Preserving Black History in Iowa City: Tate Arms and the Iowa Federation Home
Iowa City Public Library, Meeting Room A — Tuesday, Feb. 25 at 12 p.m.
Update: On March 9, 2020, the Iowa Federation Home and Tate Arms were officially added to the National Register of Historic Places. “This recognition marks an important milestone for Iowa City as it continues to preserve its history for future generations,” said State Historian Laura Sadowsky in a press release.
The houses at 942 Iowa Ave and 914 S Dubuque St in Iowa City may seem nondescript — just another couple of old, off-campus rental properties for college students — save for the rust-brown metal signs out front. These signs, funded by a grant from the National Park Service, detail the background of the Iowa Federation Home and Tate Arms house, which have had quiet but important roles in the history of Iowa City and the University of Iowa.
This history will be the subject of a free presentation Tuesday at the Iowa City Public Library, part of the City of Iowa City’s goal of “preserving black history.”
The University of Iowa was among the first public institutions of higher education to admit black students, beginning in the 1870s. And even as students such as Alexander Clark (the first black person granted a UI law degree in 1879), Frank Holbrook (the first black athlete admitted to a varsity team at Iowa) and Philip Hubbard (who would go on to become the first black UI instructor in 1947, and the first black vice president of a Big Ten school in 1966) found success at UI, life in Iowa City was, predictably, more difficult for African-American students than their white counterparts.
“They were not always supported by the university as they ought to have been. They were not always supported by the community at large,” said Richard Carlson, architectural historian with the UI Office of the State Archaeologist, who has focused on Iowa City’s African-American history pre-1950. “They couldn’t rent housing wherever they wanted, they couldn’t eat at restaurants wherever they wanted, they couldn’t get their hair cut wherever they wanted — there were all these barriers to having a normal student life as we would envision it today.”
Probably the most prominent challenge was housing. UI’s first dormitories were constructed in the 1910s, but wouldn’t be integrated until 1946. Black students had little choice but to board with other black families in town, in the homes of UI professors or in white fraternity houses, working as servants and housekeepers in exchange for their room and board.
“It was very difficult to get by being the only black person in a white household, as they often were,” Carlson said. “And even if they happen to be living in a household where the owner who rented them the room is sympathetic to having a black university student in their home, they’d feel isolated.”
Black students were eager to secure independent housing in the 1910s and ’20s, but their efforts were often blocked by white Iowa Citians, who objected to having black neighbors during a time when racial segregation in Iowa City was actually increasing. In 1921, black fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi was outbid by a “powerful but sinister organization” — thought to be a chapter of the KKK, or other white supremacist group — for the site on which they wanted to build their chapter house.
Black female students were the first to establish their own dormitory-style housing in Iowa City. At the urging of a group of students, the Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (IFCWC; in operation from 1919 to 1951) asked UI administration to consider two proposals: purchase a home for African-American women to use as a dormitory, or endorse a fundraising campaign. The first option was rejected, and the second embraced only tentatively, but the Iowa Federation Home for Colored Girls was ultimately purchased in September 1919 thanks to the contributions of black UI alumni, state officials and students.
“Black women, students at the university, just worked tirelessly over and over again to secure themselves a permanent home,” Carlson said. “They really made it their mission for two solid years.”
The house at 942 Iowa Ave and an adjacent lot were purchased for $5,300, or approximately $80,000 in today’s dollars. Angry white residents of the neighborhood managed to get the lot reassessed for an extra $179 (about $2,700), but failed to impede the purchase altogether. Their neighborhood was officially integrated.
Both the Iowa Federation Home and Tate Arms buildings have been virtually gutted over the years, retaining little of their original interior structure. There also remains little or no photographic record of the interior, but Carlson said the Iowa Federation Home had around eight bedrooms, with two or three tenants in each, during the ’20s. The total number of roomers peaked at 25 in 1929, before dwindling during the Great Depression, when many students couldn’t afford college. Residents included Marie A. Brown and Gwendolyn Wilson, two of the first black women to enroll in the UI College of Pharmacy; activist Helen Lemme; and Beulah Wheeler, a decorated basketball and volleyball player and the first black woman to graduate from the College of Law.
“On that front porch, we talked of our dreams, laid out future plans, told each other how many kids we wanted to have,” former resident Barbara Brown James told the Daily Iowan. “I won’t ever forget that house.”
The house at 914 S Dubuque St was was built in 1914 by Charles and Dorothy Alberts with the express purpose of housing black students under the operation of black landlords. This purpose was fully realized in 1940, when the property was bought by a black couple who leased rooms to black male students.
The Tate Arms house was run by a prominent figure in Iowa City history: Elizabeth “Bettye” Crawford Tate, who worked in the UI cardiovascular laboratory for over two decades, and for whom Elizabeth Tate High School in Iowa City was named. Tate, who co-owned the Tate Arms house with her husband Junious “Bud” Tate, set plenty of rules for her roomers, and didn’t hesitate to enforce them. No liquor was allowed in the house, no women in the bedrooms, and tenants were expected to keep their rooms tidy. Some of her tenants — among them future doctors, judges and lawyers — credited Tate with keeping them on track to success.
The Tates were one of only nine known landlords in Iowa City who rented to black tenants. However, the couple divorced in 1961 and closed the house; it was another six years later, in 1967, before landlords were legally forbidden from discriminating against tenants based on race, thanks to the passage of the Fair Housing Amendment to the Iowa Civil Rights Act. Tate Arms was designated an Iowa City Historic Landmark in 2014 after surviving several threats of demolition.
The city received an African American Civil Rights Grant in 2016, which funded the nomination process for both the Iowa Federation Home and Tate Arms house to the National Register of Historic Places, as well as educational signage in front of the two buildings. Carlson researched and wrote the National Register applications on the request of Iowa City Senior Planner Robert Miklo. These applications continue to serve as the most exhaustive sources of information on the houses.
While it’s been nearly 75 years since UI integrated student housing, and more than 140 years since black students were first admitted to the school, Michael D. Hill, co-editor of Invisible Hawkeyes: African Americans at the University of Iowa During the Long Civil Rights Era, suggested black students in 2020 may continue to feel out of place in Iowa City, which is around 78 percent white.
“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,” Hill told Little Village in 2018. “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.”
Making the area’s black history more visible is one way to ensure black students, past and present, are acknowledged for their integral role in the university, Carlson said. Along with the 152-year-old Bethel AME Church, the Iowa Federation Home and Tate Arms house are visual reminders of the area’s black history.
“If you lose these buildings, you lose a tangible relationship to the past,” Carlson said. “The historic lack of recognition of African-American history — that’s a historical wrong that people are now trying to correct.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article identified Robert McCoy, not Robert Miklo, as the person to request the applications.