African-Americans in Iowa, 1838-2005

African-American history is the story of the relationship binding so-called “blacks” and “whites” in America. This relationship has affected churches, schools, businesses, labor unions, politics, marriages and families, sports and arts since 1619.

Themes in Iowa

In Iowa and the rest of the nation, African-American history has had three major themes: 

  • The struggle for freedom and equal treatment before the law. 
  • The struggle for economic opportunity and success.
  • The creation of an inclusive, supportive and vibrant culture.

The struggle for black freedom in Iowa began in 1804 when New York entered the state as a slave with the Lewis and Clark expedition exploring the Louisiana Purchase. It ended in 1839 when Charles Mason, chief justice of Iowa’s Supreme Court outlawed slavery with his ruling in The Matter of Ralph

The struggle for equality and equal opportunity has lasted much longer. In fact, it continues today. Iowa Territorial legislature required blacks to pay a $500 bond to enter the state and restricted them attending public schools. The Iowa Constituition barred them from voting, holding office, and serving in the state militia. While in 1868, the word “white” was removed from voting requirements, thus granting black men the right to vote, black women were not granted the right to vote until 1920 with the passage of the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution.

Refuses to Settle

Alexander Clark, Sr., a successful barber and real estate investor in Muscatine refused to accept these “black codes” and led a petition to the legislature to repeal them. He also headed the movement for the right to vote, which succeeded in 1868, the same year that he won his suit to have his daughter, Susan, admitted to the white school. 

Some whites also resisted racial discrimination in Iowa. Men like Josiah Grinnell, James Jordan and the Rev. John Todd helped fugitive slaves escape slavery as conductors on Iowa’s Underground Railroad. These and other men were also abolitionists and supported John Brown’s attack on slavery in Kansas and at Harper’s Ferry. 

Racial discrimination declined during and after the Civil War (1861-65), which the men of the 60th Iowa Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops helped the United States win. This decline in racial discrimination is seen in the increase in the black population in Iowa between 1865 and 1920, especially in such cities as Keokuk and Des Moines. 

A Kind of Heaven

Buxton is the most notable example of this progress. It was a company-owned, coal-mining town of about 5,000 located on the line between Mahaska and Monroe counties from 1900 to 1922. African-Americans were the majority in Buxton. And that majority attracted black professionals such as Dr. Edward A. Carter, lawyer George H. Woodson, businessman George Neal, and teacher Mrs. Minnie London. The relationship between blacks and whites in Buxton has been described by one who lived there as “a kind of heaven” where blacks and whites attended the same churches, schools and YMCA. They worked side by side in the mines and married one another.

Some Progress

African-Americans made progress in other areas in the state too. And these activities had a national impact. George Washington Carver attended school and became a faculty member at Iowa State University in the 1890s. Over 600 men earned commissions as captains and lieutenants at the World War I Black Officer Training Camp at Ft. Des Moines in 1917. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) Training Camp trained about 70,000 women for military service during World War II (1942-1945). Many of those women were black. 

Black Iowans advanced even more after World War II. They integrated the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and Drake dormitories in 1946. Harriet Curley, Des Moines’ first black teacher broke race barriers in 1947. Edna Griffin and others successfully sued Katz Drug Store in Des Moines for refusing to serve them an ice cream cone in 1948. In the same year Henry A. Wallace, founder of Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., former secretary of agriculture and vice president of the United States, denounced segregation in his unsuccessful presidential campaign.

Since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, black Iowans have broken many more barriers. William Parker of Waterloo became Iowa’s first black judge. Willie Stevenson Glanton became Iowa’s first black female legislator and Cecil Reed became Iowa's first black male legislator. LaMetta Wynne won election and re-election as Clinton, Iowa’s first black mayor, and Preston Daniels did likewise in Des Moines. George Boykin became Iowa’s first black county supervisor, and Art Johnson became Iowa’s first black sheriff. Leon Mosley won his bid for co-chair of Iowa’s Republican party, but Almo Hawkins lost her race for lieutenant governor. In Iowa's business community Lloyd Ward filled the top job at Maytag, and Dr. Michael Martin rose to vice president for research at Garst Seed. James Harris, a Des Moines middle school art teacher, became the first black president of the National Education Association; and Ron McClain became a Trustee of the Teamsters International. In the education field Dr. Phillip Hubbard rose from the University of Iowa’s first black professor to its first black vice president. 

In Iowa sports history Johnny Bright won All-American status for his role as Drake’s quarterback in 1950. Calvin Jones (1960s) and Reggie Roby (1980s) won the same honor playing for the University of Iowa. Carl (Casey) Cain and Acie Earl did the same playing Hawkeye basketball. 

In the world of the arts novelists Margaret and Alice Walker developed their talents at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop where short story great James McPherson began teaching in 1978. Sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, singer Al Jurreau, and opera star Simon Estes are other black artists who have Iowa roots. Jazz legend Herbie Hancock graduated from Grinnell College.

As in other parts of the country, blacks in Iowa have faced struggles and discrimination. Despite these barriers many have become outstanding individuals in their fields. Many others have lived every day as ordinary Iowans. The struggles against racial discrimination, racial separation and racism will likely continue in the 21st century in Iowa and other parts of the country. But the history of the past 200 years suggests that those on the side of freedom, equal opportunity and humanity will win.


  • Silag, Bill, Koch-Bridgford, Susan, Chase, Hal, (Eds). Outside In: African-American History in Iowa, 1838-2000. Iowa City, Iowa: State Historical Society of Iowa, 2001.


Consider African-American history through the eyes of an historian. Why is it historically important to Iowa?

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