Preserving Iowa’s Communities of Color
Iowa is often described from the air as a patchwork quilt of farms and towns stitched together by roads and rows of tree windbreaks. The land looks like many of the state’s historic quilts, which were generally made from scraps of old clothes or bed sheets that over time became cherished heirlooms, embroidered with memories of family members and important events.
Since the beginning, this “land between two rivers” has attracted a patchwork of people, too, from the Native Americans who were the first to call Iowa home, to the early European- and African-American migrants of the 19th century, to the immigrants and refugees from Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East who followed in more recent decades. Each group has left its mark on Iowa and shaped who we are as a state.
Like most newcomers to the territory that would become Iowa, African-Americans came in search of a better life, initially settling along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers as soon as the U.S. government opened the area for settlement, in the 1830s. Many of these new Iowans assisted men, women and children who crossed into Iowa through the Underground Railroad in order to escape slavery.
Despite the discrimination they faced, African-Americans created their own communities within Iowa’s growing cities, building churches, homes, businesses and community centers. These buildings and neighborhoods housed all the ordinary activities of everyday life, of course, but also served as the backdrop for state and national history, such as the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
As cities evolve, however, historic neighborhoods often experience economic, social and political disinvestment when city leaders focus their energies and resources on new development. This has been particularly apparent in Iowa’s historically African-American neighborhoods, which have endured higher-than-average demolition rates as well as waves of new arrivals who have little interest in the history of the community or the preservation of its historic fabric and culture.
The Burns United Methodist Church in Des Moines is one recent loss. It stood at 811 Crocker St. since it began its life as the German Emmanuel Methodist Church in 1912. It was purchased in 1930 by the Burns Methodist congregation, the oldest African-American Methodist congregation in Des Moines. The group was founded in 1866 by the Second South Annual Methodist Conference to serve Des Moines’ growing black population and borrowed its name from Francis Burns, the first black missionary bishop in the Methodist Church.
The Crocker Street building was the Burns Methodists’ home until 2011 when the congregation moved to a new location. Eventually, the building and land were bought by Hubbell Realty Company, which planned to raze the church in order to construct an apartment building. A group of North Bend neighbors tried to raise nearly $350,000 to move the church and convert it into a community center, but they ran out of time, and the building was demolished in September 2016. The Des Moines Register published photos of the church’s exterior and interior several months before its demolition.
This year’s Preserve Iowa Summit in Fort Dodge will take a look at the challenges and opportunities in preserving buildings and neighborhoods for future generations at a session led by Terry Stevens, a Waterloo native and member of that city’s commissions for both historic preservation and human rights. A counselor and artist, she first became an advocate for historic preservation when the former home of her father, the first black union steward of Rath Packing Company in Waterloo, was demolished.
Waterloo’s east side has suffered for decades as historic buildings have fallen into disrepair and are demolished, leaving behind empty lots.
But Terry says this problem extends beyond Waterloo, especially in traditionally ethnic neighborhoods where rates of unemployment and under-employment tend to be higher. As people lose their homes and move away, those left behind often feel as though their tax dollars are being diverted elsewhere rather than being used to support their neighborhoods. This disinvestment creates holes in the cultural diversity and history of Iowa’s patchwork quilt.
“If you make a garment and then pull strings from it, eventually all the seams collapse and the garment is lost,” Terry said. “That’s what’s happening to our communities. How do you teach history if you have nothing to reflect upon?”
Terry Stevens’ session on “Preserving Iowa’s Communities of Color,” about the challenges of gentrification and some strategies to save historic resources, is one of many sessions at this year’s Preserve Iowa Summit, set for June 8–10 in Fort Dodge. Interested? Register right here.
— Laura Sadowsky, State Historian