Arts & Culture

Exhibit explores post-Civil War African-American migration to Iowa

Curator Felicite Wolfe shows an Iowa textbook from 1907 at the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Curator Felicite Wolfe shows an Iowa textbook from 1907 at the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — After the Civil War ended, black citizens of America’s South set out by the thousands in search of a better life, with many settling in Iowa. That story is the focus of “Driven by Hope,” the new temporary exhibit at the African American Museum of Iowa.

The exhibit, which focuses on the period between the Civil War and the Great Depression, opens Sept. 8 and will run through Aug. 2, 2019.

The African-Americans who arrived in Iowa and other northern states were fleeing the abject poverty and violence they faced in the South. A disturbing relic of that violence is part of the exhibit; a fragment of a rope from a lynching in Missouri, purchased by an attendee as a gruesome memento to the hanging they witnessed.

“It’s uncomfortable, but I think it’s very powerful to see,” museum curator Felicite Wolfe said. “This is why people came north.”

Although levels of such violence were lower in Iowa, the state was by no means free of such racist horrors. Wolfe referenced a notorious incident at Camp Dodge in 1918, where all the soldiers enlisted there were called to witness the lynching of four black soldiers, who had been accused of raping a white woman, but convicted without a trial.

The post-Civil War period was marked by black people experiencing their freedom only to watch it be chipped away by Jim Crow laws and other forms of systemic oppression. That history ripples forward into current events.

“The current issues we have today ... police brutality, civil rights issues, the rise of white supremacists at rallies — they aren’t something new,” Wolfe said. “This kind of gives you a point in time many of those issues started.”

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A textbook in the exhibit, published in 1907 and used in Iowa schools, described non-white races as “savage” and “barbaric” while describing whites as civilized.

When that was taught to children in school, those lessons were internalized and passed down to the next generation and beyond, Wolfe said. Iowans, and Americans at large, still are dealing with that legacy of racism.

The exhibit also examines what brought black migrants to Iowa specifically. Many moved here to work in railroads and coal mining, just as workers in those industries were trying to organize labor unions to push for better working conditions. Black workers from the South often were recruited to be strikebreakers.

For many, it was only after arriving at their newly promised jobs that they realized why they had been recruited.

“A lot of times they didn’t know that’s why they were coming,” Wolfe said. “It was their way to get out of the horrible lives they were living in the South.”

Being brought in as strikebreakers caused immediate conflict with the white laborers, who were often recent immigrants from Europe.

The exhibit includes a replica of a mini-boxcar, the walls papered with reproductions of pages of the Waterloo Courier newspaper from the time. Many black workers arriving to work for the railroad in Waterloo ended up sleeping in boxcars because locals would not rent to them or sell them houses.

“You arrive, and everyone hates you,” Wolfe said. “The exhibit also looks at the struggle to build a community of your own, because the white community doesn’t want you ... the seed of things happening today are based in that.”

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Echoes of how African-Americans arriving in the North were treated can be seen in how today’s migrants are treated, many from Mexico and Central America, Wolfe said. The exhibit will include oral histories from recent arrivals to Iowa, sharing their stories, as well as a “Post-it wall where people can leave their reactions and reflections.

“We thought it was timely, given immigration issues today,” Wolfe said. “My hope is to say, this still is happening.”

Not all the stories in the exhibit are negative. In the coal mining community of Buxton, schools, housing and employment were racially integrated. In other parts of the state, some black farmers were able to gain land under the Homestead Act of the 1860s, which granted property to any farmer who worked the land for five years and could show he improved it.

Others found success in urban centers such as Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Muscatine and elsewhere. The exhibit includes stories of people like George Edwin Taylor, who in 1904 was the first African-American presidential candidate and was an instrumental figure in the development of black newspapers in the state. Another profile tells the story of Vivian Smith, one of the first African-American women to graduate from the Iowa State Teachers College, now called the University of Northern Iowa, in 1916. However, she could not get a job as a teacher — Waterloo schools did not hire black teachers until 1952. Instead, Smith channeled her energy into women’s’ suffrage, creating the Waterloo Suffragette Council.

Then there was entrepreneur and inventor Robert Hyde, born a slave in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1855. After the Civil War, he moved to Iowa and settled in Des Moines, where he founded the Hyde Intelligence and Labor Office, a kind of employment agency. He went on to patent a carpet soap that was sold nationwide until the 1960s. Active in civic life, he served as a delegate at Republican conventions in 1890 and 1900. In 1892, he sued J.A. Davis at the Wabash Hotel in Moulton, Iowa, for refusing to serve him. Hyde won the case.

His great-great grandson, Eric Hyde of Eden Prairie, Minn., loaned Robert Hyde’s top hat for the exhibit.

“I don’t know a whole lot about my family roots going back much further than that ... but I feel pride in his story. He came to Des Moines, not being able to read or write, and then look what he accomplished,” Eric Hyde said.

“I hope people would take it in and say, ‘Back then there were black entrepreneurs making some very serious contributions to our communities.’ I think the significance of what he accomplished, coming from where he came from, is just amazing.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

If you go

l What: “Driven By Hope” exhibit opening

l Where: African American Museum of Iowa, 55 12th Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

l When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 8; exhibit runs through Aug. 2, 2019

l Admission: $1 Sept. 8; regular admission free to $5

l Details: (319) 862-2101, Blackiowa.org/event/ driven-by-hope-exhibit-opening

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