Two pieces of Iowa City history have received national recognition after a three-year process of studying their history.
The Tate Arms, 914 S. Dubuque St., and the Iowa Federation Home, 942 Iowa Ave., two buildings that housed black students at the University of Iowa at a time when they were barred from campus housing, are now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The designation is the culmination of a nominating process that started in 2017, when the National Park Service awarded a $16,000 grant to the city to develop educational materials on the homes and prepare nominating forms for the national register.
Richard Carlson, an architectural historian in the Office of the State Archaeologist, prepared the two nominations.
His work included compiling a list of all known references to African American students at the University of Iowa from 1910 to 1926 as well as all African Americans he could find in census records and directories from the 1910s to the 1950s. He used that data to demonstrate the importance of the two buildings, which offered black students a place to stay at a time when they faced massive housing discrimination.
“It was well over 1,000 hours of work, but worth it,” he said. “African American history is not as well known as it should be, and so this is helping to uncover that history.”
He used the lists to create maps of where African American students and residents of the city lived. What he found was that most black-headed homes and rentals were clustered almost exclusively in one area of the town, especially after 1925. That area was the 1st Ward, which on a modern map was south of East Washington Street to Highway 6 and roughly bounded to the east and west by South Gilbert Street and the Iowa River.
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“It’s a graphic representation of how segregated housing became. In 1925 to 1940 there were a lot more black-headed houses, and they were a lot more concentrated in the 1st Ward. By 1930, 85 percent of all black-headed households were located in the 1st Ward. That is likely due to a combination of more black residents and the same white supremacist attitude that existed around the nation,” Carlson said.
He said more research into the mechanisms behind that segregation needs to be done before drawing firm conclusions, but they fit a pattern found across the country.
“Iowa City was not big enough to have official homeowner loan association redlining maps. But I’m convinced, I’m certain, that there were a number of factors in the community that meant that if you were going to have a house with African American tenants, or even owners, they’d be much more likely, for various reasons, to be in the 1st Ward,” he said.
The maps help illustrate how difficult finding housing was for black students, Carlson said, especially since they were kept out of the dorms available to white students.
Tate Arms was probably the only house built in Iowa City specifically as a rooming house for African Americans, Carlson said. “The builder saw a need for rooming houses when white landlords were not willing to rent to black tenants. Without these handful of landlords, there would be very few African American people and students able to live in Iowa City.”
Built in 1913, the house became know as the Tate Arms in the 1940s when Elizabeth “Bettye” Tate and her husband Junious “Bud” Tate bought it. The Tates rented to up to 20 black male students at a time in the house, between 1940 and 1961. Bettye Tate sold the building in 1979. She died in 1999, and when Iowa City opened its alternative high school in 2005, it was named in her honor.
In one instance in 1921, which is documented in the nomination, a white supremacist group, possibly a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, outbid the UI’s chapter of the black fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi to prevent them from purchasing a site for their chapter house.
Some of those fraternity students lived for a few years at the Iowa Federation Home. Started by the Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (IFCWC) in 1919 at the urging of a group of black female students, it housed black women between 1919 and 1951, with a few stints of renting to the fraternity. IFCWC members originally asked the UI to purchase a home to use as a dormitory for black women or to help them raise money for a home. In the end, they had to fundraise to purchase the house themselves.
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“I look at how hard the black students worked to get the Federation home up and running,” Carlson said. “In 1916, the black female students all lived in different places throughout the city. They didn’t have a community where they could rely on each other for academic support, for moral support in a white supremacist world. They worked hard to make this happen, to make sure they could live in the same place each year that was secure and permanent.”
Carlson said he hopes people who learn this history understand it is connected to the present.
“I would hope that people would understand how we got to the point we are today, what struggles people had in the past and what people overcame to get where we are today and what still has to be overcome,” he said. “Even though racial segregation housing is now outlawed, any black student you talk to, I’m sure, can tell you stories about how they’ve felt discriminated against in one way or another.”
Jessica Bristow, historic preservationist for the city, said having these homes on the national register can help draw attention to the stories of the people who lived there, stories that have not always been well documented in the official historical record. Of 75 sites in Iowa City with some sort of historic landmark status — including both local and national designations — she knows of only three that are directly related to black history — these two homes and the Bethel AME Church.
The Tate Arms and Iowa Federation homes are now privately owned and still serve as student rental housing. However, on the grass outside both homes there is now educational signage with information about their history.
“Part of the reason we preserve our history is so we can be reminded of it daily and live with it. And here we have these two houses that can shine a spotlight on it,” she said. “They are providing another format for us to really talk about our own civil rights history. The more we can talk about that, the better. We still have a pretty rocky history as far as civil rights go.”
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l What: Presentation on Tate Arms and Iowa Federation Home with Iowa City Historic Preservationist Jessica Bristow
l When: Noon Feb. 25
l Where: Iowa City Public Library, Meeting Room A, 123 S. Linn St., Iowa City
l More information: Read about the homes online at icgov.org/project/preserving-black-history-iowa-city-tate-arms-and-iowa-federation-home