Before I-235, Des Moines’ Center Street district was a bastion of Black commerce and culture

Jamie Malone/Little Village

By the time its final section opened to traffic in late 1968, I-235 was already part of the fabric of Des Moines. Cutting across the city and running just north of downtown, it’s the most traveled roadway in Iowa. But like many stretches of highway built through cities, the construction of I-235 did damage that was largely ignored at the time and has continued to go unacknowledged.

That started to change last year, as the Biden administration announced it wanted to address the disruption highway construction over the decades has caused in communities of color.

“Let me be clear: American highways were too often built through Black neighborhoods on purpose — dividing communities, adding pollution, and making pedestrians less safe,” Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said in April 2021. Buttigieg discussed the impact in New York City, but the secretary, who spent months in Iowa ahead of the 2020 caucus, could have pointed to Des Moines. The construction of I-235 was the beginning of the end of the Center Street neighborhood that was the heart of the city’s Black community.

The neighborhood was one of the few open to Black residents for much of the 20th century, a hub of Black-owned businesses and home to clubs that featured Iowa’s best jazz and blues musicians. People who knew Center Street often called it “a city within a city.”

“People came from all over to see and be a part of Center Street in Des Moines, Iowa,” Mildred Mayberry said, recalling Center Street at its most vibrant in the 1940s and ’50s in Gaynelle Narcisse’s 1996 book They Took Our Piece of the Pie: Center Street Revisited.

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Before the area northwest of downtown Des Moines was known as Center Street, it was called Calamity Creek, because it flooded frequently. Even after drainage improvements in the 1890s brought the flooding under control, it still wasn’t considered a desirable area of the city to live in, which is why it was open to Black Iowans.

Iowa never had Jim Crow laws on its books like Southern states, and it even had a record of being progressive on racial matters. The Iowa Legislature eliminated the state’s law against interracial marriage in 1851 (over a century before Loving v. Virginia), and in 1868 the Iowa Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional (more than 80 years before Brown v. Board of Education).

But Iowa, like other states outside the South, had its own less formal, but very effective, version of segregation.

There were neighborhoods where realtors wouldn’t sell to Black families and landlords wouldn’t rent to them, businesses where it was clear Black customers were not welcome. Banks in Iowa, like in the rest of the country, engaged in redlining, in which they discriminated against communities of color. Neighborhoods like Center Street grew to serve the needs of Black residents in cities that were often hostile to them.

In the early years of the 20th century, Black-owned businesses began opening along Center, between 12th and 17th Streets, including one of the first drug stores in Iowa owned and operated by a Black pharmacist.

Ironically for a neighborhood formed by a style of segregation not formally enshrined in law, it was a formal version of segregation at the federal level written into federal regulations that twice gave great boosts to Center Street’s economy. Until 1948, two years after the end of World War II, Black troops in the U.S. military served in segregated units. And partially because Iowa didn’t have written Jim Crow laws, the Des Mones area served as a training site for Black soldiers during both world wars.

Fort Des Moines was the site of the Army’s Black Officers Training Camp in 1917 and 1918, as U.S. troops were sent to Europe during World War I. Black enlisted men were already being trained at Camp Dodge in Johnston. In the ’40s, Fort Des Moines was the training center for Black women who volunteered to serve in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WACs) during World War II.

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During both wars, Black soldiers and later WACs patronized the businesses and entertainment in the Center Street neighborhood, one area of Des Moines they could be sure they’d be welcome. Center Street’s Watkins Hotel was the site of the USO that served the needs of Black service members.

Between the wars, a major change happened in the neighborhood. In 1920, the city began construction of Keosauqua Way (Keo Way), to divert traffic from downtown and provide a more direct route to neighborhoods in the northwest of the city.

Center Street wasn’t one of the neighborhoods city leaders intended to make more accessible, but it was one of the neighborhoods Keo Way ran through. Its construction involved the demolition of businesses along the north side of the 1000 block of Center Street.

