Researching Former Black Students at Iowa State

People familiar with Iowa State University history usually are already aware of the story of George Washington Carver, Iowa State’s first African American graduate and faculty member, and Jack Trice, Iowa State’s first black student athlete. Over the years, much research has been done on these two individuals. Unfortunately, learning about students of color that came after them is a much more difficult task.

One frequent request we receive are questions about the first students of color to receive degrees from a specific department, the first to play on a particular sports team, or the first to be part of a campus organization. Most people contact us in the hopes that maybe somebody has compiled such a list and that it exists in the University Archives.

Bomb yearbook 1894

Iowa State’s yearbook, The Bomb, can be a starting point for research on African American students, but its usefulness is limited. This is the cover to the first yearbook from 1894.

In reality, these questions are extremely difficult to answer for a variety of reasons, but primarily because no such list exists. Over the years, archives staff have slowly been adding to an internal list of known early black students, but it is far from complete and stops in the 1960s. One of the most reliable sources for learning about student life, the yearbook, is an unreliable resource for identifying students of color because not all students appear in it and it can be particularly difficult to determine race and ethnicity based on the small, grainy, black and white images. Another factor to consider is that the University did not start collecting information on student race and ethnicity until the late 1960s so it is difficult to even know how many students of color were on campus at a given time.

So how does one go about searching for students of color in the archives? As previously mentioned, the yearbook is one place to start. Other resources to investigate are the commencement programs. These can be effective for identifying graduate students of color as the programs often list the school that the students received an undergraduate degree. If the school listed is a historically black college or university, then that is a promising lead. Student directories are another possible resource. Unfortunately, searching through these materials can be very tedious and time consuming. It is also important to remember that this is just a starting point for research. Tracking down additional details will likely lead to contacting archives at other schools and communities or into direct contact with members of the person’s family or his/her descendants.

Photographic portrait of Frederick D. Patterson

Portrait of Frederick D. Patterson (RS 21/7/19)

Staff both in the archives and within the larger Iowa State community have done some research on former black students at Iowa State. You can read about some of these students in this blog, such as Rufus B. Jackson, Frederick Patterson, Mary E.V. Hunter, Samuel Massie, and James Mitchell. Other members of the Iowa State community have done their own research on early black students at Iowa State and written articles on Holloway Smith and Walter G. Madison, for example.

These are just a small number of the many black students who have come to Iowa State since George Washington Carver first arrived on campus in 1891. If you would like to start your own investigation into students of color at Iowa State, the staff in Special Collections and University Archives would be happy to assist. Stop in and say hello!


In Honor of Black History Month: Rufus B. Jackson

“Rufus B. Jackson.” Alumnus of Iowa State College., April 1919, ArchivesLH1. Lo9a.

In honor of Black History Month and in commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the United States’s involvement in World War I, we highlight Des Moines resident and Iowa Stater Rufus Benjamin Jackson, Class of 1917. Second Lieutenant Jackson was a member of the 370th Infantry Regiment, 93d Division, A.E.F. and fought in France.

Second Lieutenant Jackson earned a distinguished service cross “for extraordinary heroism in action near Farm La Folie, France, September 28, 1918. Having been ordered to use his Stokes mortars in wiping out machine-gun nests, which had been resisting the advance of his company, Lieutenant Jackson made a personal reconnaissance by crawling to the enemy’s lines to locate the nests. Accomplishing his purpose, he returned and directed the fire, silencing the guns.”

For more about Iowa’s involvement in World War I, visit our exhibition “Do[ing] Their Bit:” Iowa’s Role in the Great War on display on the 4th floor of Parks Library.

 


Rare Book Highlights: the Booker T. Washington – W.E.B. Du Bois Debate

Du Bois, W.E.B. The souls of black folk; essays and sketches. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co, 1903. Call number: E185.6 D85s

The Negro problem; a series of articles by representative American Negroes of today. Contributions by Booker T. Washington, W.E. Burghardt Du Bois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles W. Chesnutt, and others. New York: James Pott & company, 1903. Call number: E185.5 N39

 

It is the turn of the 20th century. The Civil War is almost 40 years in the past, and Jim Crow laws are passed in Southern states to enforce racial segregation, while Black Americans encounter racism and discrimination across the country. A debate is going on within the Black community about how to respond to these conditions.

Booker T. Washington and vocational education

In 1895, Black intellectual and educator Booker T. Washington gave a speech at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, in which he urged Black Americans to temporarily accept segregation and disenfranchisement in exchange for economic opportunity and free vocational education funded by the white community. He believed that if Black men trained for vocational jobs, they could take advantage of the technological developments of the day and make economic progress. By attaining economic independence through hard work, thrift, and patience, he believed that eventually Black Americans would win the acceptance of the white community and thus be granted full civil rights. Critics of Washington’s speech dubbed it the ‘Atlanta Compromise.’

Red and black lettering reads, The Negro Problem, A series of articles by representative American Negros of to-day, contributions by Booker T. Washington, Principal of Tuskegee Institute, W. E. Burghardt DuBois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles W. Chesnutt, and others, New York, James Pott and Company, 1903.

