WATERLOO — Charles Pearson believes historic preservation is more than restoring old buildings.
The Waterloo native has been working tirelessly for several years to ensure important stories, significant events and landmarks related to African-American history and the civil rights struggle also are maintained for future generations.
The Waterloo Historic Preservation Commission will honor Pearson in May with an award recognizing his efforts to raise awareness both in Waterloo and statewide for civil rights history.
Pearson has been working on an Iowa Civil Rights Trail, which would create a statewide inventory of civil rights sites designed to spur tourism, while pushing in his hometown to establish heritage areas that could bring federal money to improve neighborhoods significant to Waterloo’s history.
“The civil rights piece is a part of the history of Waterloo; there’s a powerful civil rights story here that’s universal,” Pearson said. “The African-American piece is a part of that.”
But he said it’s also important to preserve the stories of German, Scandinavian, Irish Catholic and other immigrants who also struggled and worked together with African-Americans to overcome inequality.
“It wasn’t just blacks that had civil rights issues,” Pearson said. “This (east) side of Waterloo is a poor people’s community — and African-Americans are a part of that — but for some reason we let the black story swallow up the whole story.
“We’ve got to come out of that because civil rights doesn’t have a color,” he added.
Pearson is a 1984 graduate of East High School where he was a state champion wrestler and a member of East’s last state championship wrestling team.
His grandfather was a leader .in the United Packinghouse Workers of America Local 46, which brought blacks and whites together in the 1950s to fight for equality both in the Rath Packing Co. and the city. His father, Charles Myles, formed the Unity Neighborhood Association and taught him how historic preservation can benefit a community.
Pearson said he learned about African-American Civil Rights grants available through the National Park Service during a preservation summit in Davenport in 2016. He was stunned to see Waterloo — in fact, the entire state of Iowa — didn’t have a single civil rights site on the National Register of Historic Places.
“My first goal is to get the first African-American property on the National Register,” he said.
Then Pearson hopes to work with the city, school system and others to establish a physical walking trail connecting important civil rights locations in the community, making it a tourist destination.
His efforts helped the local historic preservation commission land a $37,500 African-American Civil Rights grant in March while the State Historical Society of Iowa received nearly $50,000 to document African-American civial rights locations across the state.
Pearson also worked with Waterloo Human Rights Director Abraham Funchess last week to hold an awards ceremony and bus tour honoring Martin Luther King Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his assassination.
Mayor Quentin Hart said Pearson’s efforts are important to the community.
“We thank Charles for his efforts to showcase the great history and diversity of the city of Waterloo,” Hart said.