Black History

Telling Our Own Story | Episode
Jun 6, 2022 | 26 min

Professor Venise Berry and filmmaker S. Torriano Berry spotlight Black Iowans who have made their mark on the state and world. Explore the history of religion, civil rights, economics, entertainment and the military as it relates to Black Iowans.


They started putting in provisions where if you were black, in order to stay in that community you had to have $20 cash on you, which would probably be the equivalent of about $1000 in today's money in order to stay.

You could not accept the fact that your neighbor might be black or white or that your kids were going to go to school and be taught by black or white teachers, etcetera. If you could not accept all this, you were not welcome in Buxton.

So I ran against four men, one was the incumbent and I got 53% of the vote.


Again, this is 1900, a time of extreme racism --

If you were black and you were already in Iowa, you could stay.

86 years before Brown vs. the Board of Education --

White churches and their pastors and helping them understand the importance --

Funding for this program was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation, as well as generations of families and friends who feel passionate about the programs they watch on Iowa PBS.



S. Torriano Berry: I remember growing up in Des Moines and starting each school day at PM Cassidy Elementary on the west side with my hand over my heart reciting, I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all. That is the pledge. That is America's promise. Back in the 1960s with my hand over my heart, I mean, I was a proud American and I would become even more proud once I realized that I was growing up in the state of Iowa, a bold, free, progressive state that refused to allow the wretchedness of slavery upon its soil. Now, in preparation for this documentary, however, I ran across this little thing called the Exclusionary Act of 1851, which read, "From and after the passage of this act, no free negro or mulatto, shall be permitted to settle in this state."


Rev. Orlando Dial: Even though Iowa was a free state and people coming up the Missouri and Mississippi River would get here and be free, some of the communities and counties immediately started putting in some exclusionary black codes. They started putting in provisions where if you were black, in order to stay in that community you had to have $20 cash on you, which would probably be the equivalent of about $1000 in today's money, in order to stay. And some would call it vagrancy laws, but they were all attempts to reduce the number of black people fleeing from enslavement into freedom in Iowa. So on one hand you had people in faith communities who might be welcoming, but a government that was not as welcoming. So it's strange to be a free state and not be a welcoming state completely.

S. Torriano Berry: The Exclusionary Act of 1851, it did say that if you were black and you were already in Iowa, you could stay. And if you owned property, you could keep it.


Daniel Clark: That 1851 Act was adopted in the wake of the 1850 nationwide Fugitive Slave Act that updated the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act that said runaway slaves should be returned to their masters as property. 1850 added incentives for anybody at all to help catch people and return them to their masters. And the Iowa response said in effect, well let's just not have any of those people here. It was passed by the majority democrat legislature, it wasn't until 1864 during the Civil War with a legislature controlled by the new Republican Party that Iowa finally said, let's get rid of this thing.


Leslie Schwalm: Iowa had a very significant history of black conventions. These were at the time called by the participants Colored Conventions and from 1853 through the end of the 19th century there were over 18 statewide meetings called by African Americans in Davenport, in Oskaloosa, in Des Moines, in Muscatine, across the state and these meetings in essence were opportunities for black Iowans to organize, come together, debate the critical issues of the day and develop strategies for fighting all of the ways in which legal inequalities and social inequalities shaped the lives of black Iowans. So I think there's a lot of things about this movement offers us an important model for how to pursue social change and also how to recognize that black Iowans have a long and important history of successful activism in leadership.

