Exhibit makes ‘Invisible Hawkeyes’ visible

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Invisible Hawkeyes: African American tastemakers and pathfinders at the University of Iowa, 1930-1970

University of Iowa, Main Library Gallery — through Sunday, March 11.

Photo by Jason Smith

Dora Martin made history at the University of Iowa in 1955, and university officials pretended it didn’t happen. Martin, a black undergraduate, was elected “Miss SUI” by her fellow students.

A Midwest university with an almost all-white student body electing an African American to be its campus queen, just as the civil rights movement was stirring in the South, made national news.

“Her classmates supported her, but the university didn’t let her participate in events in which Miss SUI typically played a role. The university chose to not recognize her election,” said Katie Buehner, one of the curators of “Invisible Hawkeyes: African American tastemakers and pathfinders at the University of Iowa, 1930-1970.”

Dora Martin (right) as Miss SUI in a yearbook displayed in “Invisible Hawkeye” exhibit. — photo by Jason Smith

The university finally issued an official apology to Martin (now Dora Martin Berry) in 2016. The apology came during an event marking the publication of Invisible Hawkeyes: African Americans at the University of Iowa during the Long Civil Rights Era.

“The exhibit really is drawn from the book. The idea was to look through the book and pull out those items that were held locally, so people could see the work that students did while they were here,” Buehner explained.

Dora Martin’s story is featured both in the book and the exhibit, but most of the exhibit focuses on artistic contributions. For example, on display is a sketch made by Elizabeth Catlett while she was creating her famous early sculpture “Negro Mother and Child” as a graduate student at UI.

In 1940, Catlett became the first African American woman to earn a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa. She was a widely respected sculptor and graphic artist who received many honors in her long career, include a lifetime achievement award from the International Sculpture Center.

Contributions in music and theater are highlighted as well. The UI career of Carolyn Hill Stewart, a graduate student studying theater in the 1940s, demonstrates the ambiguous situation black students at UI sometimes had to navigate during their academic careers.

A July 1940 story in The Daily Iowan mentioned that Stewart had been praised for creating the blackface makeup for the white cast of a one-act play in which all the characters were black. “Critics liked the varying shades of black she used,” the paper noted. The exhibit quotes Stewart’s response to that bit of praise: “Well, that’s the way Negroes are.”

Stewart herself acted in several plays while at UI, although not always playing a black character. The Daily Iowan reported that her performance as “a proud Malay princess” in Maxwell Anderson’s “The Wingless Victory” was particularly well-received.

Stewart also wrote a play during her UI career. “Mine” is a satire about a politician who is not the honest man he pretends to be. Stewart, however, did not cast herself in the play.

“The satire is more pointed with a white cast,” she said.

“Invisible Hawkeyes: African American tastemakers and pathfinders at the University of Iowa, 1930-1970,” will be on display at the UI Main Library Gallery until March 11.

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