Racial Harmony in an Iowa Coal Mining Town in the Early 1900s

African-Americans and white residents lived side by side in the small mining town of Buxton, Iowa in the early 1900s. This segment from the "Searching for Buxton" documentary features accounts from former Buxton residents.

 

Transcript

Simon Estes: Most of the houses were built and owned by the Consolidation Coal Company, which was owned by and supplied the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad.

(train whistles)

The houses in the company town lacked plumbing and electricity but they were spacious.

Kathryn Beverly, Former Buxton Resident: We had a living room, a dining room and a kitchen with an old wood stove and then we had three bedrooms upstairs and that's how we slept, a nice big yard.

Estes: And the houses were rented out to miners arriving from other communities without regard to race.

Dorothy Schweider, Professor Emeritus of History, Iowa State University: Houses were assigned on the order of the people who came in. So you might have an African-American family, a white family, African-American family. In other words, they didn't assign certain groups to certain parts of town. It was just that next house that was available.

Estes: Which meant much of Buxton was thoroughly integrated.

Dr. David Gradwohl, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, Iowa State University: Blacks and whites lived next to each other. They weren’t strangers, they were neighbors.

Estes: As the 1910 census shows, a few blocks like East 8th and 9th Streets were overwhelmingly black, but just down the block the population was split almost equally between whites and blacks. Most of the whites were immigrant workers, primarily from Sweden, Slovakia and the British Isles.

(music)

Jason's grandmother, Geraldine, was born in Buxton in 1920. Her memories of the town are much fainter than those of her older sisters. She was only four or five when the family left town in the mid-1920s, but she does have at least one very vivid memory of her early childhood. It involves the white woman next door.

Geraldine Williams, Former Buxton Resident: I remember going next door every afternoon and this German lady she would rock me every afternoon. I'll always remember that. I'll always remember her. That was something I look forward to every day.

Jason Madison, Buxton Descendant: One of your sisters was actually named after her, I think it was one of your younger sisters.

Williams: Yes, middle name is Wilhelmina and I'm sure that's a German name.

Estes: Living side-by-side, black kids and white kids also went to school together. This was Aunt Kathryn around 1920 with a white classmate, both were taught by a black teacher, something also extremely unusual for the time.

Beverly: My first grade teacher was named Mrs. Billingsly. She couldn't have been prejudice against the whites and the white teachers weren't prejudice against the blacks. They treated us all as one.

 

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