Title page of the first edition of The Negro Problem. Our copy was originally held by the State Library for Iowa, which is why “withdrawn” is stamped across the page.

Washington’s speech was not published (though you can read the transcript at the Library of Congress), but his views on education for Black men (remember, this was at a time when a woman’s place was considered to be in the home) are captured in his essay, “Industrial Education for the Negro,” published in The Negro Problem in 1903. He writes that, following the Civil War, Black Americans tried to distance themselves from their past as slaves through higher education in the liberal arts:

There were young men educated in foreign tongues, but few in carpentry or in mechanical or architectural drawing. Many were trained in Latin, but few as engineers and blacksmiths. Too many were taken from the farm and educated, but educated in everything but farming. For this reason they had no interest in farming and did not return to it. And yet eighty-five per cent of the Negro population of the Southern states lives and for a considerable time will continue to live in the country districts. (p. 13)

He saw the loss of vocational knowledge as a loss of economic opportunity to the population, and he believed that a purely liberal education only prepared Black men for jobs that they had no opportunity to acquire. This guided his decisions as the head of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, now Tuskegee University, in designing the curriculum:

Almost from the first Tuskegee has kept in mind–and this I think should be the policy of all industrial schools–fitting student for occupations which would be open to them in their home communities. (pp. 23-24)

Critiques by W.E.B. Du Bois

On the opposite side of the debate is W.E.B. Du Bois, a Black intellectual who was born and raised in Massachusetts and became the first Black man to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Where Washington advised patience and submission, Du Bois called on members of the Black community to agitate for civil rights. He also argued that higher education, not simply vocational education, was necessary to create Black leaders that would uplift the whole Black community.

Du Bois was Washington’s most outspoken critic. His essay, “The Talented Tenth,” follows Washington’s in The Negro Problem. In direct rebuttal to Washington’s contention that liberally educated Black men cannot find jobs they are qualified for, Du Bois writes:

The most interesting question, and in many respects the crucial question, to be asked concerning college-bred Negroes, is: Do they earn a living? It has been intimated more than once that the higher training of Negroes has resulted in sending into the world of work, men who could find nothing to do suitable to their talents. Now and then there comes a rumor of a colored college man working at menial service, etc. Fortunately, returns as to occupations of college-bred Negroes, gathered by the Atlanta conference, are quite full–nearly sixty per cent. of the total number of graduates. (pp. 51-52)

Teachers 53.4 per cent, clergymen 16.8 per cent, physicians etc 6.3 per cent, students 5.6 percent, lawyers 4.7 per cent, in government service 4.0 per cent, in business 3.36 per cent, farmers and artisans 2.7 per cent, editors secretaries and clerks 2.4 per cent, miscellaneous 0.5 per cent.

Tables showing occupations of Black Americans who attended college, from Du Bois’s “The Talented Tenth” in The Negro Problem.

Du Bois’s most famous book The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of fourteen essays, includes one with the title, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” He critiques Washington’s broader plan of white appeasement and the regression it has brought:

Mr. Washington distinctly asks that black people give up, at least for the present, three things, —

First, political power,

Second, insistence on civil rights,

Third, higher education of Negro youth, — and concentrate all their energies on industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South. This policy has been courageously and insistently advocated for over fifteen years, and has been triumphant for perhaps ten years. As a result of this tender of the palm-branch, what has been the return? In these years there have occurred:

1. The disfranchisement of the Negro.

2. The legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro.

3. The steady withdrawal of aid from institutions for the higher training of the Negro. (p. 51)

Black text reads, The Souls of Black Folk, essays and sketches, by W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, Chicago, A. C. McClurg and Company, 1903.

Title page of the first edition of The Souls of Black Folk.

Both men were deeply concerned about the social and economic progress of Black Americans. Their backgrounds shed some light on the sharp differences in their approaches. Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in 1856 and taught himself to read as a child following the Civil War. Later, he worked his way through Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute in Virginia, now Hampton University. Du Bois, on the other hand, was born in 1868 in Massachusetts, where he attended school in a primarily white community. He attended Fisk University in Nashville, where he first encountered Jim Crow laws. Later, he became a leader in the Niagara Movement, a Black civil rights organization. When the group dissolved in 1909, Du Bois went on to co-found the NAACP.

What strikes me the most, as I write this blog post, is that the concerns of Washington and Du Bois are still relevant today. In the age of #BlackLivesMatter, this statement from Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk stands as a challenge and call to action:

…the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs. (p.59)


Formation of the Black Student Organization at ISU

For this look back at the 1960s I’ve decided to explore the origins of the Black Student Organization at ISU (now the Black Student Alliance). Not only is it a story that is not well-known to me, but I suspect it is not familiar to most people now at Iowa State. It seems almost all Iowa Staters are familiar with the story of George Washington Carver, Iowa State’s first African American student and faculty member, and the tragedy of Iowa State’s first black athlete, Jack Trice. After doing some research into our student organizations files here in the archives, I found that the story of the formation of the Black Student Organization at ISU is just as interesting and incredibly relevant to students on campus today.