Leslie Schwalm: Alexander Clark is perhaps the most well-known black Iowan of the 19th century in part because of his very important role in pressing for civil rights in Iowa in part because he helped to organize Iowa's black Civil War regiment, he also served as a diplomat and as a very important activist in the state's Republican Party. But his entire family was a family of activists. This included his mother, Rebecca Howard, who followed Alexander to Iowa, settled in Iowa City and with her husband helped establish Iowa City's African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Clark family included Alexander's son, Alexander Jr., would become the first black student to earn a law degree at the University of Iowa's Law School. It included his daughter Susan, with whom Alexander pushed the city of Muscatine to admit her to a school that had previously excluded African Americans. It included his daughter Rebecca, who we believe was the first black student to enroll at Grinnell, again because of the activism of her family. And it included Alexander's wife Catherine, who was very important in the effort to protect fugitive slaves and his people in their house and helped escort them to safety and freedom when they were being chased by kidnappers.


Dr. Venise Berry: Many religious communities in Iowa, both black and white, were supportive of the Abolitionist Movement and based on historical records, some actually became stops along the Underground Railroad.

Rev. Orlando Dial: Black churches had an impact and their pastors and white churches and their pastors in helping them understand the importance of fighting against slavery and being a part of the underground railroad. And many of the white churches, the congregational church, sometimes the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church would be a part of the Underground Railroad supporting black churches because the people that would be out to catch you would be watching the black church and so people could move safely through white churches in the Underground Railroad.


Dr. Venise Berry: In the 1800s, African American churches spread across Iowa. They offered support and spiritual sustenance to African American communities. Today, several of these churches have celebrated more than 150 years in the state.

Rev. Orlando Dial: There have been black churches in Iowa since Iowa was a territory. One of the things that is helpful about having black churches in communities where black people are not in the majority, we have always needed, well all people need a resting place, a place to regroup and strengthen and the black church has always been that way. The black churches had to be not just a place for worship but we have been meeting places for civil rights meetings, we have been places to teach our history and culture when school systems did not or have not or won't. We have been able to do those things in the black church. And if we need a midweek energy boost we'd come for prayer meetings on Wednesday night. We could come in on Sunday and get energized and go out and fight on Monday.


When it came to protecting our nation, years before Tuskegee got its famous Airmen, black officer candidates were being trained at Fort Des Moines in support of the First World War.

Matthew Harvey: Fort Des Moines is significant in Iowa's history and our nation's history. Fort Des Moines is the first place that ethnic and gender barriers were broken for the United States military. Fort Des Moines was established in 1903. Shortly after its gates opened, one of the first units to arrive were the African American soldiers of the United States Army Cavalry. Those soldiers pushed out from Fort Des Moines farther west and became distinguished and known worldwide as the Buffalo Soldiers. In 1917, Fort Des Moines was selected as the location of the first black officer training camp. It also was the first location of the medical officer training camp where African American medical doctors were trained to support the 92nd and 93rd segregated infantry divisions. 25 years later, during World War II, Fort Des Moines was again called on as the first location to train the WACs, the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. The first WAC training class included African American women from across the country.


Matthew Harvey: Iowa has a special place in African American military history both in the state and for our nation.


Dr. Venise Berry: There is one notable example of true racial integration in Iowa. It was a place where black children and white children attended classes together and African Americans received the same pay working side-by-side with white Americans in the mines. This was Buxton at the turn of the 20th century.

Rachelle Chase: Buxton was a coal mining town established in 1900 by the Consolidation Coal Company, which was owned by the Chicago Northwestern Railroad. And what made Buxton so amazing was pretty much the fact that for most of its existence, 40% to 55% of the population was African American and at this time in its heyday it had a population of about 5,000 residents, which was pretty large, and in fact Buxton was considered the largest unincorporated town in Iowa and some have said in the country at that time. But what made Buxton so amazing was the fact that, again, this is 1900, a time of extreme racism and Jim Crow and lynching and just extreme violence towards African Americans. In Buxton, blacks are being treated equally to whites.


There were more than 40 thriving businesses in Buxton, many black-owned. The African American community included doctors and attorneys and dentists, a justice of the peace, and even a baseball team, the Buxton Wonders.

In 1925, Buxton attorney George Woodson joined 11 other black lawyers to establish the National Bar Association. This was the first national association of black lawyers in the United States and Woodson served as its first president.

