African-American and White Families Lived Side By Side in the Early 1900s Mining Town of Buxton, Iowa

In the early 1900s, the diverse nature of the small mining town of Buxton, Iowa stood in stark contrast to much of the racially segregated United States. This segment from the "Searching for Buxton" documentary shows how African-Americans in Buxton were paid equal wages to the white workers, and the quality of life was considered high.


Transcript

Simon Estes: All of these situations, integrated workplaces, integrated schools, mostly integrated neighborhoods were highly unusual during that time. Keep in mind that in 1896, a few years before Buxton sprang to life, in a now infamous ruling known as Plessy vs. Ferguson, the United States Supreme Court overwhelmingly rejected efforts to integrate railroad cars and so segregation remained the law of the land for decades both before and after Buxton achieved racial harmony.

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Not that the Supreme Court ruling had much bearing on life in Buxton, Jason's family had settled three or four blocks from downtown, and today his great-aunt still remembers ignoring her mother's warnings not to wander too far away. Instead, she delighted in walking downtown with her white pal.

Kathryn Beverly: Well, I would love to go to town and sightsee and the next door neighbor's little girl and I, we used to sneak off and go to town.

Jason Madison: What would you go down there and sightsee?

Kathryn: Just look, just looking in the windows, buying us some candy, a popsicle or something and walking down the street and looking in the windows.

Jason: Now, were these just like the windows of the company store? Were there clothing stores too?

Kathryn: Yeah, the company store, clothing store, barber shop, yeah.

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Jason: How much were candy and pop and things like that at the time?

Kathryn: You could get a popsicle for a penny. You could get a loaf of bread for five cents. Everything was much cheaper then than it is now.

Jason: Would you say African-Americans were well paid?

Kathryn: I don't remember ever wanting something and didn't get it.

Estes: In fact, what was so unusual about Buxton was not just how well whites and blacks got along, but how well blacks there lived.

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This lighthearted photograph from the early 20th century pretty much says it all about how black people fared in Buxton. At the time, relatively few women worked outside the home. But the 1905 Monroe County census shows that seven of the town's nineteen teachers were black women, so were two of the three music teachers and also one of Buxton's two stenographers. The town's only postmaster was a black woman, so was the only midwife. She delivered both black and white babies. Income data collected a decade later showed that black women teachers in Buxton typically earned 90% of what white women teachers made. The overwhelming percentage of African-American men made their living working the mines. According to official census data, as far back as 1905 there were a number of black professionals and business owners in town as well. This is an undated photo of Buxton resident George Neil sitting in the tailor shop he owned and this is George Neil with his family. The black miners were paid the same wages as the white ones and many, like the Neil's, were able to afford fine clothes and in some cases even to buy cars.

 

Excerpt from "Searching for Buxton," Produced by The Communication Research Institute of William Penn University, Iowa Public Television, 2011