A Neighborhood at Work

Between the early 1900s and the 1960s a neighborhood located northwest of downtown Des Moines was home to much of the city’s black population.

The neighborhood, called Center Street after the area’s main street, grew during World War I when the Colored Officers' Training Camp opened at Fort Des Moines to train black officers. After the war many officers and their families stayed in Des Moines and settled near Center Street. During this time the coal mines in the southern Iowa town of Buxton closed and much of that community’s black population also settled in the neighborhood.

The black population faced discrimination in housing, education and business. The neighborhood was one of the few areas where blacks could live and work peacefully. Center Street was a self-sufficient place that met the social, financial, educational and residential needs of the black population. Blacks opened their own businesses and provided goods and services to one another during a time when some businesses did not want them as customers.

The Center Street neighborhood flourished in the 1940s and 1950s. The area’s business district boasted barber shops, restaurants, night clubs, grocery stores, pharmacies, lawyer’s offices, funeral homes, pool halls, hotels, laundries, service stations, a movie theatre, photography studio and print shop. Many neighborhood businesses attracted customers by advertising in The Iowa Bystander, the city’s black newspaper. Some residents operated businesses out of their homes or hired themselves out to provide services that ranged from delivery to catering.

In the early 1960s, much of the neighborhood was torn down to make room for a freeway. Many Center Street residents lost their homes. Businesses closed or moved to new locations and the city lost a vibrant business district.


  • Amy Ruth, “A Neighborhood at Work,” The Goldfinch 17, no. 4 (Summer 1996): 16.