Scholarly Infrastructure Critical for Changing Historical Perspectives

A significant portion of my internship has been spent explaining the Historical Iowa Civil Rights Network. This has meant that my site supervisor and myself were forced to reflect on why HICRN is important, and how it will be effective in building a more complete narrative of Iowa history and the history of the Civil Rights movement. Shifting perspectives has become increasingly important in the field of history. HICRN is most effective as a tool that shifts the geographic perspective away from the southeast United States to the rest of the country. The traditional narrative of the Civil Rights movement begins and ends in the former confederacy, but the African American struggle for equality took place nationwide. The civil rights struggle in Iowa is tragically understudied, but HICRN provides researchers with the tools to delve into Iowa’s struggle for racial equality. (1)  

From its inception, the state of Iowa struggled to clearly define the legal status of free African Americans. A free territory, Iowa created its legal underpinnings at a time when African Americans were rarely afforded the benefits of citizenship. The act of Congress that established the Iowa territory provided that only “free white male citizens” were entitled to vote or hold office within the territory. (2) In addition, the new territory inherited certain racial covenants that were prevalent in the Wisconsin territorial code. The “Act to Regulate Blacks and Mulattoes, and to Punish the Kidnapping of Such persons” held that Black or mulatto people could not settle in the territory without filing with the county clerk a court-attested certificate of freedom. The act also permitted visitors to Iowa to bring their slaves into the territory without relinquishing their title. (3) When the state constitution was drafted in 1846, it included other discriminatory provisions. Freed Africans were unable to vote in Iowa, nor could they serve in the state Assembly or militia. Documents related to territorial Iowa and Iowa statehood are available at the State Historical Society, a participant in the HICRN program.  

The Katz drug store case was a major victory for desegregationists in Iowa. In this photograph from the Des Moines Historical Society, you can see members of the local chapter of the NAACP participating in a sit-in of the Katz counter.

The post-Civil War era saw an expansion of legal rights for African Americans within the state. In 1868, the state Constitution was amended to remove the word “white” from the article on suffrage. The Assembly voted in favor of the change through three successive sessions despite heavy opposition. Members were influenced by outspoken public support among African Americans. Then, in 1880, the Assembly ended the restriction against African Americans in the legislature. In 1884, the Iowa state assembly passed a law which criminalized segregated business. It was now a crime to deny someone “The full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, restaurants, chophouses, eating houses, lunch counters, and all other places where refreshments are served, public conveyances, barber shops, bathhouses, theaters, and all other places of amusement,” on the basis of race or ethnicity. But the legislature was not moving fast enough for Iowa’s growing black population.   

Instead, black advocacy groups challenged the segregation of public spaces in the streets and in the courtroom. From 1884 to 1923, only three criminal convictions were obtained under the Iowa Civil Rights bill. (4) One of the major problems with the bill was that the Iowa courts narrowly interpreted the statue to govern only those places of business specifically listed in the text of law. This changed on July 7, 1948, when an African American woman named Edna Griffin, her infant daughter Phyllis, and two African American men, Leonard Hudson and John Bibbs, attempted to order ice cream at the Katz Drug Store in Des Moines. Griffin, Hudson, and Bibbs were all members of the Progressive Party of Iowa.  Katz had maintained a segregated pharmacy for years, and the manager refused to serve Griffin and the others. The story of this encounter quickly spread, and the party organized sit-ins and pickets of the Katz drug store. Given the public discontent, the Polk County District Attorney filed charges against Katz for violation of the civil rights law. The district court found Katz guilty and fined him $50. On December 13, 1949, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the conviction. 

Despite the victory in Katz, the Iowa Civil Rights Bill was still regularly unenforced. Civil rights leaders recognized that the bill would have to be amended in order to prevent discrimination within the state. In August of 1963, more than 2,000 people held a rally in Davenport in support of the national civil rights movement. Similar protests continued throughout the 1960s, leading newly elected Governor Harold Hughes to propose a Human Rights Commission in his 1964 inaugural address. The Commission was officially created by the Iowa Civil Rights Act of 1965. The commission was empowered to hold hearings and address complaints of unfair or discriminatory practices in public accommodations and employment because of race, color, national origin, or religion. (5) Dissatisfactory rulings could be challenged in the state’s courts. Documents related to the Civil Rights movement in Davenport are housed at the Putnam Museum, another HICRN participant.

This photograph is held by the Davenport Civil Rights Commission

The ongoing story of the struggle for civil rights in Iowa is a fascinating, critical part of the state’s history. It is also important for gaining a fully understanding of the Civil Rights movemenet of the 1960’s. HICRN is an important step in developing the infrastructure to promote research into this topic.  

(1) For more information on the Historical Iowa Civil Rights Network, see

(2) An Act to Divide the Territory of Wisconsin and to Establish the Territorial Government of Iowa, sec. 5, U.S. Statutes at Large, vol. 5, 235, 237. The Act was approved on June 12, 1838. 

(3) An Act Establishing the Territorial Government of Wisconsin, sec. 10, 12, 15. 

(4) Robert Edward Goostree, “Civil Rights in Iowa: The Statute and Its Enforcement,” Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, 1950, 24.

(5) An Act to Establish a Civil Rights Commission to Eliminate Unfair and Discriminatory Practices in Public Accommodations, Employment, Apprenticeship Programs, On-the-Job Training Programs, and Vocational Schools and to Permit the Study of Discrimination, Acts of the Sixty-first Genral Assembly, 1965, ch. 121.