Staff Columnist

In Iowa: A violent past shapes our future, if we let it

A piece of rope from a lynching in Missouri is among the artifacts displayed in the “Driven by Hope” exhibit, which focuses on the migration of black families to the North, including Iowa, at the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
A piece of rope from a lynching in Missouri is among the artifacts displayed in the “Driven by Hope” exhibit, which focuses on the migration of black families to the North, including Iowa, at the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

There is a temptation to think the craziness and the anger of the current political moment is unique. Maybe it is. But the human inclinations driving it, and the human consequences of hatred and bigotry — aren’t new at all.

A new exhibit, “Driven By Hope,” opened Saturday at the African American Museum of Iowa. It’s about the stories of black Americans journeying from the South to places like Iowa after the Civil War.

It includes one item I can’t stop thinking about — a small, frayed fragment of rope that was used in a lynching in Missouri. The museum has it because someone cut that rope into pieces after the murder and sold those pieces as souvenirs. Someone bought that fragment as a memento of the day. That buyer kept it in a little cloth bag, stored carefully, like something precious.

How do we square the great national story we tell ourselves, that we are the land of the free and the home of the brave, with this history? With such acts of violence and with such glee in them?

Maybe it starts with sitting with that history, with the ugly side of who we are. Yes, I say who we are, not who they were. If we want to claim the heroes of our history as part of the identity that makes us proud to be Americans, we have to claim our villains, too.

It is easier to turn away, to shout we are not complicit in the sins of the past. Maybe we aren’t, but we live in the system they created. White Americans still benefit from that system.

Award-winning investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is from Waterloo and writes about the ongoing issues of segregation in this country, recently tweeted a map of redlining in Waterloo. Redlining was a policy of racial discrimination in mortgage lending the 1930s, where entire neighborhoods where non-white families lived were outlined in red and deemed “bad.” The residents of those neighborhoods were then systematically denied home loans, sharply curtailing their ability to build wealth, for either themselves or the next generations.

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If you look at that redlined map of Waterloo, the “redlined” neighborhoods are the same ones that are still rundown and considered the poor parts of town today. Waterloo is not alone. A study released earlier this year by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition showed 75 percent of “redlined” neighborhoods continue to struggle and still are much more likely to include lower-income, minority residents.

Housing segregation is not lynching. But they spring from the same racist history, a history whose impact we’re still living with today. The ripples from the stones our forebears cast are still moving outward, are still shaping our society.

If we can acknowledge that troubled past, and what it wrought, instead of denying its ongoing effects on our lives, we can begin to look for ways to make things right. We can begin to find ways to dismantle the systems that still perpetuate our violent past.

And then maybe we can move the truth of who we are closer to that dream of what America can be.

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

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