Keo Way became one of the streets that defined the neighborhood as it grew, more or less forming its eastern boundary. Like many city neighborhoods, the boundaries of Center Street weren’t exact, but the heart of it ran from Center and Keo at the east end to Center and 17th Street on the west side, and north from Center taking in Crocker and School Streets, as well as some of the nearby residential areas.

Although the construction of Keo Way demolished some businesses along Center Street, it made the area more accessible, which helped its businesses grow over the next 20 years.

Pauline B. Humphrey (center) with her students outside Crescent School of Beauty Culture in the 1940s. — African American Museum of Iowa

The Center Street neighborhood was home to a wide variety of businesses, from pharmacies where newborn baby supplies could be purchased to the Wilson Funeral Home near the corner of 14th Street and Center. There were bakeries, a grocery store, cleaners, smoke shops and Robert Patten’s print shop, where he produced everything from posters to wedding invitations to religious-themed prints for framing.

Center Street was the location of the Crescent School of Beauty, the first cosmetology school in Iowa.

The Crescent School was founded in 1939 by Pauline Brown Humphrey, who had graduated from the Madam C.J. Walker College of Beauty Culture in Chicago. But Humphrey’s training in Chicago wasn’t transferrable to the state of Iowa, which required her to complete its own certification course before the school could open. The only program Humphrey could find that would admit her was in Fort Dodge, 70 miles from Des Moines. A determined Humphrey made that grueling commute until she completed the program. There would be at least three other beauty parlors for Black women along Center Street over the years, but the Crescent School remained a mainstay until the late ’60s.

There were plenty of barbershops for men, too, including the impressively named Hardaway Tonsorial Parlor, which opened in 1928 and was one of the last businesses operating when the final buildings began to be demolished on Center Street in 1968.

Restaurants were a major attraction, and one the best remembered was the Community Luncheonette owned by Arthur and Goletha Trotter. Despite its name, the 18-seat restaurant was open from early in the morning until late at night, during the 23 years the Trotters ran it before they retired in 1956. It was well-known for its desserts, especially the pies.

There were plenty of options for hungry people. Most were casual — like Harry Hatter’s, where the chili could supposedly cure hangovers, or Sampson’s Chicken Shack, whose slogan was “If you are in the dog house at home, you’re always welcome at Sampson’s Chicken Shack” — but there was also the Sepia Club, where the waiters had white linen napkins draped across their arms as they served customers.

The Sepia Club, 1014 Center St, was owned by brothers Seymour and Howard Gray, who built it into a jazz club only rivaled by the Billiken Ballroom, which was located two blocks up the street. The versatile Grays not only managed the club, they also performed in its house band, in addition to running a barber shop on Center Street.

Billiken Ballroom, 1940s. — Robert E. Patten Collection (PH1995.21.4), State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines

The Sepia Club and the Billiken attracted the best local jazz and blues talent, and when big musical acts like Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s orchestras played the big theaters in downtown, the musicians would head to Center Street after their shows. Sometimes it was just to listen, but sometimes it was to join in late night jam sessions with the musicians playing at the Sepia or the Billiken.

“Sometimes jazz on Center would start on Friday night and run almost constantly, night and day, until Monday night,” Des Moines jazz musician Bobby Dawson recalled in a video interview with the Metro Arts Alliance decades later. “That was the sign-out period. It was called Blue Monday.”

Dawson wasn’t exaggerating. Both the Sepia and the Billiken could stay open 24 hours, and often did, because neither served beer. Taverns like The Nip or other bars in the neighborhood that served beer had to close by 2 a.m. But the Sepia and the Billiken operated under Iowa’s convoluted liquor laws as “key clubs.”

Iowa didn’t permit sale of liquor by the glass until 1963, but a key club customer could buy a whole bottle which would be stored at the club in an assigned locker. The customer would order the set up for a mixed drink, then the bartender would open the locker and add liquor from the customer’s bottle. Despite the fact key clubs served stiffer drinks than places only offering beer, there was no mandatory closing time.

There were many other music clubs in Center Street, and other venues like the Watkins Hotel. And even beyond those places, music played an important role in community life.

