In the late 1860s, about a decade after the town was founded, a teenage girl named Emma A. Morgan came from New Orleans to live in Grinnell.
Born in slavery, she lived in a children’s home in New Orleans before a prominent Grinnell family brought her to Iowa. She died young, probably from an illness around age 20. After her death, despite having lived with one of the town’s settlers and Congregational Church deacons, Stephen Bartlett, she was buried without a grave marker in potter’s field, an area normally reserved for strangers and the homeless.
Her story might have been lost to time, unrecorded, if not for a Bible inscribed with her name. When Grinnell historian Daniel Kaiser came across it in the collection of the Grinnell Historical Museum, he was curious to learn more about this young woman and her life. Yet he could find very little about her — or indeed about many of Grinnell’s African American families — in the formerly compiled written histories of the town.
“The more I’ve thought about this, the more persuaded I am that in towns like Grinnell, people of color have been sort of written out of consciousness,” he said.
That’s what inspired him to research and write those stories down. He collected what he found in a new book, “Grinnell Stories: African Americans of Early Grinnell,” published by the Grinnell Historical Museum.
A retired Grinnell College history professor, his career focused on Russian history. After he retired, his interest in local history grew, and he began researching and writing about the town. He joined the board of the Grinnell Historical Museum and became drawn to stories that often were underrepresented in the museum collections of the marginalized parts of the population. He thinks stories of people of color were at times either deliberately left out of the narratives or were simply not regarded as important.
“Museums collect what people want remembered,” he said. “The more I’ve thought about it, I think it’s more than an accident.”
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He pointed to uncomfortable truths, such as that though the town’s namesake, Josiah Grinnell, was a staunch abolitionist and the town was a stop on the Underground Railroad, early residents of color did not always find a warm welcome there and often found it hard to find employment.
“I didn’t know very much about the town except the heroic narrative the Chambers of Commerce liked to talk about. I’d always assumed there had been an African American presence here and they’d been welcomed here,” Kaiser said. “But in the very early records of the town, there was some dispute of whether or not African Americans should be here, despite the strong abolitionist sentiments of the founders,” he said.
“After the Civil War, around 1870 to 1880, a large number of black people showed up here, in part I think, because of the abolitionist reputation of the town. There was this tradition of support. But then there seems to be this long absence in the record where you find almost no record of their lives. I just didn’t understand how that could be. So I thought it fair to point out that the town claimed many white people who went on to do great things. Here were other people that went on to do great things, and nobody knew about them.”
He was greatly aided in his research by Edith Renfrow Smith, a former Grinnell resident who now is 105 years old and living in Chicago. She was the first African American woman to graduate from Grinnell College in 1937, and in 2019 the college awarded her an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. In 2015, at age 101, she traveled back to Grinnell and did a recorded interview with Kaiser about her life. One of her sisters, Helen, married Allyn Lemme and lived in Iowa City, where in 1955 she was named “Woman of the Year” for her civic engagement. Lemme Elementary School was named in her honor when it opened in 1970.
Another aid came when a group of college students stumbled on a collection of papers from the Tibbs family, who first lived in Grinnell in the 1920s. Patriarch Jim Tibbs worked shining shoes. The collection included photos, bank books, documents and more than 100 letters from the Tibbs family.
“That kind of resource is quite rare,” Kaiser said. “We have a record of what they were thinking.”
Along with these papers, Jim Tibbs’ shoe shining chair is part of the Grinnell Historical Museum’s collection, as is Morgan’s Bible, but Kaiser said he hopes the museum can grow its collection of documents and objects related to African American history. At the end of the book, he has a list of African American people in Grinnell’s history that he wasn’t able to find much information about.
“I’m hoping these stories and bare bones information will help encourage some more research and we’ll learn still more,” he said. “I’m hoping something like this can happen in a lot of towns. I’d love to see more places where more people can be brought back into the narrative.”
• What: Daniel Kaiser will give a reading and talk, “Coloring the White History of an Iowa Small Town”
• When: Noon March 11
• Where: State Historical Society of Iowa Research Center, 402 Iowa Ave., Iowa City
• Cost: Free
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• More information: “Grinnell Stories: African Americans of Early Grinnell” is available from the Grinnell Historical Museum, 1125 Broad St., Grinnell; (641) 236-7827, firstname.lastname@example.org, and from the Pioneer Bookshop, 933 Main St., Grinnell; (641) 269-3424, for $24.99. Proceeds benefit the Grinnell Historical Museum.