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Iowa officially joined the United States in 1846, and fought on the side of the Union during the Civil War. Yet free public schools were limited to whites, as was public office, voting, and military service. Juries and witnesses in court were limited to whites, and interracial marriage was prohibited. Black Iowans were required to register at county courthouses as a “guarantee of good behavior” and pay 500.00.
But in 1868, civil rights advocates, including Alexander Clark, succeeded in getting the word ‘white’ dropped from Iowa’s Constitution, which allowed Black men (not women) in Iowa to vote. Clark sued the Muscatine school district because they did not allow his daughter to attend because of her skin color. In 1868, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the school board, “cannot deny a youth admission to any particular school, because of…color, nationality, religion or the like.” Clark’s children, Susan, along with her sister, Rebecca, and their brother, Alexander, Jr. attended and graduated from Muscatine High School. Alexander Clark and his son, Alexander Jr. both studied law at the University of Iowa Law school and graduated in 1884 and 1880, respectively.
To be clear, this is an 1868 school board decision on barring segregation, not 1954 or 1968, which makes Iowa seem quite progressive with regard to race. In another significant landmark, the Iowa Civil Rights Act of 1884 prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations. But having a law on the books and actually enforcing a law on the books are distinctly different. In 1910, the President of Iowa State University, Albert Storms, remarked “Negro students are entirely welcome at this institution; they have no discourtesy whatever shown them by fellow students or others.” Yet Storms also noted “it is not always easy for a Negro student to find rooming and boarding accommodations.” Storms clearly demonstrated the difficulty for Black Iowans: officially allowed, but not accepted or welcome in the practical matters of housing and living with white Iowans.
I have listened to and read about the most recent battles of history curriculum on a national level as well as in my current state, Iowa, where I teach U.S. history. But the current angst concerning the teaching of race in history continues to confuse me. In 2016, an honors high school student in West Des Moines said this about the curriculum of history: “the Industrial Revolution or the Revolutionary War was primarily White people – you can’t really incorporate Black people into that time period just because that’s not how it was. So you can’t really change the curriculum because that would just be like changing history. You have to keep history the same.”
This high school student seemed to summarize much of the concerns I hear and read from those that are uncomfortable with the reality of the past. Is it changing history to incorporate stories that were always there, but not acknowledged, studied or written into school textbooks or curriculum? Black people existed in the colonial period, during the Revolutionary War, and during the Industrial Revolution, all the way into the present. Civil rights existed long before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s and the Black Lives Matter movement of today. Black Iowans exist, even if they did not show up in your Iowa history curriculum. History is always changing because people change. My generation asks different questions than my parents’ generation and my grandparents’ generation because we all have a different historical context.
Perhaps the real question is why is learning about the past, with all of its complexity and nuance, so troubling for some people?
Katy Swalwell, “Teaching the Truth: The History of Anti-Black Racism in Iowa,” Presentation at the Iowa Council of Social Studies Annual Meeting, October 4, 2021, Des Moines, Iowa.