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Mysteries at South Jordan

By February 3, 2023 16 Comments

There may come a time when someone’s great-grandma discovers a dusty old day book some long-ago ancestor left behind, a broken mess of scribbled-in remnants of a story no one knows, the true story behind South Jordan Cemetery. South Jordan is a tiny graveyard just up the gravel from Moorhead, Iowa. Locals have, for years, claimed South Jordan to be the final resting place for a number of residents who happen to have been African American. That’s right–a cemetery of Black folks tucked neatly into the otherwise lily-white Loess Hills of western Iowa.

It’s hard to know who or how many good folks were laid to rest here. Most graves are unmarked, some of them victims of Siouxland seasons, or the brutal hijinks old things come victim to most anywhere in rural America. For a couple of generations, South Jordan has been a haven for six-packed hooligans, even though the place, nicely well-groomed, sits beneath a massive oak whose huge arms appear to protect what’s left of what’s still there. 

There’s no end to the mysteries. For years, some locals liked to believe the people of color who once lived in the neighborhood were runaway slaves. Local historians long ago laid that story to rest. One of the octogenarians remembers her grandfather, a doctor, who claimed his Black patients were a freed people invited to the hills to work land owned by man named Adam Miers.

Adam Miers was a man of some standing. He signed up for military duty sometime during the Civil War, to be part of a local militia disciplined to quell what they called “Indian problems.” Did he fight? Doubtful. What we know is that his name appears on the ledger, and that Black folks were his workers. Those facts no one disputes.

But no one knows exactly where Adam Miers came from to settle here. Could it be he’d moved north and west from beneath the Mason/Dixon and taken his slaves along to work his sizeable spread? Old-timers remembered seeing Black workers in adjacent fields, but in all likelihood, they weren’t slaves. In Iowa, slavery was illegal in 1848, the year of statehood, and, as Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead makes clear, Iowa abolitionists played significant roles along the Underground Railroad not all that far away. 

Census data claims one black person lived in the entire county in 1860, but 88 were here in 1880. Something happened. Few records exist to tell those eighty-some stories, save what little can be gleaned from a few weathered stones. 

Who were they, and who were their kin? No one knows. And where did they go?

Miers doesn’t appear among those buried here, although at least one of his wives is–her stone is one of few still standing.

And we know too that sometime in the 19th century, an entire community of white people petitioned law enforcement to run those Black folks the heck out of the county. No reason is given, although it’s not hard to imagine the argument’s heft. We may not know much about them—the people in South Jordan– but we know they were Black, and we know that once upon a time they were not particularly welcome or wanted.

We don’t know how they got here, or what they did when here or where they went from here. But most of whatever story they could tell, we don’t know.

South Jordan Cemetery is neat as a pin these days, and on the National Register of Historical Places, but the residents of South Jordan aren’t doing much talking. Keep an eye out for that old day book your great-grandma used to remember when it rained.

What we do know is a word we hardly dare use. Those few residents of Monona County, Iowa, were Black, unlike most everyone else in the Loess Hills. No one likes to use the word, and I’d rather not bring it up, but it’s a word you can’t not consider. It’s hard to believe racism doesn’t play some role in the mysteries of South Jordan. 

Years ago when I was at work for the Back to God Hour, I interviewed a recently retired African American couple from Albuquerque, long-time broadcast listeners. My regimen of questions always began with an investigation of roots: “Tell me about your grandparents,” I said.

The husband looked at me and grunted a chuckle. “I don’t know much,” he said, and then, “You know–slavery.”

No, I didn’t know. I didn’t. I had to be taught.

Despite what Florida politicians say, February is Black History Month. We need always know more.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Jim Day says:

    The responses to this wonderful post is deafening eh?

    • Daniel Walcott says:

      I remember walking out of the Holocaust Museum in Israel,
      or reading about the “Trail of Tears” in North Carolina,
      and recently about the abuse of slaves by the “Dismal Swamp” in Virginia,
      There are really no words,
      silence seems the only right thing at the time,
      Yes, this post was excellent, it was not only written by a great writer, it was “deafening” in its message.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Thank you. You made “Black Lives Matter” just a little by showing us how little they mattered historically. I loved the oak arms protecting their remains. You made me scroll back up to see the beauty of that tree and its vigilant watch over the graves. God help us to see whose lives we minimize or even erase from significance today.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Last night we watched the documentary Descendants, about Africa Town in Mobile, Alabama. Similar themes: the importance of remembering (that’s Biblical too), the landscape, the land, marking the land, racist forgetting, racist removal, I don’t care how radical CRT might be, Christians should always welcome the opportunity to repent, We need not fear for our children being ruined by Critical Race Theory if we adults model welcoming it and receiving it in terms of Heidelberg 88-91, “What is involved in true repentance or conversion? Two things: the dying away of the old self and the coming to life of the new. Tell the stories, tell the stories for those who were silenced.

    • Lena says:

      Daniel, in this case (the story by Schaap), who repents? The people of South Jordan township? The people living in Monoma County? Everyone in Iowa? All white people? The people who wanted to run this group out of town have passed away and can no longer repent. Can we repent for other people? How often and how long should we repent for others? It’s one thing to tell these stories (which can be a good thing), but we are all pretty busy repenting of the things we personally are actually doing ourselves. The Heidelberg Catechism is talking about personal repentance.

      • Daniel Meeter says:

        It’s an old Dutch Reformed tradition to call the whole nation to fasting and repentance. Inspired by Old Testament prophets. Abraham Lincoln saw it too. Sin is not just personal but corporate and generational, in my view.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    This was a good sermon for me this Friday morning. We come to the table to remember. What does it mean when we refuse to do so?

  • Ed Starkenburg says:

    Thanks, James. We need these challenges before us to shape our thinking and our priorities.
    BTW, you mentioned 1848 for Iowa statehood; I believe it occurred in 1846.

  • Joanne Fernandez says:

    Wonderful……thank you. If only……

  • Daniel Miller says:

    Thank you for this essay.

  • Ann S. says:

    The more we know, the more we know what we do not know. Thanks for this.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Yes, “We need always know more.” Thanks so much, Jim.

  • Kathy says:

    I’ll bet Henry Louis Gates from “Finding Your Roots” could trace down their background!

    I am so profoundly sad for the residents of Florida and other CRT-banning states. What is so threatening about history?

  • Pam Adams says:

    Jim, This is an excellent essay for all of us. I hear so much racism even today. I heard someone speaking at our church relaying an extremely racist story about people where she used to work. I was very surprised that a Christian woman would say that to a table of people trying to get to know each other. Our church which was having a meal with another church was shocked by the talk of this woman. It hurts me very much when I hear this type of talk. Let us fight against this as best we can by not yelling but by explaining the unbiblical thinking behind this type of talk.
    When this woman starting to talk again on another topic and it too was guided by unbiblical reasoning, I just left the circle. That was the only thing I could do in this situation. Believe me I highly regard this woman from years of interacting. It can come from lack of knowledge as you suggest by lack of love is really key.

  • RZ says:

    Another sad but necessary story of history. How is it that the one with all the power and all the righteousness very intentionally allows his own children to imperfectly tell his story?. But we humans are so threatened as to deny the powerless the right to tell THEIR OWN story. The desperately persistent denial of racism, sexism, and any exclusivism is proof of its own existence.

  • Barb says:

    I grew up near Cloverdale IA. Legend has it that the town was founded by a black man with the last name of Greenfield . Greenfield is my maiden name. He wanted to name the town Greenfield but there already was a town in IA with that name. Cloverdale had 13 residents the last I checked.
    Thanks for your story.

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