“The enthusiasm of the Center Street community is apparent in the sheer number of occasions for which dances were held,” journalist Raymond Kelso Weikal wrote. “Election days, reunions, graduations, anniversaries, virtually any event could be seized upon as an excuse to throw a dance.”

Center Street was a place to see and be seen for Black residents of Des Moines. People watching became a popular pastime on weekends, when friends and even families would park along Center and sit in their cars, watching others come and go.

The neighborhood boasted several civic groups, and had an Elks Club, a Masonic Temple and a YMCA.

There were also less family-friendly attractions. Effie Phillips, who worked at The Nip and Collins Club on Center Street, told Narcisee, “We had our prostitutes and pimps but they wasn’t trouble to others.” Phillips said she never felt unsafe walking through the neighborhood, even after she got off work late at night.

It was the wilder side that drew Ted Ewing, a railroad worker from St. Louis, to the neighborhood when he visited Des Moines in 1944.

“We hit Center Street,” he told Narcisse. “Every house I went to had a crap game, vendor, whiskey, and women.”

But things were very different the next time Ewing visited Des Moines.

“I returned about twenty-five years later, looking for Center Street and its hotel, only to find a highway had been built and split the city. Center Street was in disarray; it has never looked the same, and the entire city seemed to change.”

Man in front of Dorsey’s Cafe, in or near the Center Street neighborhood, Des Moines,1960– Robert E. Patten Collection (PH1995.21.4), State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines

Center Street was more than just its clubs and businesses. There were family homes, boarding houses and apartments. Hundreds of households were displaced by the building of I-235 and the urban renewal projects that followed.

There had long been plans for an east-west highway across the city to connect downtown to suburbs, but as with almost any major project in Iowa, nothing happened until the federal government put up the money. Along came the National Interstate and Defense Act of 1956, which began 30 years of federally financed highway construction.

Having I-235 cut through the Center Street neighborhood seemed like a natural choice to city and state planners, none of whom saw anything valuable or worth preserving about the area. Alternative routes were briefly considered, but in 1958 the Iowa Highway Commission made its decision and began buying up property in the path of the planned roadway.

Homeowners and business owners were supposed to be paid fair market value for their property, and despite the efforts of the Des Moines chapter of the NAACP and other groups to assist residents and business owners in the Center Street area, records indicate Black property owners were routinely paid less than white property owners.

Short-changed on their homes and facing the city’s informal segregation, which remained effective despite some progress in breaking down those barriers, many Black residents had trouble finding new places to live.

As highway construction started around the country in the late ’50s, so did urban renewal projects. These projects were aimed at improving areas of cities considered blighted, but most of the projects didn’t involve investing in neighborhoods to boost under-resourced businesses and repairing decaying homes. Instead, the programs tore down buildings to replace them with something new, usually displacing the people who lived in the neighborhoods.

“Urban renewal means Negro removal,” was a common saying of Black communities throughout America in the ’60s.

The city and state had plans for urban renewal projects in Des Moines’ Black neighborhoods, but as ever, waited for federal funding. The first project began in the River Hills area at the end of the ’50s. Subsequent projects included the Center Street neighborhood, and began after federal funding was secured in the mid-’60s. The pattern of Black people being underpaid for their property repeated itself. By late 1969, the final demolition of the buildings at the heart of Center Street’s business district began.

The Center Street which had been a vital part of Black Des Moines for much of the 20th century was erased in a little more than 10 years.

Looking west over Interstate 235 in Des Moines, 2010. — Fredddie/Wikimedia Commons

Secretary Buttigieg has said the Biden administration will work to reconnect neighborhoods divided by urban highway construction by building pedestrian bridges, creating new public transit options and in other unspecified ways. But in the case of Center Street, the parts are no longer there to reconnect.

As highway construction and urban renewal projects proceeded, businesses closed or moved. Residents found new homes where they could. The Center Street that was ended up scattered around the Des Moines area, but it remains a vivid memory for many and an enduring example of what Black Iowans were able to accomplish despite the discrimination they faced in the first half of the 20th century.

Paul Brennan is Little Village’s news director. Courtney Guein is an LV Des Moines reporter.