History Center explores Iowa's Civil Rights history as a mix of milestones and discrimination

The town of Buxton was founded by the Consolidation Coal Company in 1873 with the majority of its residents being Africa
The town of Buxton was founded by the Consolidation Coal Company in 1873 with the majority of its residents being African Americans. Dr. Edward A. Carter (second from the left), Dr. Powell and Dr. Gray on shown seated on the porch of their practice with an associate, James Warren (far left), around 1910. Carter, the son of a miner who arrived in the 1890s, became the first African American man to receive a medical degree from the University of Iowa. (Courtesy Linn County Historical Society)

CEDAR RAPIDS — For every civil rights milestone we celebrate, there is a history of oppression that made it necessary.

That’s one of the messages of “Exhibiting Bias,” a new exhibit at the Linn County Historical Society’s History Center museum in Cedar Rapids. The display, which includes photographs, artifacts and panels of historical information, seeks to explore both the good and the bad of Iowa’s history and treatment of marginalized communities.

“We were eager to tell some of the stories about Iowa’s history that don’t get told very often,” said Curator and Collection Manager Tara Templeman. “Iowans get really excited about being on the forefront of civil rights changes, but we don’t often talk about the discrimination that led to some of those changes.”

The exhibit opened Nov. 7 and is up through May 29. It is broken into different themes, including immigration, freedom, land ownership, education, religion, family, leisure and suffrage.

It tells some stories from many different populations in Iowa, including Black Iowans, Native Americans, women, LGBTQ Iowans and from different religious groups, from the Muslim residents who built the oldest mosque in America, the Mother Mosque in Cedar Rapids, to the German immigrants who started the Amana Colonies and later faced discrimination as conscientious objectors during World War I and II. The exhibit includes a section on the “Babel” proclamation during World War I, which outlawed Iowans from speaking any language but English in public places, and was seen as targeting German Americans. It was struck down by the courts 7 months later.

The suffrage section, as an example of the contradictions in Iowa’s history, talks about how in 1868, Iowa voters approved a constitutional amendment to remove the word “white” as a qualification for voting, and how Iowa was the fourth state to pass anti-discrimination laws, with the Iowa Civil Rights Act of 1884. However, it goes on to point out that in coming decades these laws were mostly ignored, with discrimination remaining widespread in businesses where it was supposed to be outlawed. The exhibit also documents Edna Griffen, the Black woman who led protests in Des Moines in 1948 after the Katz Drug Store lunch counter denied her service, as well as the story of Robert Johnson, a Black Coe College student who was not allowed to enter Ellis Pool in 1942. That led his aunt, Viola Gibson, to reactivate the Cedar Rapids chapter of the NAACP.

Another example in the exhibit is of Iowa becoming the third state to allow interracial marriage in 1851 when the state rejected an anti-miscegenation law. However, interracial couples could still be punished, such as when J.J. Vester, a Black man, and Bessie Shields, a white woman, were each fined $10 and charged with disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace after hugging in a carriage as they drove up and down First Avenue in Cedar Rapids.

The exhibit also has maps documenting redlining in Waterloo and Des Moines, a discriminatory policy that led to Black families being kept out of housing in certain parts of towns. Templeman said the African American Museum of Iowa is working on documenting and releasing a redlining map of Cedar Rapids.

Even without a map we can see today, discriminatory housing policies are evident in Cedar Rapids’ history, with the story of Percy and Lileah Harris, who are also mentioned in the exhibit. Percy Harris was Cedar Rapids first Black doctor, but when he and his wife wanted to buy a house, they faced such stiff resistance their church split into two congregations over the issue.

“I just want people to understand that the story is not all positive in the state and progress isn’t necessarily a straight line,” Templeman said. “And I want people to understand the past and how we got to where we are today and where we are headed.”

Due to the pandemic, The History Center, at 800 Second Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids, is open with reduced hours, noon to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Only one party is allowed to enter the exhibit at a time, with a 30 minute time block before the next party is allowed in.

The History Center received some damage in the Aug. 10 derecho, with two air conditioning units falling, one of which cracked a ceiling, which let in water on the second floor. No artifacts were damaged, and the museum is back open for visitors.

Admission is $7 for the general public, $5 for students and free for children 4 and younger and History Center members.

Templeman said since March, The History Center has worked on expanding its virtual programming, including doing virtual tours of exhibits for community groups, with plans to add virtual tours for school groups next week.

“Virtual programs are a big shift for us, but we want to serve our community,” she said.

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