Post image for A little Iowa civil rights history

A little Iowa civil rights history

by James on January 16, 2017

The time is always right to do what is right. – MLK Jr.

How tall will we stand today? Iowa has a noteworthy civil rights history with regard to racial equality. If you would like to read much more than this essay, there is a toolkit available on the State of Iowa website, as well as links below.

For example, did you know that the State of Iowa enacted a Civil Rights Act in 1884, 60 years before the United States Civil Rights Act of 1964? The 1884 Iowa act prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity in certain areas. Without saying what it was, it might be an interesting exercise to choose a section from the act and ask your current elected representative(s) if they would support such a legislative measure.

In spite of the 60 year old Iowa Civil Rights law, in downtown Des Moines in 1948 Edna Griffin, a black woman and wife of a medical student was refused service at the soda fountain at Katz Drug Store, the management saying they “weren’t equipped to serve coloreds.” Katz Drug Store is now best known for refusing to serve ice cream to Edna Griffin, and Edna Griffin is best known as the Rosa Parks of Iowa.

Did you know that seven years before Iowa became a state, the Supreme Court of the Territory of Iowa ruled that a slave owner had no ownership right to his slave residing in Iowa. Our case preceded Dred Scott and was in direct opposition to the the U. S. Supreme Court ruling of 1857. The U. S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott ruling said that a slave owner could still own a slave even when moving to another state. The Dred Scott ruling was invalidated by ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. Do you think that Iowa would ratify the 13th Amendment today? Would you support it? Even though slavery was prohibited in 1865, black males were not given the right to vote until 1868.

Did you know that in 1851 the State of Iowa struck down the law banning interracial marriage. Over 100 years later the ban on interracial marriage was still in effect in South Dakota (until 1957), in Nebraska (until 1963), in Missouri (until 1967). In 1967 I began teaching at Drake University. The year 1967 seems like recent history to me. Did you know that throughout most of the 20th century Iowa had far different values than Missouri, Nebraska, and South Dakota. In the past Iowa has had a reputation for being tolerant, broad-minded, and unprejudiced. Is that still our reputation?

Many of us will remember 1954. In 1954 the U. S. Supreme court ruled that separate schools for blacks and whites were not equal and therefore unconstitutional. In contrast Iowa’s Supreme Court made the same decision that separate is not equal, except Iowa did it in 1858, nearly 100 years earlier. If you had been a jurist in 1954 or in 1858, would you have seen it the same way? In my view Iowans were a good lot in 1858. The year 1858 is a year before my paternal grandfather was born in Southern Sweden while in 1954 I was in 9th grade. That’s quite a gap. It took a long time for the country to catch up to Iowa.

In 1879 the first black student graduated from the University of Iowa. That is 6 years before my maternal grandfather was born in South Bohemia. Contrast the 1879 Iowa grad with Baylor University where the first black student graduated 88 years later in 1967, or The University of Alabama in 1965, or The University of Mississippi in 1963.

I would hate to ignore football in a discussion of education. In 1895 Frank Holbrook was the first black football player at the University of Iowa. Preparatory to reading the next sentence recall that Missouri fought for the South and conducted raids into Southern Iowa just 31 years earlier. At the Iowa-Missouri football game in 1896, an away game for Iowa, Missouri fans appealed to their team to “kill the n*****.” Fourteen years later there had been little change in attitude. In 1910 officials at the University of Missouri warned Iowa’s football coach not to bring a particular black player along. With the best of Iowa values at the fore, Iowa’s coach kept his team home and postponed the game. How did he feel? Well, it took 100 years before Iowa played Missouri again. It was a bowl game in 2010. What’s the relevant expression here? Consider this as well. Seventy years after Iowa had its first black football player, I was a third year Baylor graduate student. Baylor had an all-white football team. So did every other team in the Southwest Conference – Arkansas, Baylor, Rice, Southern Methodist (SMU), Texas A&M, Texas Christian, Texas Tech, and The University of Texas. Oh wait a minute. I spoke too soon. Those 8 teams were all white except SMU. That year, 1965 was the year SMU’s then-coach Hayden Fry violated the conference’s gentleman’s agreement to sign no black athlete. Fry signed Jerry LeVias, the first black scholarship football player in the Southwest Conference. Both Coach Fry and player LeVias received death threats. It’s an ugly story.

