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State Historical Society of Iowa

Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs unveils new Civil Rights history resources

Feb 15, 2021

A project led by the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs is documenting many of the undersung heroes and overlooked sites that played a role in Iowa’s Civil Rights history. The project has recently produced two significant results: a new listing on the National Register of Historic Places that recognizes the home of a Black family who moved into an all-white neighborhood in Cedar Rapids in 1963, and a video series that will premiere at I’ll Make Me a World in Iowa, the annual African American cultural festival that will take place online Feb. 26 and 27.

“Iowa’s African American population is relatively small but resilient, and there are many turning points when our state led the nation in its ongoing struggle for full and equal rights,” said Betty Andrews, who hosts the video series and leads both I’ll Make Me a World in Iowa and the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP. “This new video series takes a look at some of those stories and their lasting impact.”

For years, the State Historical Society of Iowa and the State Historic Preservation Office, which are overseen by the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, have helped preserve and share Iowa’s Black history through exhibitions, publications and research, including the Iowa Freedom Trail Project about the Underground Railroad.

Those efforts accelerated in 2018, when the department received a $50,000 grant from the National Park Service to launch a statewide survey recognizing locations significant to African American Civil Rights in the 20th Century.

The grant enabled department staff to record oral-history interviews with the children of the late Percy and Lileah Harris, who recounted memories of integrating their neighborhood in Cedar Rapids. Those interviews bolstered the Harris House’s successful nomination for the National Register of Historic Places, which the National Park Service announced on Feb. 5.

The Harris family’s stories and many others are part of the new video series, entitled “It Is My Right: Stories of African American Civil Rights in Iowa,” which comprises seven segments about activism, education, employment, housing, legal history, politics and government, and social life. The videos will be released in two groups, later this month and then in early summer, and posted online with the State Historical Society of Iowa’s growing array of online resources for educators and students.

“The trials and triumphs of Iowa’s African Americans are an essential part of our state’s history,” Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs Director Chris Kramer said. “We’re honored to feature perspectives from Iowa leaders and better connect the stories of Iowans to current and future generations.”

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The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and its three divisions – the Iowa Arts Council, Produce Iowa - State Office of Media Production and the State Historical Society of Iowa – empower Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to the people, places and points of pride that define our state. The department’s work enables Iowa to be recognized as a state that fosters creativity and serves as a catalyst for innovation where the stories of Iowa are preserved and communicated to connect past, present and future generations.