The state of Iowa is not known for its diversity. In fact its population contains few minorities. Yet, Iowa minorities have made great contributions to the state. A case in point is the historic presence of African-Americans in Iowa. For a fuller appreciation of those contributions, one needs to only visit a prominent Cedar Rapids museum. Please Note: The African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa in Cedar Rapids was damaged by the 2008 floods. It reopens to the public, with some modifications to the exhibits in this Out and About feature, on December 19, 2009.
The African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa was the outgrowth of a local church’s efforts to teach its young people black history. Today the museum’s mission is to preserve, publicize, and educate all of the public on African-American history in Iowa.
The story actually starts where the African-American story started, in Africa about 500 years ago. America’s slaves came from places like the one depicted here, down to the red clay soil on the floor that is typical of much of the continent.
Walking through on your own or with a tour guide, you go through the door of no return to embark on what was called the "middle passage".
The tour traces the trip across the Atlantic and the centuries of slavery. Then there’s Iowa’s role, which includes the underground railroad and the Ku Klux Klan. On balance though, Iowa has been more progressive than many places.
In fact, Iowa can boast African Americans who succeeded in many different ways, who not only survived but thrived.
Tom Moore, Executive Director, African American Historical Museum: "My hope is that people will, as they progress through the exhibit, they’ll feel a sense of the progress that has been made over the years and be inspired to work on improving things even greater."
The facts of history in this museum can elicit strong emotions.
Moore: "From a white perspective, we see a whole spectrum of feelings, some anger, some grief. We’ve had people who cry after going through the slave ship portion and the slavery part of it. It’s not there at all to cause guilt, but I think in order to not repeat history, we have to learn about history and learn what really took place.
"I think from the black perspective, I see surprise and pride, pleasant surprise. And I think people leave with a feeling of identity to the state of Iowa, where you can see that black people were coming in at the same time as white settlers when it was still a territory. So from a black perspective, it certainly gives people something to point at that is dedicated to their particular history."
This may be the museum of African-American history, but it is for all Iowans. Created and run by both blacks and whites, the objective is inclusion and to be a resource for the whole state.
For example, in conjunction with a temporary exhibit on George Washington Carver, the museum has arranged speakers all over the state like Edgar Hicks at the Council Bluffs library.
Edgar Hicks: "George Washington Carver was an ideal example of sharing."
When the Carver exhibit ends its run in August 2008, components of it will travel around the state, just one of various ways the museum reaches out to communities and teachers.
It is ironic that in the beginning some people wondered if there was really enough black Iowa history to justify a museum. That included the Rockwell Collins Charitable Corporation, which has provided consistent support.
Cindy Dietz, Rockwell Collins: "We didn’t really then understand the scope of that material and how much there was to tell. The other piece I think we really looked at, which we look at for any organization, that probably we considered more than the diversity part of it, was is this sustainable?"
The answer has been a resounding yes. And there’s a new project. The museum has a grant to gather oral histories from older members of the black community. At-risk youth will collect those histories, which will then be part of the museum’s archives and future exhibits, giving those children a boost and hopefully making them less at risk.
It’s using the past to take the shackles off people’s minds. It’s history that helps build a better future.
Special Thanks at the African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa:
- Montana Historical Society
- State Historical Society of Iowa - Des Moines
- State Historical Society of Iowa - Iowa City
- Pamela Nosek
George Washington Carver Exhibits
- Simpson College
- Special Collections Parks Library, Iowa State University
- George Washington National Monument