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State Historical Society of Iowa

New Project to Survey Iowa's Civil Rights Properties and People

Apr 9, 2018

DES MOINES – With support from a federal grant, the State Historical Society of Iowa will launch a new multi-year research project this spring about the African-American Civil Rights Movement in Iowa during the 20th century.

The $50,000 grant comes from the U.S. Department of the Interior and National Park Service, which recently announced $12.6 million in funding for 51 projects in 24 states that preserve sites and highlight stories related to the African-American struggle for equality. In Iowa, the "Iowa African-American Civil Rights Survey" will identify properties and people still unrecognized for the roles they played in civil rights history, as well as National Register of Historic Places with undocumented connections to the Civil Rights Movement.

"This project is the first statewide survey to locate historic properties that tell the story of African-Americans' struggle for civil rights in Iowa," said Paula Mohr, Iowa's Certified Local Government coordinator. "We are grateful to the National Park Service for acknowledging the importance of this history to Iowa and for awarding this grant."

Researchers will focus on places of work and worship, neighborhoods, educational institutions and public places as well as people, organizations and institutions involved in the Civil Rights Movement. The two-and-a-half-year project will culminate with a survey report, at least one nomination of a historic property to the National Register of Historic Places and a customized Civil Rights tour on the Iowa Culture App. Ultimately, researchers hope additional properties will be preserved through historic tax credits and grants programs where possible.

"Essentially, we want Iowans to understand and appreciate the depth and diversity of the state's history," Mohr said. "We also want to identify properties and districts at risk throughout the state, create opportunities to involve under-served populations, amplify our outreach and integrate more diverse history into the Iowa Core curriculum."

Currently, the State Historic Preservation Office's database holds 11 National Register-nominated properties associated with African-American history, and only four of those are recognized for civil rights in Iowa, including the Alexander Clark House in Muscatine, the Buxton Historic Townsite, Fort Des Moines and the Flynn-Griffin Building in Des Moines, where a 1948 sit-in led to an Iowa Supreme Court ruling and the desegregation of the Katz Drug Store.

"As important as these four properties are, they do not fully represent the story of African-Americans' civil rights struggle in Iowa," Mohr said. "This statewide project is needed to identify other properties so we have a more comprehensive story of the African-American struggle for civil rights in Iowa during the 20th century."

Looking further back through history, African-American civil rights advancements in Iowa during the 19th century were well ahead of the rest of the nation:

The Supreme Court of the Territory of Iowa ruled “no man in this territory can be reduced to slavery” (In the Matter of Ralph, 1839), 26 years before slavery was abolished. In a landmark court case that preceded Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka by more than 90 years, the Iowa Supreme Court integrated Iowa’s schools in 1868 (Clark v. The Board of Directors, 1868). Also in 1868, the state’s constitution was revised to extend suffrage to African-American men.

Although largely unenforced, in 1884 the Iowa Legislature passed the Iowa Civil Rights Act that prohibited discrimination in barbershops, theaters, hotels and on public transportation and, in the next decade, outlawed discrimination in restaurants.

In addition to the State Historical Society Iowa's grant, the City of Waterloo Historic Preservation Commission also received a $37,500 African-American Civil Rights grant for its "Battling for Equality: Civil Rights in Waterloo" project.

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.