Black history at the University of Iowa is deep, rich — and largely still unknown.
That’s the message of Lena and Michael Hill, who will speak at the League of Women Voters‘ Sunday Speaker series about their book Invisible Hawkeyes, a collection of essays. The couple, both University of Iowa professors, will talk about the significant contributions made by African American students at the university from the 1930s to the 1960s.
League of Women Voters Sunday Speaker Series: ‘The Invisible Hawkeyes’ with Lena and Michael Hill
Iowa City Public Library — Sunday, Feb. 19, 2 p.m.
“You don’t think of Iowa as a place that necessarily had a role in the civil rights movement,” Lena Hill said. “But when you look back, you see that Iowa was very much part of the national conversation, and I think people forgot that.”
The Hills cite several African American UI alums whose experiences and connection to the university are not very well-known or fully explored. W.E.B. Dubois regularly published stories from UI-based contributors in his magazine, Hill points out. The late Al Jarreau, a six-time Grammy winner, graduated from the UI education department’s graduate program in rehabilitation counseling, a fact often overlooked in his biographies and outside of Iowa, Hill said.
Elizabeth Catlett, a graphic artist and sculptor, was the first African American woman to earn a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa in 1940. She used her art to explore issues of race, gender and class, and her many honors include a lifetime achievement award from the International Sculpture Center.
Fanny Ellison, a 1936 graduate of the University of Iowa, helped edit her husband Ralph’s famous 1952 book Invisible Man, from which the Hills’ book title is derived. And Margaret Walker, an award-winning poet and author, earned both a master’s and a doctorate from the University of Iowa. Her lauded writings include the poetry collection For My People and the novel Jubilee.
The University of Iowa had a reputation as a place that welcomed African American students at a time when many universities refused, Lena Hill said. In particular, she noted the collaborative relationships that grew between UI’s many ground-breaking African American female students and white male professors.
“Many of these men were not civil rights activists. They were not admitting or deciding to admit people of color because of a political sense that was right, but instead, they really respected the talent these students showed,” she said. “These students weren’t victims who were saved; they were working shoulder to shoulder and making a difference.”
In the 1930s and 1940s, African American students in Iowa faced huge barriers just finding housing, Michael Hill said. While university dorms didn’t explicitly ban blacks, there was an informal policy. That informal policy wasn’t reversed until 1946, he said.
“So while someone like Elizabeth Catlett, for instance, is excited to receive a top notch education, at the same time she has to deal with the quotidian reality of trying to find housing and where to lay her head on a nightly basis,” he said.
African American students at the University of Iowa and many other Midwestern universities, in particular, still face some race-based challenges, Michael Hill said.
“I still think to some extent, you deal with those questions of cultural emergence, students who are coming from environments that are majority black or even overwhelmingly black,” he said. “For them, the transition from that kind of a cultural sphere into a space like the U of I, which is still overwhelmingly white, is a jarring transition.”
The Hills describe Invisible Hawkeyes as just a start in documenting the key contributions of African American students in the University of Iowa’s past. Syndy Congers, president of the Johnson County League of Women Voters, calls their book and Sunday’s discussion a step toward uniting an often divided society.
“Right now, with the immigration issues we’re having, this can help us move forward and help us realize we are all in this together,” Congers said. “This can certainly not only inform the people who live here now, but give them confidence moving forward. And this can give us some insight into ourselves.”