Uncovering the forgotten history of black businesses in Iowa City

The state of Iowa has a well-worn reputation for racial progressivism. As any left-of-center, Iowa-centric political group will remind you, Iowa has long been ahead of the game on legislative victories over racism: It banned slavery in 1839, legalized interracial marriages before the Civil War, struck down segregated schooling in 1868 and did away with Jim Crow-style segregated public accommodations (restaurants, movie theaters) in 1871. In the words of Progress Iowa, a Des Moines-based liberal political advocacy group, Iowa possesses an “inclusive and forward-looking tradition,” a tradition to be proud of.

And yet when it comes to the actual work of forming a non-racist society, the effort that requires more than passing a good bill or purging racist authorities, Iowa’s progressive reputation doesn’t hold. A look back at the history of Iowa City and the university at its center shows an entirely different tradition. At the core of the progressive society we celebrate has long been a tradition of bigotry, cowardice and discrimination, in which African American students were routinely denied the benefits of an “inclusive and forward-looking” society.

While progressive sentiment may have been present in the Iowa state legal code from the nineteenth century onward, little of it applied to the experienced reality of African Americans in Iowa City prior to the 1950s. While African Americans were permitted to attend the University of Iowa relatively early (the first black student, Alexander G. Clark Jr., graduated in 1879), they were not offered much in the way of infrastructure or support from the University to make attending possible. Black students were even banned from using on-campus housing.

Interestingly, unlike their southern counterparts a generation later, who based their opposition to desegregation on open appeals to racism and legal questions, University of Iowa administrators cited closer-to-home reasons for racial segregation: the hostile racial climate and a desire for order. As then-UI Dean of Men Robert Rienow wrote in a memo in 1935, “It would be quite impossible to permit Negro students to live in our Quadrangle …” The reason, he said, “is briefly clear: ‘race prejudice.’ It does not make any difference what we think about this problem, the fact remains that there is a very distinct social line. Whether this will be erased or not I cannot say. I do know that our students would not tolerate the presence of Negro students in their living quarters.”

The residents of Iowa City seemed to bear out Rienow’s claims, with most white landlords refusing to rent housing to black students and no legal grounds to force them to do so. Scholar Richard Breaux documented the experiences of William E. Taylor, a black student at the University in the 1920s, who said, “The conditions in this city are at present almost unlivable for a colored student. No one will rent to colored fraternities and no one will sell in a livable locality.”

In one instance, according to Taylor, the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan outbid a group of black students who were looking to purchase a house.

The discrimination branched out beyond housing, affecting the quality of life of black residents just about anywhere they went in Iowa City. White barbers refused to cut the hair of black students. The Iowa Memorial Union was off-limits to blacks. Many downtown restaurants refused to serve black patrons.

There may not have been “white only” signs in the front windows or rioters pouring ketchup on African Americans sitting at a lunch counter, but you could be black and sit for hours in a booth without getting a burger. As another former student explained to Breaux, “They had persons standing at the doors of restaurants in Iowa City and, while I was never refused admission, the person at the door would simply tell the Negro students that they simply didn’t serve Negroes.”

There seemed little in the way of hope for reversing these cultural and institutional attitudes. The fact that Iowa City’s virulent but non-violent racism was considered relatively liberal in comparison to the rest of the nation didn’t help advance progress. So black Iowa Citians responded by creating their own spaces.

Initially, many African American women obtained money for their educations by serving as domestic workers in the houses of white faculty, often even living with them. But this type of work was both degrading and detrimental to their schoolwork. A source told Breaux, “[These students] ran to school in the morning without a chance to glance in the glass, hurrying back at noon to help with the midday meal, then another run to school. When the evening work was done, they were [too] tired to study.”

So in 1919, the Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (IFCWC), a collection of black women’s clubs which sought to help guide young black women in a society ferociously hostile to their presence, purchased a house at 942 Iowa Avenue in order to give African American women something resembling a dorm experience. They did so by raising money from wealthy liberal whites and blacks of all classes. Local African Americans often opened up their own homes to black students who could not find any lodging elsewhere. One such family, the Lemmes, helped place black students from the early 1900s all the way into the 1940s.

Other individuals tried to alleviate the difficulties caused by Iowa City’s de facto segregation. Vivian Trent, a black woman who graduated from the University in 1934, started a restaurant called Vivian’s Chicken Shack in 1937 with the explicit purpose of serving black students unwelcome in downtown white-owned establishments.

One black woman cut and styled the hair of African American women, who were barred from local barbershops, at the IFCWC house. A white barber, who refused to cut African Americans’ hair at his own shop, nonetheless came by the Lemmes’ house twice a week to cut hair.

By the late 1940s, however, the winds began blowing in a different direction. In 1946, fearing a potential lawsuit from the NAACP, the UI dormitories were officially desegregated. Five black women, Esther Walls, Virginia Harper, Nancy Henry, Gwen Davis and Leanne Howard, became the first to move in in the fall of 1946.

Unlike at many southern public universities a decade or two later, where riots broke out or the National Guard had to be brought in escort black students to class, the University’s housing desegregation seems to have happened relatively peacefully, if not exactly enthusiastically. The institutional changes were again slow to trickle down to African Americans’ daily experience. If a black student was found socializing with a white student in the dorms, the proctor would be notified and disciplinary action taken. Some white students left the dorms to live in local apartments rather than reside with their black colleagues. Out-of-state black students remained barred from the dorms until 1949, and it was not until the late 1950s that black and white students were allowed to live in the same rooms.

Around the same time, black patrons began to be admitted to downtown businesses, and white landlords became more willing to rent to black students. As the most detectable and overt signs of discrimination began to fall out of favor, so too did many of the institutions erected to combat it. The IFCWC home closed in the 1950s and black-owned businesses such as Vivian’s Chicken Shack faded out over time.

Little public archival information remains about businesses like Vivian’s. The evidence of these black-owned spaces and the experiences of those who occupied them have slowly evaporated.

The price for acceptance in Iowa has, it seems, been paid with amnesia: our troubling racial past faces the ominous danger of giving way to the myth of a progressive past that never was. And if we choose to blind ourselves to the demons of our past, those same demons will continue to haunt us into the future.

Matthew Byrd, originally from Chicago, is currently a writer and proud resident of the People’s Republic of Johnson County. Angry screeds should be send to This article was originally published in Little Village issue 192.

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