Sparking conversations in Iowa City

University of Iowa professors' book discusses African American students' contributions

  • Photo
By Laura Farmer, correspondent

When people think of the civil rights movement in the United States, they don’t tend think of the University of Iowa. But associate professors of English and African American Studies Dr. Lena M. Hill and Dr. Michael D. Hill would encourage you to reconsider.

Their newest work, “Invisible Hawkeyes: African Americans at the University of Iowa during the Long Civil Rights Era,” showcases the contributions and struggles of pioneering African American students at the University from the 1930s to the 1960s.

As Dr. L. Hill writes in the books’ introduction: “The story of Invisible Hawkeyes is not simply the story of a university; it is the story of a nation.”

“Many people don’t think of a space like Iowa City, an institution like the University of Iowa as playing a significant role in the civil rights movement,” Dr. L. Hill explained in a recent phone interview. “But we trace the experiences of African American students at the institution during this era and discover how they, in many ways, form a bridge that presents the black experience to a larger population that might not otherwise have access to that experience.”

The idea for this work came in 2011, when the world premiere of the stage adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man occurred at Hancher.

“The director knew that Fannie Ellison (Ralph Ellison’s wife) graduated from the University of Iowa theatre department in 1936,” said Dr. L. Hill. During his residence “we began to contemplate the experiences of African American students during the time Fannie Ellison was here” and decided to offer a panel of black alumni in addition to the staged reading.

“That’s really where the inception of the idea came from,” said Dr. L. Hill. After the panel she and Dr. Michael D. Hill were approached by representatives from the University of Iowa Press who thought this could be an idea worth expanding into a book.

“That’s how we began to think about having a book that would include scholarly chapters on the performing arts department and athletics as well as testimonials that allowed the voices of African American alumni to be included,” explained Dr. L. Hill.

As they started reaching out to alumni and collecting stories, a surprising pattern emerged.

“At the start we didn’t recognize how tightly knit the networks were that brought black students to the U of I,” Dr. Michael D. Hill explained in a phone interview. “When you contemplate African American students over the course over multiple decades, you would think they were coming from fairly independent or separate areas and distinct backgrounds; that they were somehow entering the university from unique pathways ... the most surprising thing that we found was how many of the alumni clustered from particular regions, often from the same school. That was very surprising.”

“I had no idea that that sort of pipeline existed, and that it went in both directions. Students would often come here and get their Ph.D.s and then go back and teach at those institutions that they got that first degree in, over and over again.”

And while African American students were welcome to attend the University, they did not always receive a warm welcome in the larger community.

“The African American students that we explore in the book, their time here was difficult for a number of reasons,” Dr. L. Hill explains. “Beyond not being able to live in the dorms, they could not find places to get their hair cut; oftentimes when they formed relationships with [white] friends and classmates, they couldn’t find a space in Iowa City that would allow them to eat together. They had a difficult time.”

Despite this, students found ways to organize and collaborate.

“Something that should be able to be celebrated is the fact that they took up the mallet — making themselves available to be collaborators, and realizing that collaboration was a possibility,” said Dr. M. Hill. “That’s what happened in the 1930s through the 1960s: it was never a situation where any one side was conferring or the other side was merely demanding. It was a situation where individuals participated in collaboration in order to bring an institution to the height of excellence that it otherwise would not have achieved.”

These stories came to life in Invisible Hawkeyes thanks to a collaborative effort between scholars and alumni, academics and nonacademics.

The scholars “brought an expertise and a depth of knowledge that really taught us so much about the subject areas that their chapters explore,” said Dr. L. Hill. “And then when you add the testimonials to that, the opportunity to hear firsthand of the experiences that these black alumni had from the 1930 — 1960, was really an amazing learning experience.”

But Invisible Hawkeyes is more than a historical project. Dr. Michael D. Hill received a grant through the Digital Humanities Studio at the University of Iowa in order to expand the work into a multisensory experience.

The Black Faces in White Spaces builds on the text of Invisible Hawkeyes. Participants cannot only read the testimonials, but hear the voices of those giving testimonials. They can also view newspaper clippings, photographs, and other material in order to deepen their engagement with the stories.

