Black History in Iowa

February marks Black History Month, or African-American History Month, in the U.S. and Canada. It’s true that the population of Iowa is mostly white, and African-Americans only make up about 3.4% of the state population. One of the largest (if not the largest) populations of African-Americans in the state is centered in Iowa’s largest city, Des Moines, making up 10.2% of the population of the city. African-Americans first started migrating to Iowa and Des Moines in the 1800s. Since then, there has been a history of opportunity, but also prejudice and discrimination, like every other part of the United States.

In our film collection, we have a recording that discusses all of this, entitled Black Des Moines: Voices Seldom Heard. It was recorded in 1985, produced by WOI, and produced, narrated, and written by Verda Louise Williams. It’s available on our YouTube channel, and you can watch it here below (approx. 60 minutes). If you have the time, watch it. It reveals a lesser-known side of Iowa and examines the history of African-Americans in Des Moines, featuring interviews with people who lived it.

Admittedly, our collections largely document the white experience – likely due to the fact that most of our population is white. We do, however, try to document diverse experiences, and we have a subject guide devoted to that. Collections directly tied to the African-American experience include the George Washington Carver Collection (please also see the digital collection), the Jack Trice Papers (please also see the digital collection), and the Verda Louise Williams Papers (also linked earlier in this post). In addition, we have relevant records of student organizations and subject files, which can be found in the University Archives Subject Index.

We also have reference files regarding African-American alumni, faculty, and administrators of Iowa State. Contact us or stop by if you have any questions or want to see any of our collections!

Black History Month at Iowa State: Some Lesser-Known Pioneers

Let’s talk about African American history today, shall we? Partly in honor of Black History Month, which is so visible these days that NBA teams have it as a hashtag on their warm-ups (okay…). But also because here at ISU, we talk a lot about George Washington Carver and Jack Trice. Important men in the history of the university, yes! But let’s give our attention to some different faces in Cyclone African American history.

Ladies first:

Mrs. M.E.V. Hunter and coach H.B. Hucles

Professor Mary E.V. Hunter, image courtesy of History of Prairie View A&M Flickr user

Iowa State’s first African American female student was Mary Evelyn Victoria Hunter. After first earning a B.S. from Prairie View A & M College in Texas, she received a Master’s degree in Home Economics Education (1931).  In Texas, Hunter was one of the first two black agents for the Texas Agricultural Extension Service (1915) and organized an annual, state-wide Home Economics Week. After her graduation from Iowa State, Dr. Hunter became a professor of Home Economics and Department head at Virginia State University in Petersburg, Virginia, a historically black land-grant college. She retired from that university in 1955 and died in Petersburg in 1967.

Dr. Samuel P. Massie, Jr, image courtesy of Massie Chairs of Excellence 

The link between Iowa State and the Manhattan Project is renown and often-discussed; my colleague Amy wrote about newly processed papers regarding the Ames Lab. The project also has a link to a barrier-breaking scientist and Iowa State graduate. Dr. Samuel Massie, who received a Ph.D. in chemistry (1946), was part of the Manhattan Project Research Group from 1943-1946. His participation in the project came about because in 1943, in the middle of his doctoral studies, he was nearly drafted into World War II before Dr. Henry Gilman stepped in. Correspondence between Gilman and Massie is available in the Henry Gilman Papers here at ISU. Massie ended up serving his country in a different capacity; in 1966, he became a professor of Chemistry at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and the first black faculty member there. He remained at the academy for the remainder of his career (1993) and passed away in 2005. More about Massey’s life story can be found in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Bonus trivia: Dr. Massie’s wife, the former Gloria Bell Thompkins, was also a professor. The two met at Fisk University and wed in 1947. Mrs. Massie, who had a Master of Arts in Psychology, helped start the Department of Psychology at Bowie State University, Maryland’s oldest historically black university. Massie worked there from 1971 until her retirement in 1993. Bowie State University named a scholarship in her honor.

Dr. James W. Mitchell, photo courtesy of Howard University

A more recent graduate of Iowa State University’s chemistry Ph.D. program is James W. Mitchell (1970). He completed his undergraduate coursework at North Carolina A&T State University (1965). After earning his Ph.D. in Ames, Mitchell went to work at the famed AT&T Bell Laboratories. During this period, Michell helped found the Association of Black Laboratory Employees and headed up the company’s Analytical Chemistry Research Department. In 2002, Mitchell joined the faculty at Howard University, where he currently serves as a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Dean of Howard’s College of Engineering, Architecture, and Computer Sciences. Over the span of his career, Dr. Mitchell has garnered a number of honors and awards – and he’s not done yet.

This is merely a drop in the bucket of contributions that African American Iowa State graduates and Iowans have made to society. Also, I would be remiss if I did not point to the Cyclones Athletics profiles of a number of notable African American student-athletes in recent history. Their profiles from February 2012 and February 2013 are available online.

If you are interested in exploring the history and journeys of other African American Cyclones and Iowans, a number of resources are available across the state and in the Special Collections. Contact us  or come visit to learn more.