Rachelle Chase: So, when Ben Buxton, who was the superintendent of Buxton, he actually established, Buxton gets the credit for designing this town the way it was. Many of the residents that were interviewed had pretty much said that if you could not accept the way things were in Buxton, if you could not accept the fact that your neighbor might be black or white or that your kids were going to go to a school and be taught by black or white teachers, etcetera, if you could not accept all this, you were not welcome in Buxton.


S. Torriano Berry: One of the most notable African Americans who has had an impact on Iowa by bringing notoriety to our institutions of higher education is the peanut man himself, George Washington Carver, of Tuskegee Institute fame.

Rev. Orlando Dial: It's an interesting thing that many people know that Dr. George Washington Carver went to Iowa State University. But they don't realize before he went to Iowa State, he went to Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa and it was Bishop Simpson whom the school is named after that encouraged him after seeing his artwork and the detail, recognized that he could be a botanist and go into science and helped him get enrolled at Iowa State University. So, George Washington Carver has that educational connection to not only Iowa State University but at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa.


Dr. Venise Berry: Iowa public schools were desegregated in 1868, that was 86 years before Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954. Alexander Clark sued the Muscatine School Board so that his daughter Susan could attend her neighborhood school. He won. But despite that early desegregation law, Iowa schools remained segregated for the most part until forced busing was introduced in the 1970s.


Dr. Venise Berry: In 1970, I was in the 9th grade and a number of African American students were transferred from Irving Junior High to Franklin Junior High, which was a predominantly white school. This was the most extreme racial hatred I experienced growing up in Des Moines. We were called the N word, spit at, spit on, there were fights daily and there was even a teacher who every time the white girl who sat next to me started talking, sent me to the principal's office.


Felicite Wolfe: While many people are familiar with the sit-ins that occurred across the South during the Civil Rights Movement, most notably in Greensboro, North Carolina, a significant sit-in occurred in Des Moines in 1948 when Edna Griffin, her daughter and two of her friends visited the Katz lunch counter for an ice cream and were denied service due to their race. Griffin eventually sued Katz and won. This victory coupled with the protests and boycotts that Griffin was behind eventually caused enough financial hardship to Katz that he had no option but to desegregate the lunch counter.


Griffin's experience was not exclusive to lunch counters like the one at Katz Drug Store. Blacks who shopped and ate at stores and lunch counters discriminated against simply because of the color of their skin.

Margaret Garrison: When I was about nine years old, my Aunt Betsy and I, we were shopping downtown and we decided that we were hungry, we wanted some lunch. So we stopped in this drug store and my Aunt Betsy gave the clerk our order, hamburgers and a shake, and as we waited for our food I sat down on the stool and I started swirling around. And she took her elbow and she nudged me and she said, get up, get up. I didn't pay any attention so she did it again. And I never did get up. But I did ask her later, why were you nudging me saying, get up, like that? And she said, it's because we're not allowed to sit down and eat at lunch counters. A few years later, they were picketing Katz Drug Store and the same Aunt Betsy who had warned me about sitting down at the counter was in the picket line and it made me feel so proud that she was out there helping to fight discrimination so that we could sit down at the counters and eat our lunch like everybody else.


Because we are not a collection of red states and blue states, we are the United States of America. And in this moment, in this election, we are ready to believe again. Thank you, Iowa.

Despite a speckled history of bigotry and hate amongst the general population, Iowa has often been very progressive when it comes to presenting opportunities for blacks, by passing laws of racial inclusion and electing diverse leadership at the polls.

Lametta Wynn: So I ran against four men, one was the incumbent, and I got 53% of the votes.

In 1995, years before Iowans helped to put Barack Obama in the White House after winning the 2008 primary, voters in Clinton, Iowa elected Lametta Wynn to the office of Mayor with a black population of less than 4%.

Lametta Wynn: When I was first elected I told people, I said, I don't know anything about city government but I know about leadership and we need some leadership here and I think I can give that to you.

