The coal-mining town of Buxton, Iowa has captured the imagination of many people throughout the state and beyond. Buxton was a company town owned by the Consolidated Coal Company to house the miners and other employees working the nearby coal mines or supporting the miners. Built in 1900, its heydey lasted for about 15 years, until the nearby mines were exhausted. By 1905, 55% of the population was Black. Company-owned housing was given to employees on a first-come, first-served basis, so that the town was largely integrated. As Buxton grew, it developed suburbs, and some of these were segregated, such as the primarily white East Swede Town and West Swede Town. Churches were also segregated, but schools and many social activities were integrated.
Buxton was also unique among coal company towns in that many individuals, and not just the coal company, owned businesses; many of these were owned by Black individuals. Interviews with many of its former Black residents reveal that they considered the town a Black utopia. Rachelle Chase, in her book Lost Buxton, writes,
“But to understand this label of utopia is to view it in the context of the African American residents’ experience.
“Buxton was started a mere 35 years after the end of slavery. Numerous African Americans interviewed stated that their parents or grandparents had been slaves, repeatedly sharing stores of their life of slavery. And those who had not been slaves still experienced extreme racism.
“They came from that to Buxton–a place where they could go anywhere they wanted, live any way they wanted, eat or shop where they wanted, and have the freedom they wanted.”
Dorothy Schweider was a white ISU professor in the department of History, who, along with her husband Elmer Schweider, ISU professor of Family Environment, and ISU professor of Sociology Joseph Hruba, conducted a large-scale research project on Buxton in 1980, interviewing many former residents about their experiences living in Buxton. They asked them a variety of questions about the mining and businesses in the town, schools, social life, family life, and race relations.
Below are some passages from interview transcripts that are part of the Dorothy Schwieder papers (RS 13/12/54): [Note: some passages use dated language to describe people of color.]
From an interview with Jeanette Adams, a Black resident, about Swede Town (Q are the questions by interviewers Joe Hraba and Elmer Schweider; A are answers from Adams):
Q. We discovered something yesterday, that we talked about, or Gus talked about East Swede Town and West Swede Town.
A. Oh, yes, I used to ….
Q. [Why] did they call it Swede Town, were there an awful lot of Swedes?
A. Oh, yes, there were a lot of Swedes. Yes, they had their own church and everything. Yes, it was quite their own town. Course they had to go down to the company store; I guess to deal. But they had their own little churches, their own little settlement. […]
Q. Well, let me talk a little more about that. Here’s Buxton with the company store, now is there a place called East and West Swede Town where most of the Swedes lived, and then another place where many of the Blacks lived? Or Italians, or was there a kind of segregation?
A. No, no, no, no segregation. The Swedes just had their own way up there cause they wanted to. But Buxton had no, ah, no colored and white. There were more colored [than] there were white. I think the population was higher for colored there than it was for white.
Later, Adams described black and white neighbors socializing together:
Q. (S) Were you ever, did you ever have white people come visit you in your home?
A. Oh, my yes. We had neighbors that we just loved like little sisters and brothers.
Q. And then you went in some of the white homes, back and forth, you mixed socially with that, no problem.
A. Oh yes, indeed, we mixed socially. …
Another former Buxton resident, Lester Beamon, describes the experience of Black people in towns other than Buxton, including the Ku Klux Klan and sunset laws. Heydock was the town that the Consolidated Coal Company moved on to after the Buxton mines were depleted.
Q. Did you ever hear any stories about the Ku Klux Klan being active in…?
A. They were supposed to have been active right there in Heydock.
Q. Did you ever have any direct experiences with that…?
A. Well, no, I wouldn’t just say so, but they said they were active right there in Heydock.
Q. Who told you this?
A. Oh, just hear the older people talk, you know.
Q. Anything else about the treatment… Ah, obviously Black people could go into Albia and these other towns and shop.
Q. But did they have like what were know as sunset laws in those days that Black people couldn’t be there after dark? Remember anything like that?
A. I’ve heard, my mother and them said someplace, now I don’t remember where its at, but someplace they had a sign that said …let me get it straight now. “Read and run,” or maybe “don’t let the sun go down on you” or something lie that. I don’t know where that was at. I really don’t know.
Oliver Burkett lived in Buxton before his family moved to Waterloo. He seemed to experience culture shock on leaving Buxton:
Q. In your classes there was about a third of the kids were white kids, Oliver something like that?
A. A third was white, huh huh.
Q. I know we talked about this but let me ask you again this. How did black and white kids get along together at school?
A. Real well. There wasn’t a lot of friction at all. When I come here [to Waterloo] it was just like going to a foreign country.
Q. Really, tell me about it.
A. Like I say, the black was dominant there, I mean in population and we come here. I went to Grant School, it’s right up here on Mobile Street and many times I was the only black one in my room. Yeah, see that’s been 51 years ago and there wasn’t very many black people here.
The Dorothy Schwieder papers contain many more interviews of former Buxton residents, along with other research notes from her Buxton project. More information on Buxton can be found in a number of publications, websites, as well as collections held at the State Historical Society of Iowa.
In Iowa State University Library:
“Buxton: A Lost Utopia.” Primary Source Sets, State Historical Society of Iowa. https://iowaculture.gov/history/education/educator-resources/primary-source-sets/buxton-lost-utopia
“The Great Buxton.” Iowa Pathways, Iowa PBS. http://www.iowapbs.org/iowapathways/mypath/great-buxton
Smith, Eric A. “Buxton, Iowa (1895-1927).” Black Past, January 29, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/buxton-iowa-1895-1927/