In 1948, Edna Griffin and two others tried to order ice cream at a soda fountain in Katz Drug Store in Des Moines. They were refused service because they were black. Days later, Griffin was leading pickets and sit-ins at the drugstore and suing for her civil rights, a case she would eventually win in front of Iowa’s Supreme Court. Her actions, which proved to be a landmark in Iowa’s civil rights history, happened years before famed lunch counter sit-ins would capture national attention in Greensboro, N.C., in 1960.
Griffin’s story is well documented — in 1998, the building that once housed Katz Drug Store was renamed in her honor.
But members of the State Historical Society know there are many others whose role in the civil rights struggle are not as well known, and they’re on a mission to document those people and places, to find places like that drugstore where history happened.
Much of that history went unheralded when it was happening, said Michael Morain, communications manager for the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. The department oversees the State Historical Society.
“History gets written by the winners and the leaders and the people who are out on the forefront. But a lot of people play key roles that were unrecognized at the time,” he said. “This is a good opportunity to erase some of our blind spots and get a more complete picture of who we are as Iowans.”
To address the issue, staff of the State Historic Preservation Office applied for a $50,000 grant from the National Park Service, which they received last spring. The project, the “Iowa African-American Civil Rights Survey,” will collect data on properties and people whose stories related to the civil rights history have previously been overlooked.
“We knew that there were holes to patch up in our inventory of historic sites that played a role in Iowa’s civil rights history,” Morain said. “We had lots of bits and pieces, but we wanted a way to tie up some of the loose ends into a cohesive project. We had a hunch that in doing that, more stories would emerge out of the woodwork.”
They’ve asked members of the public to submit sites, such as houses, businesses, churches or public spaces where history may have happened or where someone involved in history once lived.
Places connected to interesting stories have already come in, such as a house now known as the Cooper House in Council Bluffs. It helped birth the Iowa-Nebraska chapter of the NAACP; the couple that once lived there were organization leaders.
“These aren’t just big official buildings with marble pillars. A lot of these are ordinary homes or churches or offices where some quiet piece of history took place or someone who was part of history lived,” Morain said. “This house wouldn’t look like anything unusual. There are no bronze plaques. But we do want to pay tribute to those places and people.”
People don’t need to know the complete story of a person or place to submit it. Submissions can be anywhere that may have played a role in the civil rights struggle during the 20th century.
To conduct the research, experts in the State Historic Preservation Office use government records and other tools. They’ve also worked with other cultural and history organizations such as the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids.
“Even if we just have a lead, a tip, our team of historical researchers can follow up on that,” Morain said. “We encourage people to submit their ideas.”
The gathered research will be available at iowaculture.gov. The project will wrap up in 2020. The grant also includes nomination of at least one new site to the National Register of Historic Places.
In addition to spotlighting overlooked stories, Morain said he hopes the project helps remind people that history is being made all the time, in ways big and small.
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“Most people who make history aren’t aware they’re making history at the time. So really it’s an opportunity for us to look back, with the benefit of hindsight, and identify some of the turning points,” he said.
Know of a place that played a role in Iowa’s African-American civil rights history? Learn more about the project at iowaculture.gov/civilrights and suggest a site at iowaculture.wufoo.com/forms/m1ivwlbu0xqg9fn, or call (515) 281-5111.
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