A nurse, mother of ten and school board member for 12 years, Mayor Wynn never intended to go into politics, but served three terms and made history as the first African American woman mayor in Iowa.

Lametta Wynn: We made a lot of changes here and I haven't done it all by myself and I would not say I have. But I will say when I leave this job the end of December, I will have a wonderful feeling that I have left this place much better than when I took office.


In 2006, Ross Wilburn was elected to the Iowa City City Council and served for 12 years including one term as Mayor.

Ross Wilburn: African Americans have been a critical part of the history of Iowa. We are literally sewn into the fabric of this state. It's so important for young black people as well as youth of all colors to see us in positions of power, positions to make a difference in our communities, so that they can believe in themselves and we can believe in each other.

He now serves in the House of Representatives as the first African American Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party.

Ross Wilburn: I stand on the shoulders of Willie Stevenson Glanton as a legislator, but my great-great-grandfather served in the first Iowa colored regiment during the Civil War. He escaped being enslaved in Missouri, went to Illinois and was sent over here. The first regiment was sent down to Arkansas, fought in a battle, he survived that battle partially blinded and now years later his great-great-grandson is serving in the legislature for the very freedom that he put forward.


Can I get a motion to adjourn please?

In 2018, Bruce Teague became the first openly gay candidate to be elected Mayor of Iowa City.


Any opposed? We are adjourned.

Bruce Teague: The state of Iowa has really been impressive to me, especially when we were a state that allowed gay marriage.

Iowa's progressive political climate made it possible for Mayor Teague to lead Iowa City through the hard times and shutdowns resulting from the coronavirus outbreak of 2020.

Bruce Teague: COVID was the first thing that I encountered as Mayor in March of 2020 and immediately I really surrounded myself with knowledgeable people from the public health arena as well as individuals and talking about how their lives are being impacted, businesses. Do we wear masks? Don't we wear masks? Black Lives Matter happened and we saw nationwide the death of George Floyd.

Hands up! Don't shoot! Hands up! Don't shoot! Hands up! Don't shoot!

Bruce Teague: And here in our community we were grieving and we grieved together.

We won't give up! We won't give up!

Bruce Teague: And I really believe that from that grief we did find strength. We are becoming more and more unified with our differences and I think that is what my role has done, my being gay has really brought this humanness to a lot of people and some understanding that wasn't there before.



Dr. Venise Berry: In the ongoing fight for civil rights, Willie and Luther Glanton of Des Moines were an important power couple. They were trailblazers who had a significant impact on Iowa.

Willie Stevenson Glanton: This was during the time that I served as State Legislator in the state of Iowa and this is in the Statehouse. I was the first African American to be elected from Polk County and served as the first black woman in the state of Iowa.

Dr. Venise Berry: In 1976, Governor Robert Ray appointed Luther as Iowa's first African American district judge.

Luther Glanton: It gives me a great determination to go forward and not to go backwards. Being black I know that there is no room for error for me because all of my errors will be magnified. So I have to be almost faultless and I try to be faultless for that reason.

Dr. Venise Berry: A true pioneer in political, social and legal circles, Willie Stevenson Glanton fought for better housing, jobs and schools in order to make a positive difference in the lives of all Iowans.

Willie Stevenson Glanton: Everything I've ever done I've just wanted to make a difference. I wanted to be helpful. I wanted to be useful. I wanted to just make things better, improve the quality of life around me. No situation is ever perfect. But I think if you put your heart and mind and soul into it that usually you can break through and you can be a catalyst anyway.


Through education, civil rights, religion, the military, politics and other arenas, blacks have had a significant impact on the state.


These are only a few of the many stories that helped to shed light on the opportunities, the obstacles, the anguish and the inspiration shaping the black experience in Iowa.





Funding for this program was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation, as well as generations of families and friends who feel passionate about the programs they watch on Iowa PBS.