Iowa Writes

HAL S. CHASE
From Letters to a Young Iowan


Dear Young Iowan:

One of the most overlooked and under-appreciated aspects of Iowa life is its rich African-American history. It's one you ought to more about because you will live in an increasingly diverse state, nation, and world.

Through words and photographs, you will see that Iowa's African-American history is long, rich, and rewarding. You will also see that it is our history, a history of the inseparable, intertwined, intimate relationship between so-called "black" and "white" that lies at the heart and soul of Iowa and of the United States. Iowa's development is an integral part of the development of the western hemisphere in the last five hundred years that began with the transatlantic slave trade in 1502. It lasted for three hundred years and bound together the destinies of Europe, Africa, and the Americas. One major result was the rise of capitalism and global imperialism by Spain, England, France, and the United States. It was also the foundation of the industrial, urban, and commercial culture that dominates our time.

So it is fitting that an African-American was part of Iowa's history from its beginning. York, an enslaved man, was a member of the Lewis and Clark exploration of the Louisiana Purchase in 1804-06, which made Iowa part of the U.S. It is equally fitting that the first case decided by our territorial Supreme Court was "the case of Ralph," which outlawed slavery in Iowa in 1839. But Iowa, like other midwestern states, was not free of racial prejudice. Our first public schools were for "white" students only. But in 1868, eighty-six years before Brown versus State Board of Education, Topeka—which struck down separate schools for blacks and whites in 1954—Alexander Clark Sr. successfully sued the City of Muscatine so his daughter, Susan, could attend the white elementary school. This was the same year that Iowa became the first northern state to guarantee black men's right to vote.

Dear Young Iowan:

One of the most overlooked and under-appreciated aspects of Iowa life is its rich African-American history. It's one you ought to more about because you will live in an increasingly diverse state, nation, and world.

Through words and photographs, you will see that Iowa's African-American history is long, rich, and rewarding. You will also see that it is our history, a history of the inseparable, intertwined, intimate relationship between so-called "black" and "white" that lies at the heart and soul of Iowa and of the United States. Iowa's development is an integral part of the development of the western hemisphere in the last five hundred years that began with the transatlantic slave trade in 1502. It lasted for three hundred years and bound together the destinies of Europe, Africa, and the Americas. One major result was the rise of capitalism and global imperialism by Spain, England, France, and the United States. It was also the foundation of the industrial, urban, and commercial culture that dominates our time.

So it is fitting that an African-American was part of Iowa's history from its beginning. York, an enslaved man, was a member of the Lewis and Clark exploration of the Louisiana Purchase in 1804-06, which made Iowa part of the U.S. It is equally fitting that the first case decided by our territorial Supreme Court was "the case of Ralph," which outlawed slavery in Iowa in 1839. But Iowa, like other midwestern states, was not free of racial prejudice. Our first public schools were for "white" students only. But in 1868, eighty-six years before Brown versus State Board of Education, Topeka—which struck down separate schools for blacks and whites in 1954—Alexander Clark Sr. successfully sued the City of Muscatine so his daughter, Susan, could attend the white elementary school. This was the same year that Iowa became the first northern state to guarantee black men's right to vote.

No doubt you know about George Washington Carver and the role that Simpson College and Iowa State University played in his world-renowned career. But it is a good bet you haven't heard of Buxton, a company-owned coal mining community in southeast Iowa from 1900 to 1922, where the relationship between black and white was described by one resident as "a kind of heaven."

You also might not know that the first U.S. Black Officers Training Camp took place at Fort Des Moines during World War I, and that during World War II, it was the site of the first Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WACC) Training Camp. But these and other positive examples of our African-American history did not defeat white racism in our state. In 1948 Edna Griffin and others won their suit against Katz Drug Stores in downtown Des Moines for refusing them ice cream cones.

You probably do know that the 1950s and 60s brought positive changes in the relationship of black and white Iowans and Americans. Examples of this include the election of the first black state legislators and the appointment of the first African-American judge. In the 1970s Cheryl Brown of Luther College became the first African-American to compete in the Miss America Pageant, Des Moines native and one-time Iowa middle school teacher James Harris won election as the first African-American president of the National Education Association, and Jimmy and Lou Porter founded the first African-American radio station, KBBG, in Waterloo.

The 80s saw more Iowa firsts, such as the election of the first black state senator (Thomas Mann, Democrat, Des Moines) and county supervisor (George Boykin, Democrat, Woodbury County), and the appointment of Dr. Percy Harris to the Board of Regents. The 90s brought even more: the first African-American mayors, sheriff, and state party co-chair (Leon Mosley, Republican, Waterloo). Yet, it was the miraculous delivery of the McCaughey septuplets in 1997 by Dr. Paula Mahone and Dr. Karen Drake that put African-American history of Iowa on our nation's front pages.

So from York to Doctors Mahone and Drake, blacks and whites have been living, working, worshipping, and playing together in Iowa, and all of this is a significant part of who we are. The more you understand and appreciate this relationship, the better our future and yours will be.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


HAL S. CHASE

Hal S. Chase teaches U.S., African-American, and Iowa history at Des Moines Area Community College—Urban Campus, and, since 1984, has served Farmers & Merchants State Bank of Winterset as a director and majority shareholder.

Editor Zachary Michael Jack compiled Letters to a Young Iowan (Ice Cube Press, 2007) by inviting prominent Iowans to contribute their advice to the next generation.

Ice Cube Press

This page was first displayed
on January 29, 2008

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