African-American Communities

African American Owned HomeWhen many people think of the word "community," they often think of a city or town. But a community can be more than a physical place with boundaries. It can be a group of people who share something in common— a neighborhood, a church or a love of art. A community can be as small as just a few people, or as large as the entire United States population.

For many African-Americans the strength to overcome prejudice and discrimination was often found in their communities.

Cities and Neighborhoods

In many of Iowa's larger cities, African-American communities existed as neighborhoods, where African-American Iowans lived, worked and played together.

Sometimes these African-American neighborhoods developed because of segregation. In Waterloo in 1915 European-American real estate agents forced African-American homeowners into specific neighborhoods, separating the city's populations. These neighborhoods were in the city's poorer areas.

Segregation occurred in many of Iowa's cities and towns. African-Americans strengthened their segregated communities by creating their own businesses, churches, and social and professional clubs.

Des Moines' African-American population grew when Fort Des Moines became the site of the Colored Officers Training Camp in 1917, and African-American families chose to stay in Des Moines after World War I ended in 1918. This was the beginning of a community that became home to many African-American leaders.

The coal mining town of Buxton is a community that stands out in Iowa history. Of the 5,000 people living in Buxton in 1905, more than half were African-American. Buxton was described as a utopia where African-Americans and European-Americans lived together without the racial tension that was common everywhere else at the time. People from many countries such as Belgium, Bohemia, France, Germany, Norway and Russia also lived and worked in Buxton. Despite the mix of races and ethnic groups, there was little racial or ethnic discrimination in Buxton— everyone was treated equally.

When the coal mines near Buxton closed, African-American residents moved to bigger cities like Waterloo and Des Moines. Outside the Buxton community, they once again faced discrimination and prejudice.

Religious Communities

When southern African-Americans first came to Iowa, they counted on the traditions of the church to help them adjust to life here. The church was a place to find spiritual guidance, friends and emotional support.

By 1906 more than 70 African-American churches existed in Iowa, most of them either Baptist or African Methodist Episcopal. These churches also helped improve race relations in Iowa's cities. In Waterloo in the early 1900s Reverend I.W. Bess of the African Methodist Episcopal Church worked hard to end the conflicts between the city's different ethnic groups and restore pride in African-American communities. Many protests and demonstrations during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s were organized in churches in Iowa and throughout the country.

As within any community, the people in African-American communities in Iowa shared many ideas, beliefs and experiences. But the individuals that make up the communities contribute a variety of ideas and beliefs that make the community interesting.

Adapted from original article in The Goldfinch 16, No. 4 (Summer 1995). Iowa City: State Historical Society.
© State Historical Society of Iowa

 

 


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