The 1960s at Iowa State started off much as the 1950s left off. Strict rules were still in place regulating conduct and social interaction of women students. Students were separated into different dormitories with men on one side of campus and the women on the other. However, as the 1960s wore on, student perceptions began to change. Like in much of the country, students began to question the war in Vietnam, female students began to push back against gender barriers, and students of color began to speak out against racism and prejudice.

In the summer of 1967, the faculty and staff newspaper, News of Iowa State, ran an article reporting on a study completed by two ISU journalism students regarding the racial climate at Iowa State. The findings, authored by Pat Alford, identified as a “Negro coed from Charlotte, N.C.,” and Maurine Foster, simply identified as a Weldon, Iowa native, were both journalism students at Iowa State. The results of their study found that the racial climate at Iowa State at that time was “relatively favorable.” During those years, the University attempted to eliminate overt discrimination. Students interviewed in the study didn’t believe they would be denied membership to student groups, but with an enrollment of around 125, black students largely felt they were being left out of the mainstream of college life. (This may help explain why it is so difficult to find a photograph in our collections of an African-American student at Iowa State prior to 1970 unless he was involved in athletics.)

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Article from the Iowa State Daily, April 6, 1968, reporting on the demonstration by a group of students at the Memorial Union the previous day.

This favorable view of campus race relations abruptly changed following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968. The following day, black students on campus held a demonstration in the Commons of the Memorial Union. According to a report by the Iowa State Daily (April 6, 1968), a group of approximately 40 students filed into the Union, toasted to “black unity on campus” and then dropped and shattered their drinking glasses on the floor, overturned their tables and chairs, and quietly left. Following the demonstration, a statement was issued and signed by the “Afro-American Students of Iowa State University,” a group that formed the night before under the leadership of student Bruce Ellis. The students adopted a constitution on April 23, 1968 and officially became the Black Student Organization.

In early May, students and administrators were interviewed by the Iowa State Daily (May 3, 1968) for an article on campus race relations. One of those students was Pat Alford, the student from Charlotte. The article identifies some of the common forms of discrimination blacks faced at Iowa State. These included overt forms such as insensitive signs and symbols used by student groups and the denial of access to certain student groups based on skin color. It is interesting that these statements seem to conflict with what was reported a year earlier. The article noted the psychological burdens of being a person of color in a community where the vast majority of students and faculty are white. Black students also felt they were missing out on social interactions at Iowa State. According to one estimate, black male students outnumbered black female students at Iowa State 15 to 1, resulting in many black male students traveling to Des Moines to find a date.

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1967 Iowa State football team (Bomb, 1968, page 119)

Within weeks, the Black Student Organization would take their concerns to University administration. On May 20, 1968, the black athletes of Iowa State, with the full support of the Black Student Organization, issued eight grievances to the Athletic Council. The students asked for racial representation in the coaching staff and administration of the athletics department, reprimands or removal of three coaches and trainers they accused of discriminatory treatment of black athletes, more leniency for all athletes in terms of academics and living requirements, an allowance for black athletes to seek employment while on full scholarship, and a request that the ISU community use the words Black Students or Afro-Americans in place of the term Negro.

The initial response from the Athletic Council, signed by council chairman John Mahlstede, did not exactly impress the students. Dated two weeks later on June 5, the response was carefully worded, but it was clear that the Council did not find any evidence of discriminatory actions by the coaches or in its hiring practices. Not surprisingly, this announcement did not end the controversy.

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The first page from a letter, dated May 20, 1968, submitted to the Athletic Council on behalf of the black student athletess. (See file labeled Black Student Organization – Athletic Council Issue in RS 22/3/0/1, Multicultural Student Affairs)

By the end of June, President W. Robert Parks asked that the University Human Relations Committee conduct a separate investigation into the grievances. This report, presented just two weeks later, recognized that discrimination almost assuredly existed on campus and that “the need for change in behavior on the part of individual members of the University community is crucial.” The report did not charge any individuals with discriminatory actions. It did, however, strongly encourage the hiring of a black football coach, a recommendation that coach Johnny Majors fulfilled when he hired coach Ray Green in the spring of 1969.

These actions did not satisfy everyone. At least seven students carried through on their promise to leave Iowa State if and when the Athletic Council did not comply with the eight grievances. Bruce Ellis, president of the Black Student Organization, was one of these students along with two football players. Though these students did not immediately effect the change they hoped to, their actions did initiate a conversation about race and inclusivity that in many ways continues today. They also helped foster a growing awareness among members of the ISU community that racism and discrimination were present on the Iowa State campus and that the entire community was responsible for addressing the concerns raised by black students of Iowa State.

More information on the early years of the Black Student Organization (now known as the Black Student Alliance) is available in Special Collections and University Archives in collection RS 22/3/0/1, Multicultural Student Organizations. Unfortunately, the black student experience at Iowa State is largely underrepresented in the archives. Most of the materials that are available to historians and researchers consist of newspaper clippings or files from campus administration. These records are often incomplete and leave gaps in the historical record. We welcome collection materials (i.e. photographs, letters, flyers, etc.) from alumni that might help document the experience of black students at Iowa State.


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!