three Black Iowans in an hot air balloon. The balloon basket says "flying high in Buxton"

Black Iowans Who Influenced the World

Jan 15, 2021

As a teacher, have you ever had to answer a question like this from one of your students: “I’m from Iowa, what can I do about injustices in the world? What can I do to level the playing field?” Well, if you have, Iowa PBS Education has stories of everyday Iowans who fought injustice to inspire your students.

School Integration — Clark

The fight for school integration in Iowa happened 85 years before the famous Brown v. Board of Education case in Topeka, Kansas. When Susan Clark was denied admission to Muscatine's Second Ward Common School Number 2 because she was Black, her father, Alexander Clark, a determined businessman of Muscatine, acted to resist racism and the segregation of Iowa’s schools and won. The Iowa Supreme Court ruling in Susan’s favor became a foundational case for change in Brown v. Board of Education.

A Diverse Community — Buxton

The history of Buxton, Iowa, is unique for the time in which it was built, as well as our current time. Racial integration and harmony existed in Buxton at a time when racial tolerance was the exception and not the rule. While most communities in Iowa and the country were segregated by race, this small Iowa town was an anomaly. When the Consolidated Coal Company in Buxton needed strike breakers and cheap labor in the 1800s, the idea surfaced to recruit Black workers from the South. And when the workers arrived, no consideration was given for their race. The town was built on a first-come, first-served basis. Each member of the community received the same size and type of home, regardless of race. As a result, Black coal miner’s families were neighbors with white coal miner’s families, and the Black town doctor, who treated everyone, was right across the street. This example of a racial utopia only lasted for 20 years, but the town’s impact on Iowa and America remains.

The Doors of Higher Education Open in Iowa — Carver

George Washington Carver was born into slavery in the final months of the Civil War. He rose to become one of the best-known and widely respected Black Americans in the world, and his time in Iowa was an important part of his story. After being turned away from Highland College in Kansas, Carver set his sights on Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. Simpson College admitted Carver on September 9, 1890. In 1891, Carver transferred to the Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm, now Iowa State University in Ames. He paved the way for social change and acceptance for Black students and staff at the University. When he graduated from Iowa State, he was one of the few men to hold an advanced degree in agriculture. 

Iowans Fight for Voters in Mississippi — Freedom Summer

In 1868 Iowa was the first state outside New England to grant Black men the right to vote. Voting victories in Iowa and Minnesota led the national movement for the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1870, which allowed all men to vote regardless of their race. It would take a coalition of voting advocates and a summer spent in Mississippi to get Black voters registered to vote for the 1964 national election between Lyndon B. Johnson (D) and Barry Goldwater (R) to be held that November. 

Supporting Resources

This article was put together with the help following resources:

Iowa Pathways
Iowa PBS’s Iowa Pathways is an online learning environment that challenges students to create their own story of Iowa history as they explore the people, places, events and ideas of their state. This award-winning website helps students choose topics that interest them, build research questions and examine relationships among Iowa concepts — past to present. 

Alexander Clark and a Black American’s Fight for Civil Rights
In the 1860s, shortly after the Civil War, a teenager from Muscatine, Iowa, tried to enroll in the local high school. She was denied admission because she was Black. Her father sued the school district and won. When the school board challenged the decision in the Iowa Supreme Court, he won again. Because of the actions of Alexander Clark, Iowa's schools were desegregated more than 85 years before the rest of the nation officially outlawed school segregation.

This collection of video segments from Lost in History: Alexander Clark explores Clark's historic court victory, his prominent anti-slavery role, his recruitment of Black soldiers for the Union in the Civil War and his appointment as a U.S. ambassador to Liberia.

George Washington Carver: An Uncommon Life
George Washington Carver was a complex man who had many gifts — a Renaissance man. He was a scientist, teacher, humanitarian, environmentalist and an artist. He was a spiritual man, and a man of quiet perseverance. Born enslaved, Carver defied the odds and rose to become one of the best-known and most widely respected men in the world. He devoted his life to helping Black farmers suffering the oppression of racism, poverty and ignorance.

The collection in PBS LearningMedia contains a background essay with additional information from Iowa Pathways and Tuskegee University, as well as clip-specific and collection-wide discussion questions and activities.

Iowans Return to Freedom Summer
In the summer of 1964, hundreds of predominantly white college students answered the call from civil rights leaders to volunteer for Freedom Summer. They participated in voter registration efforts, taught in freedom schools and worked in community centers in towns throughout racially segregated Mississippi.

Iowans Return to Freedom Summer was produced by the Keeping History Alive Foundation. Educational resources published by Iowa PBS.