“Often during the course of approaching alumni you would hear from individuals who wanted to be included in the project but they fell outside of the historical parameters of the project. ... You might run into to folks who were alumni in 1970s, 1980s, or even the more contemporary moments. “I have a story to tell as well,” or “I have experiences that I would like to share if you’re interested in hearing from me. I would love to have my experiences documented.”

“So the Black Faces in White Spaces project gives us the flexibility to capture some stories that the book might not allow us to capture.”

“There’s a synergy between the two projects,” he explained. “The multimedia world of a website and the multimedia world of a digital humanities project give us an opportunity to allow an audience who want a different kind of engagement to have that engagement.”

Drs. L. and M. Hill are also bringing these stories to life through a three-day event called Fields of Opportunity: a celebration of the history of African American migration.

The three-day event series is intended to “highlight the migration experiences that so many of the individuals that we follow in the book experienced,” said Dr. L. Hill. “It’s really a different kind of migration experience than we typically think of when we talk about the great migration. And we think it’s one that deserves to be highlighted.”

“It’s looking at black young people who are taking the initiative at a very young age to pursue their dreams in a state that many people would never have imagined.”

In addition to a series of alumni and scholarly panels, Step Afrika! will perform a commissioned work exploring the story of black migration through dance. Dr. L. Hill hopes that by juxtaposing the stories from the panels with Step Afrika!’ s performance, “it gives you access to what these young black students were feeling, in a way that you might not completely grasp if you just read part of the chapters.”

The goal of the book, and of the Fields of Opportunity series of events, is to spark a larger conversation.

“When we give talks about this work, people always ask us: what about what was going on in this department? Or even what about what was going on at other institutions in Iowa?” Dr. L. Hill stated. “And we love these questions because we think it points to a need for more research to be done and more research to be published so this story goes beyond what Invisible Hawkeyes uncovers to really achieve a greater understanding of how African Americans contributed to the development of these institutions and of our state.”


Fields of Opportunity: UI’s Black Migration Stories

Wednesday through Friday (Oct. 19-21); Fields of Opportunity celebrates the history of African American migration.

This three-day event unites the UI Press publication of Invisible Hawkeyes: African Americans at the University of Iowa during the Long Civil Rights Era and Hancher’s commission of Step Afrika! ’s The Migration: Reflections of Jacob Lawrence.

By featuring scholarly panels and testimonials that reflect on UI migration history together with performances by Step Afrika!, the program commemorates the black student experience at the University of Iowa from the 1930s through the 1960s. During a time when colleges and universities throughout the U.S. refused to admit African Americans, UI opened its doors to black students.

l The artistic and athletic accomplishments of black Hawkeyes helped solidify the University’s national and global reputation. In recognition of this legacy, Fields of Opportunity shares the inspiring story of how the world of performance has long played — and continues to occupy — a pivotal role in the African American pursuit of theAmerican Dream.

Visible Hawkeyes

5 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 19; alumni presentation, a special appearance by Step Afrika! and reception at Hancher.

This event recalls the 2011 opening panel of the residency, Iowa and Invisible Man: Making Blackness Visible. That panel, “Invisible Hawkeyes,” kicked off a week of events that form the foundation of Fields of Opportunity. Honoring that legacy, “Visible Hawkeyes” will feature video filmed from the 2011 project, migration stories from prominent African American UI alumni, and a special appearance by Step Afrika! A reception will follow the program.

Performing Migration

7:30 p.m. Thursday; Step Afrika! Performance at Hancher.

This event showcases Step Afrika’s Hancher commissioned work, “The Migration: Reflections of Jacob Lawrence.” This new signature performance is based on Lawrence’s visual portrayal of African-American movement from the rural South to the industrial Midwest and North in the early 1900s. Each piece incorporates motifs from Lawrence’s paintings to tell the black migration story through body percussion and dance.

Records of African American Excellence

3 to 5 p.m. Friday; presentations by contributors to Invisible Hawkeyes.

This program features one scholarly panel and one alumni roundtable. Presenters will draw on their published work in Invisible Hawkeyes to expand on the civil rights history of black students at UI. As a concluding event, these public performances will be recorded and included in Black Faces in White Spaces, the digital project that will build upon and expand the textual work commenced by Invisible Hawkeyes.

Give us feedback

Have you found an error or omission in our reporting? Tell us here.
Do you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.