Searching for Iowa’s Civil Rights History
Bruce Harris still remembers the sunny Sunday afternoon in the early 1960s when he and his siblings piled into the family’s station wagon to check out a house his parents wanted to buy on a cul-de-sac in Cedar Rapids. All of the neighbors — all white — seemed to stop whatever they were doing in their front yards to watch the black family’s car roll down the street.
As he put it, “It was an anxious time.”
The Harrises didn’t buy the house. But soon after, when Bruce was 12, they quietly made history by moving into a different house in an all-white neighborhood on the city’s leafy southeast side. They moved in despite a petition against it and a bitter debate at a prominent local church — where Harris’ father, the Linn County Medical Examiner, was one of the only black members — about whether the congregation should sell the Harrises the lot for their new home.
Today, the five-bedroom ranch house they built in 1963 is part of a new statewide project, funded by a $50,000 federal grant, to identify some of the unsung heroes and overlooked places that played a role in Iowa’s struggle for African-American civil rights during the 20th century.
The State Historic Preservation Office, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, is leading the project and encouraging Iowans to suggest homes, schools, businesses, churches and other historic sites to add to the list.
“If you have a story, that’s good. But if you have a place as well, I think that’s more meaningful,” said Harris, 68, who is now the mayor of Chatham, N.J. “It’s not like our house is an architectural wonder. It’s just a place where something important happened, something that reflects a change in our society.”
The project is the first statewide survey of its kind and will culminate in 2020 with a report, at least one new nomination of a property to the National Register of Historic Places, and a customized civil-rights tour on the Iowa Culture app, a free tool that maps more than 3,500 cultural highlights across the state.
Currently, the National Register includes 11 properties that are associated with African-American history in Iowa, four of which have direct ties to civil rights: the Alexander Clark House in Muscatine, the long-gone coal-mining town of Buxton in Monroe County, Fort Des Moines, and the Edna Griffin Building in downtown Des Moines, where a 1948 sit-in forced the Katz Drug Store to desegregate its soda fountain.
“As important as these properties are, they do not fully represent the story of African-Americans’ civil-rights struggle in Iowa,” said Paula Mohr, from the State Historic Preservation Office. “This project identifies other properties with the goal of preserving their stories as well as the places themselves.”
In addition to the Harris House in Cedar Rapids, the project’s list includes the Martin House in Ames, where Iowa State University’s black students lived before they were allowed to live on campus. The list also includes East High School in Waterloo, where a student protest in 1969 persuaded school leaders to hire more African-American teachers and counselors and to add black history to the social-studies curriculum.
The Cooper House in Council Bluffs once belonged to a couple who helped found the Iowa-Nebraska chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, better known as the NAACP.
“In Council Bluffs, like a lot of towns and cities in Iowa, you learn the history of the rich white people, but nobody else’s story ever gets mentioned,” said Ryan Roenfeld, a local historian who submitted the Cooper House to the new project.
Betty Andrews, the president of the NAACP chapter the Coopers helped start, visited the Edna Griffin Building in Des Moines a few weeks ago and considered the importance of historic preservation. She stood across the street while traffic rumbled past the old brick building.
“History is life, and life is connected to these buildings,” she said. “It’s awesome to be able to walk to a space and remember its significance.”
Sometimes, of course, significance sinks in only after time. Few people realize they’re making history while they’re in the thick of it.
On the day the Harrises moved into their new home, on Feb. 9, 1963, Bruce Harris and his siblings were shuttled off to the movies so they wouldn’t get in the way.
When they returned, he settled into his new room. He soon made friends in his new school and the neighborhood. But “it took years,” he said, for his family to feel fully accepted, long after he had left for college and law school.
The family still owns the house and is considering plans to sell it. But even if they do, Harris said, they are honored that it won’t be forgotten.
“It’s important to remember our past and, hopefully, we can learn from it,” he said. “But it’s not just the stories or the written words. I think the places where history was made are important. There’s that feeling of being in a particular place where something happened, something that’s worth remembering. It makes a difference.”
To suggest a site for Iowa’s statewide survey of 20th Century African-American Civil Rights, visit iowaculture.gov/civilrights.
— Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs