Our Iowa Heritage Index: Iowa – Rich Stories of Diversity.

Three different Americans living in three different generations have voiced the dream of what America could become. This 200+ year experiment in true democracy has had its ups and downs, but suffice to say that there have always been voices like Jefferson, King, Catt, and many others who cry out in the wilderness – beckoning us to rise about our pride, prejudice, and self-consumption.

Here at Our Iowa Heritage, we want to do our part as well. That’s why, as we write posts about the history of our state, our county, and our community, we not only want to share the powerful stories of those names most everybody knows, but we also want to strive to bring you those uplifting stories of men and women who, for no other reason than racial or sexual prejudice, have been overlooked in our history.

As our series Rich Stories of Diversity grows, we hope this story index will help you see that here in Iowa, we do have a very rich heritage of those who have gone before us – lighting the way.

Click here to access our Rich Stories of Diversity Timeline.

Rich Stories of Diversity Timeline. Over the last 300+ years, a diverse group of men and women have contributed much to what Iowa is today. On this timeline, you’ll certainly find some recognizable names, but we also want to introduce you to some names that you may not know – simply because their skin color, sex, religious beliefs, or cultural background has reduced their visibility in our history books. Our goal here at Our Iowa Heritage is to correct that error.

1838 to Today – Unity Through Diversity in Johnson County, Iowa. Believe it or not, in 1838, when a group of seven pioneers gathered to chart out the future of Johnson County, there were five white men (no surprise, right?), but also a black man named Mogawk, and a Native American woman named Jennie, all working alongside two Meskwaki chiefs. Could it be that MLK’s Dream where men and women are judged by character, and not by the color of their skin, is possible today? Come look at the lineup of brave Iowans (past and present) who believe it’s possible.

Meskwaki People – True Native Iowans. At the time of the American Revolution, the Mississippi River Valley was lush prairie-land occupied by several Native American tribes: The Meskwaki (Fox), the Sauk, the Sioux, and the Ioway. Since Our Iowa Heritage website focuses primarily on eastern Iowa, here we give a tip of the hat to the Meskwaki people who migrated to the Iowa River Valley as white settlements began to emerge.

Chief Poweshiek – The Roused Bear. During a very volatile time in Iowa history (1830-1854), the Meskwaki Tribal Chief Poweshiek did a masterful job of maintaining peace yet never sacrificing his strong principles, believing that all men should live in freedom. Read the story behind this brave warrior who loved his people and cherished the Iowa River valley, the place we now call Johnson County, Iowa.

Alexander Levi – Dubuque’s Man Of Firsts. In 1833, Iowa’s first Jewish settler found a new home in Dubuque. Over the next sixty years, Alexander and Minette Levi set many firsts – 1) their daughter was the first Jewish child born in Iowa (1848), 2) they became founding members of Iowa’s first synagogue (1856), 3) A Frenchmen, Alexander became the first foreigner naturalized (U.S. citizenship) in Iowa (1837); all while becoming one of Dubuque’s most highly-respected couples.

Welcome To Salubria, Iowa! In 1839, a 65-year-old preacher named Abner Kneeland escaped the religious persecution he suffered in Massachusetts, settling in Van Buren County, where he founded a religion-free community called Salubria. A pantheist, Kneeland was jailed in Boston for heresy, but here in Iowa, he and his followers were able to live in religious freedoms never offered them back east.

Ralph + Wilson + Mason = The Road To Freedom. Did you know that Chief Justice Charles T. Mason, along with his fellow judges Joseph Williams and Thomas S. Wilson, ruled, in the Case of Ralph vs. Montgomery – 1839, that under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery in Iowa Territory was “forever prohibited?” This impressive anti-slavery decision on July 4, 1839 not only freed Ralph Montgomery of Dubuque, but it set a precedent for all future decisions in our state’s court system.

The ‘Woke’ Abolitionist & Keeper Of The Fair. Did you know that in the late 1850’s, Republicans were the “woke” party, with thousands of young voters joining “Wide-Awake” chapters in nearly every county of every Northern “Free” state? It’s this awakened generation that played a huge part in electing a relatively-unknown senator from Illinois, named Abraham Lincoln, to be the 16th President of the U.S. Here in Iowa, brave abolitionists like Dr. J.M. Shaffer of Fairfield helped set the pace for such radical change, and by the way – Dr. Shaffer was also the key leader that helped pull together Iowa’s very first State Fair!

St. Agatha’s of Iowa City – Breaking The Glass Ceiling. In 1861, Mary Haberstroh donated one of her late husband’s prime properties, The Park House, to the Sisters of Charity (BVM), who then transformed it into a cutting edge educational haven for women. Over the next fifty years (1862-1911), St. Anthony’s Seminary joined the State University of Iowa in making Iowa City into one of the most opportune places in the nation when it came to attaining equality in education.

Clark + Clark + Cole = Equality in Education. Did you know that the Iowa Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools in 1868 – eighty-six years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education in 1954? Thanks to Muscatine’s Alexander Clark and his 12-year-old daughter Susan, working alongside Judge Chester C. Cole, the color barrier was broken, placing the Hawkeye State on the cutting edge of the civil rights movement.

