Iowa history of African Americans in education

The struggle for black freedom in Iowa began as early 1804 when a slave named New York entered the state as part of the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase.

During that time the Iowa Territorial legislature required blacks to pay a $500 bond to enter the state and restricted them from attending public schools. The Iowa Constitution also barred them from voting, holding office, and serving in the state militia.

In 1868, the word “white” was removed from Iowa voting requirements, thus granting black men the right to vote, black women were not granted the right to vote until 1920 with the passage of the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution.

Alexander Clark, Sr., a successful barber and real estate investor in Muscatine refused to accept the “black codes.” He received a law degree from Iowa in 1895 one of the first African Americans to earn a law degree. In 1867, Clark won a lawsuit to have his 12 year old daughter, Susan, admitted to the local white school. 

The case went to the Iowa Supreme Court, which held that segregated schools were inherently unequal because “the law makes no distinction as to the right of children … to attend the common schools.” 

That decision led to the integration of all Iowa schools — 86 years before Brown v. Board of Education, where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.

Buxton, Iowa is the most notable example of this progress. It was a company-owned, coal-mining town of about 5,000 located on the line between Mahaska and Monroe counties from 1900 to 1922. African-Americans were the majority population in Buxton.

The University of Iowa began admitting African American students as early as the 1870s not long after Clark won the Iowa Supreme court case. Dormitories were constructed in the 1910s, but Black students were not allowed to live in the dorms until 1946 when the University of Iowa integrated.

Various houses owned by African Americans served as boarding houses for black UI students including the Tate Arms located at 914 South Dubuque, the Iowa Federation Home at 942 Iowa Avenue, and the Helen Lemme’s house at 603 South Capital Street. 

When the University of Iowa ended its policy of not allowing African American students to live on campus in 1946, five black women “officially” integrated Currier Hall.

Because the University of Iowa started admitting African American students long before the Brown vs the Board of Education ruling many prominent black graduates resulted.

African Americans at the University of Iowa

Frank Kenney Holbrook was one of the first African Americans to play football at Iowa in 1895. African American Tackle, Fredrick Duke Slater became the first All American in football in 1921.

Acie Earl won All American status playing Hawkeye basketball between 1989 and 1993.

And former UI football player James Caldwell graduated in 1977 and became the first black head coach of the Detroit Lions between 2014-2018.

In the field of education, Dr. Phillip Hubbard rose as the University of Iowa’s first black professor in 1947 to its first black vice president of student affairs in 1970. Dr. E.A. Carter was the first African-American to graduate from the University of Iowa Medical College in 1907 and he practiced medicine in Buxton, Iowa.

Two black women earn doctorate degree’s at Iowa – Jewell Lamar Prestage who received was the first black doctorate in political science in 1954 and LuLu Johnson earned the first black doctorate in history in 1941.

In the world of the arts, novelists Margaret and Alice Walker and poet Rita Dove developed their talents at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Short story great James Alan McPherson attended the workshop in 1969, became the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize in fiction then he was hired by the Iowa Writers workshop to teach in 1978.

Sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, singer Al Jarreau, and opera star Simon Estes are also prominent black artists with Iowa roots.

In 1955, Dora Martin Berry was the first African American elected Miss State University of Iowa by the student body.

Iowa City has had two African American mayors. The first was Ross Wilburn in 2006. Wilburn was recently named Chairman of the Iowa Democratic party making him the first African American to lead a state party. Then in January of 2020 Bruce Teague became the second black mayor of Iowa City.