116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
President Barack Obama's distinction of being the first black president of the United States was preceded by many firsts by black Americans.
Among them was Cecil Reed, the first black to become chairman of the civic bureau of the Cedar Rapids Chamber of Commerce and the first black Republican legislator in the state of Iowa.
Reed served in the House for less than one term. He presided over the passage of the fair housing bill, before Gov. Harold Hughes named him as Iowa's employment security commissioner in 1967.
In an editorial published in The Gazette that year, Reed said, "To share in America everybody has to work for it. I have found that if you work hard you gain respect and gain acceptance on the quality of your character. ... Anyone with any faith in America should not feel that the problems are insoluble. The spirit of accomplishment is great in this nation."
In August 1969, he was named to a regional federal post in Kansas City, Mo. As a federal manpower development specialist, covering the states of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska, Reed said, "I'm glad I won't be losing contact with the state I love so much. It took me a great deal of time to make my decision because I've spent 43 years in Iowa."
Later, he became assistant regional administrator for Job Corps. By 1979, Reed was associate regional administrator, responsible for employment and training administration activities under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973 for Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.
Reed's record of persistence and accomplishment is remarkable for the time in which he lived.
Born in Illinois in 1913, Reed's family moved to Cedar Rapids when he was 11. He graduated from the old Washington High School that stood on Greene Square, and for a while he was an entertainer. After marrying Evelyn, he got a job doing maintenance at the Elks Club and opened a floor maintenance business on the side.
Demand for his services grew, and he and Evelyn operated Reed's Floor Sanding Co. through the mid-1960s. Cecil took care of the clients, while Evelyn, with a degree in business management, handled bookkeeping, payroll and tax preparations.
They had just erected an 18-by-36-foot building at the corner of Bertram and Mount Vernon roads to serve as a shop for their growing business when, in 1952, they took a trip to Denver with their four children, ranging in age from 9 months to 14 years. No innkeeper along their travels would allow them to stay the night.
"Things like that are a little hard to explain to a small child," Cecil Reed said.
When they returned home, their new building was repurposed as the Sepia Motel, a place where blacks were welcomed. The original building housed four units, two bathrooms and a reception area but had grown to 10 buildings by 1955.
The property on which the Sepia stood totaled 15 acres. In 1957, as the result of a neighborhood boy getting in trouble over a curfew violation, 30 area families banded together to create a recreation area for their kids. Cecil Reed donated 11 of those 15 acres for the creation of a park. There was no money for park development, only an idea and the donated land. Along with his neighbors, Reed built a park that included a ball field, a tennis court, shuffleboard, a basketball court, playground equipment, trampolines and a picnic area. In the winter, the ball field was flooded for ice skating.
Cecil and Evelyn Reed were civic-minded public speakers, always willing to talk about equal rights and the effects of segregation on blacks. They spoke to church groups, school groups, at public meetings, wherever they were asked.
Evelyn, though, came into her speaking career more by default than anything. The speaking engagements were overwhelming her husband, so she supported him by taking on some of them.
He told a gathering of the Northern Brotherhood Leadership Conference, an organization he founded, "We in Iowa have the chance to show the nation what true democracy is. We need to begin to speak out and to lead the way to show other people how this democracy should work."
When Reed retired in 2000, he and his wife moved back to Cedar Rapids. He said, "I just wanted to come home. I have wonderful, wonderful friends here."
Cecil Reed died on Aug. 14, 2006, and Evelyn followed on Aug. 25, 2012.