Coming to Iowa: Opportunities for African-Americans

Iowa's first African-American residents were slaves who had been brought here illegally by European Americans in the 1830s. African-Americans also came on their own to escape slavery. In the 1840s they came to work in the Dubuque lead mines. In the river towns of Burlington, Davenport, Keokuk and Sioux City, they worked as deckhands on ships that traveled on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

Some African-Americans came to Iowa to farm the rich soil. Often European Americans would not sell them the land they needed to plant their crops and build their homes.

After the Civil War

After the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, former slaves came to the Midwest and settled in already established African-American communities.

In the mid-1860s African-Americans worked for railroad companies laying tracks across Iowa and the country. Later they worked as waiters and porters on the railway cars. Because of their race, however, they were not hired for better-paying positions such as engineers and conductors.

By the 1880s many African-American Iowans moved from rural areas to cities and worked as hotel porters and doormen, waiters, cooks, maids and barbers. Some started their own businesses. Others worked as doctors, lawyers, pharmacists and school teachers. They served the needs of their communities when many European Americans would not.


Many African-Americans wanted to own their own businesses. It wasn't easy for them to accomplish this. But some overcame the obstacles they faced because of their race. Robert E. Patten and Pauline Humphrey are just two African-Americans in Des Moines who overcame great barriers to become successful entrepreneurs.

Robert E. Patten came to Iowa in the early 1900s and worked as a salesman between Buxton and Des Moines, selling books, greeting cards and magazines. He also worked as a photographer and picture framer.

In 1909 he opened his first print shop in Des Moines and printed brochures, posters, booklets, tickets and menus. Patten worked with a variety of organizations and businesses in African-American and European-American communities including churches, restaurants and night clubs.

Overcoming Discrimination

Pauline Humphrey of Des Moines was also an entrepreneur. In 1939 she became the first African-American woman in Iowa to own and operate a certified cosmetology school when she opened the Crescent School of Beauty Culture in Des Moines. It was extremely difficult for a woman, especially a woman of color, to go into business. Many people weren't willing to rent or sell business property to African-Americans. Bank loans were rare. Humphrey faced discrimination because she was African-American and because she was a woman.

Staying in Iowa

African-American Iowans have overcome racism and discrimination to establish roots in Iowa and to better the lives of their families, friends and fellow citizens. When social and professional organizations would not allow them to join, they formed their own organizations. They fought for and won the right to eat in Iowa's restaurants, to sleep in Iowa's hotels and college dormitories, and to be given equal opportunities in business and education.


  • Amy Ruth, “All Aboard the Orphan Train,” The Goldfinch 16, no. 4 (Summer 1995): 10-11.


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

Media Artifacts

Reading Tip: Reflecting
When you are finished reading an article, think about what you would tell others about it.