjoy. Accomplishing this task took getting to know her patrons, spending time asking them questions to fully understand their position in, and perspective on, the world. Additionally, this meant reading materials young adults gravitated towards. Walls attests that she “read as many books on dating, hotrods (cars) and space travel, as she could.” This is a speech that provides the audience with qualities and tools to be successful when working with young adults.
With few other Black people in Mason City, besides her skin color, Walls did not have anything that identified herself as part of the Black community. It was not until an interaction with a library patron at one of her first programs that said, “are you Esther Walls? We’re so glad and we’re so glad you’re Black.” Although, only mentioning it briefly, Walls’ discussion of her situation moved me. Myself, being a Black man from Chicago, a city with a large Black population, hearing that sentiment touched my heart. Black people living in small, rural parts of America, do not experience life the same way that as ones from the intercity and vice versa. However, a medium such as books connects those people from different backgrounds because, even though we are not walking down the same path, we are walking in the same shoes. Learning about Esther Walls’s legacy, opens up dialogues about the importance of having your own identity and community. Developing a sense of identity, whether through literature, art or cinema, no matter where you reside geographically is crucial for connecting with those that look like you.
The Esther J. Walls papers are one of the few collections that is fully digitized onto the Iowa Digital Library (IDL). You are able to explore everything that you could see in our reading room! A useful tool to have open when diving into Esther Walls’ material on IDL, is her finding aid, which you can also find online, on ArchiveSpace at the University of Iowa.
Esther J. Walls interview, October, 1986 https://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/islandora/object/ui%3Aaawiowa_3991
Esther J. Walls papers, Iowa Women’s Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. http://aspace.lib.uiowa.edu/repositories/4/resources/2406
Franklin, V. P., & Savage, C. J. (2004). Maintaining a Home for Girls. In Cultural capital and black education African American communities and the funding of black schooling, 1865 to the present (p. 133). Greenwich, CT: IAP, Information Age publication
Jensen, C. (2015, October 19). Iowawomensarchives: EstherWalls-librarian and… Retrieved May 22, 2020, from https://womenoflibraryhistory.tumblr.com/post/131488735229/iowawomensarchives-estherwallslibrarian-and
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.
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.”