Coger + Beck + Miller = Liberty & Justice For All. Did you know that these three heroes struck a huge blow for civil rights in 1873, when the Iowa Supreme Court wrote the decision for Emma Coger v. The North Western Union Packet Company? After Coger’s attorney, Daniel F. Miller, defended her case, Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, Joseph M. Beck ruled that a black woman who bought an unrestricted meal ticket on a Mississippi River steamboat must be served equally. Sadly, the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t see it that way until 1964.

George Washington Carver – Iowa’s Mr. Peanut. Carver was an agricultural scientist and inventor who developed hundreds of products using peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans. Born into slavery a year before it was outlawed, George left home at a young age to pursue education and continued that training in Iowa – Simpson College in Indianola (1890-1891), agricultural science (Iowa State University -1894) and was the first black faculty member at ISU (1894-1896) earning a master’s degree. He would go on to teach and conduct research at Tuskegee University (1896-1943).

Frank “Kinney” Holbrook – Tipton’s Iron Man. In 1895, the son of a runaway slave overcame many obstacles, fighting the good fight for racial equality, as he embarked on one amazing journey, becoming the first African American college football player in the state of Iowa. This Tipton, Iowa native attended SUI for two school years (1895-1897), leading the Hawkeyes to their first-ever conference championship while blazing a trail for others to follow.

Carrie C. Catt – Iowa’s Champion for Women’s Rights. Growing up in Charles City as a farmer’s daughter, very few people expected Carrie Lane to be a world-changer. But over her 88 years, this ISU graduate became one of the key leaders of the American women’s suffrage movement. Her superb oratory and organizational skills led to ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote in August, 1920.

Johnson County’s New Namesake – What a Lulu! In June 2021, Johnson County, Iowa did something that rarely happens – they officially changed their eponyn, removing a racist slave-holding southerner in favor of one amazing African-American Iowa native who spent her life teaching us things we all need to know. Meet Lulu M. Johnson – our county’s new namesake.

Making Elbow Room for a Pulitzer-Prize Winner. Over a thirty-year period, James Alan McPherson, the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, found plenty of “elbow room” for both himself and others while teaching at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. In 2021, Iowa City renamed one of its city parks in his honor.

Honoring James Alan McPherson. On August 5, 2021, the City of Iowa City held a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the newly-renamed park honoring McPherson. Both the mayor and McPherson’s daughter, Rachel, were there for the festivities…and so were we. Enjoy the pics!

Duke Slater – Iowa’s All-American Trailblazer. In 1921, Iowa had an All-American football player from Clinton that single-handedly took the Hawkeyes to a mythical national championship. A man cut from the same fabric as Nile Kinnick, Duke Slater has largely been forgotten over the last century, primarily because of his skin color. But no more. Beginning in 2021, the Hawkeyes will be playing on Duke Slater Field in Kinnick Stadium. Come read this amazing man’s story.

Ozzie Simmons + Racial Targeting = Floyd of Rosedale. In 1933, a young black man from Texas showed up in Iowa City, looking to follow in the footsteps of Duke Slater. Before he graduated in 1936, he had become an All-American football player, but more importantly, he blazed a trail for other people of color and is remembered each year with Floyd of Rosedale – going to the winner of the Iowa/Minnesota game.

Remembering Helen Lemme – Grinnell’s Golden Girl. In the 1930’s, a proud black woman from Grinnell, Iowa, who was denied an 8th grade gold-medal in scholarship because of skin color, came to Iowa City and helped transform it by opening doors for people of color. When prejudice closed SUI dorms to African Americans, Helen and Allyn Lemme freely opened their home, setting in place an example of servanthood that touches people’s hearts even to today.

Simon Estes – From Centerville to Center Stage. Born in 1938 in Centerville, Iowa, Simon Estes is the son of a coal miner, with a grandfather who was once a slave sold for $500. Crediting his strong faith in God, Estes rose above the racial prejudice, finding his singing voice at SUI, before establishing himself as a world-renowned opera singer, with many calling him the finest baritone-bass in the world.

Johnson County Remembrance Markers. Over the last 175+ years, the good people of Johnson County, Iowa have established many remembrance “stones” – memorials placed here and there with the hope that when you and I see them, we will stop and remember the person, event, or story that lies behind the monument we’re looking at. In this post, we give you a quick look at twelve such examples, ranging from 1837 to today.

Johnson County Remembrance Park. As we close this journey into Our Iowa Heritage, allow me to retell one more story that comes from Johnson County’s first business meeting. It was January 1838. Seven pioneers met in John Gilbert’s Trading Post on the Iowa River to draw up an expansion plan for their new county. It’s not surprising to find five white men here, but what is absolutely shocking is that the other two individuals were a black man and a Native American woman. Unity through diversity. Could it be as we pause to remember, we might also choose to walk a similar path today … for a time such as this?


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