No discussion of race and education in Iowa would be complete without George Washington Carver. The great scientist George Washington Carver has connections to many states – Missouri, Kansas, Kentucky, and Alabama – but it is his several Iowa connections that led to his formal career combining art, botany, horticulture, chemistry and agriculture. In his mid-20s after being admitted on paper to Highland College (KS), his enrollment was refused when he showed up in person. After farming and studying on his own for four subsequent years, he borrowed money for his education and moved to Iowa. Initially refused admission to Iowa State, he enrolled at Simpson College where he studied art and piano and based on his complementary abilities in botany and art, Carver was encouraged to transfer to Iowa State. Today Simpson College science students study in Carver Hall, George Washington Carver Hall. On his second try Carver was admitted to Iowa State, transferred, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural science. He is also considered to be Iowa State’s first black faculty member. After leaving Iowa State he spent the rest of his life and career at Tuskegee Institute (now University) in Alabama where he developed countless agricultural methods and developed products, nearly all from peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans. Simpson, Iowa State, and the State of Iowa are proud to claim our role in educating a world changing pioneer.

Has Iowa changed? For the most part I think our values are steady, but in 2015 a statue of George Washington Carver on the ISU campus was vandalized.

As a reader I invite you to try these contrasting experiences on for size. Reporting his experiences at Simpson College in 1890, Carver reported, “At Simpson the kind of people there made me believe that I was a human being.” In sharp contrast while reporting his first year experiences at Baylor University in 1965, Robert L. Gilbert (Baylor’s first black graduate) reported the following exchange: “I went (to the professor’s office) to talk about the course and how I could better prepare for it and all. He asked me if I was from around these parts.I said yes, I was a native Wacoan. He (the professor) said, ‘But you don’t talk like a n*****.’ That rubbed me the wrong way.”

Allow me to make an editorial observation about Gilbert’s professor.

The more polished white racists among us might have said something along the lines, “But you don’t fit the stereotypical view of black people that I have cultivated like a garden in my imagination.” That’s probably too snarky isn’t it? But if you are white and have ever begun a sentence with the phrase, “I am not racist but……”, spend a few minutes and try to let that exchange between a white person in authority and a black person trying to succeed in the classroom sink in. Try to imagine it from three viewpoints: the speaker; the receiver; the neutral observer.

To Baylor University’s credit they reported Gilbert’s good and bad experiences in the lead article of the most recent edition of BAYLOR MAGAZINE sent to all alumni.

During the Civil War Iowa fought for the Union, for the North and against the Confederates who wished to maintain slavery. Our Iowans fought against the South and their principles. Prior to the outbreak of the conflict, at personal and financial risk, many Iowans were part of what is known as the underground railroad, a network of individuals helping runaway slaves (also called freedom seekers) to escape to free states or to Canada and to avoid recapture by slave owners and their agents. At the outbreak of the Civil War Grenville Dodge for whom Camp Dodge is named secured weapons, organized troops, and then led Iowa’s 4th Volunteer Infantry in battles in Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee. Of the 76,000 Iowan volunteers who fought for the Union, 13,000 Iowa troops died. It’s an honor to be associated with a state like Iowa. We have history and many courageous leaders who stood up for Iowa’s long-standing principles of freedom and fairness.

So here we are again – at a crossroads in Iowa’s proud history. Will we stand for our principles? Will we honor those who came before us? In the past Iowa has had a reputation for being tolerant, broad-minded, and unprejudiced. Our actions have been based on principle, not bias, not expediency, not political alliances, not hatred. I am hoping that our Senators, and especially Senator Grassley will set aside partisan politics and will represent the best of Iowa’s long-standing principles.


Previous post:

Next post: