Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
A moment in Black History: Coming to Waterloo

A moment in Black History: Coming to Waterloo

  • 0

"I always believed the Lord would bring me to see better things, and give me a chance to enjoy life like other folks."

-- Former slave William Jones, of La Porte City, 1873, at 10th anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation

WATERLOO -- They came here like other people, looking for a better life. They weren't treated like other people, however.

The history of African-Americans in Waterloo and the Cedar Valley parallels that of the many other ethnic groups who came here. Their struggle was an arguably tougher road -- even though African-Americans have been part of this community from its earliest days -- back to the fight to end slavery and preserve the Union.

Included among their number was a man who gave up his profession to join the Union Army and paid the ultimate sacrifice; one who became a minister after serving through the war's entire four bloody years as a teen-age boy; and one man who led a large number of his fellow slaves to freedom.

Three key events of the 19th and early 20th centuries helped shape the early history of African-Americans in the Cedar Valley: the Civil War; the influence of the southern Iowa mining community of Buxton; and the Great Migration, which brought many African-Americans here from Mississippi in the middle of a 1912 railroad strike.

Battle Cry of Freedom

Waterloo was officially platted as a town in 1854 and incorporated as a city in 1868. African-Americans, though few in number, were in the community during those years, and answered their nation's call to duty during the Civil War, from 1861 to 1865.

George Butler, an African-American barber from Waterloo, joined the Union Army in 1863.

He was one of 80,000 Iowans who served, including one entire regiment of African-Americans -- the 1st Regiment, Iowa African Infantry, which later became the 60th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops.

According a historical account compiled under the direction of Brig. Gen. Guy Logan for the Iowa General Assembly, there were fewer than 1,500 African-Americans living in Iowa at the time but the unit mustered about 1,000 men, including "almost every man of African descent in the state capable of performing military service" according to Logan's account, and more from surrounding states.

Butler, born in Ohio in 1821, was one of the few African-Americans living in Waterloo at the time he volunteered, according to Cedar Falls historian Kenneth Lyftogt.

Black Hawk County needed to raise 157 Union Army recruits to avoid a draft. Waterloo was one volunteer short of its share of that quota. The whites came to 42-year-old Butler in his small barber shop and heavily recruited him. With a $500 "bounty" offered new recruits -- $200 from the Black Hawk County Board of Supervisors and $300 from the federal government -- and a recruiting officer's promise that he could enlist in any unit he wished, Butler agreed.

That promise was broken. Butler thought he had enlisted in a cavalry unit. He had not been told he was joining a segregated army. He was told upon arrival at Camp McClellan in Davenport that all blacks were to be assigned to the African infantry regiment.

That unit served with distinction in Arkansas, and was heavily involved in the Battle of Wallace's Ferry near Big Creek, Ark., on July 26, 1864, in which several of its members were killed or wounded.

Five months later, George Butler joined the 12,000 Iowans who died in the Civil War in battle or from wounds or disease. Butler returned to Waterloo and died here Dec. 23, 1864, of disease contracted during his military service. He is buried at Waterloo Cemetery on Kimball Avenue.

Other black Union soldiers and former slaves settled here immediately after the war. One of them was a heroic Fredericksburg, Va.-born slave named William Jones of La Porte City. Born in 1820, he was sold at age 18 and taken to Louisiana, where he lived, in slavery, when the war broke out.

"Having been entrusted by his master to direct eight wagon loads of colored people to a place of safety, he, true to the instincts of humanity, marched them to freedom, and the camp of the Union Army at Millikens Bend," according to an article which appeared in the La Porte City Progress and the Courier upon his November 1874 death at age 54.

Jones had served under a Union officer until the war's end, when he made his way north to La Porte City and became a respected member of the community. But his years in slavery had taken their toll.

"He died calmly and rests where the universal brotherhood of man is recognized," the Progress and Courier correspondent wrote upon his death. He is buried at West View Cemetery.

A third, the Rev. G.H. Burks, a native of Kentucky, served in Co. E of the 13th Kentucky Regiment of the Union Army. "He enlisted at the opening of the Civil War… and served until the close of the war," the Courier reported in 1915. He would have been just 14 years old at the time of his enlistment, one of many youths who served during that war, on both sides.

An African Methodist Episcopal minister, he moved to Waterloo from Kentucky to live with his daughter, Mrs. C.R. Cheatham, in October 1914. He died at a revival meeting in Kansas in March 1915 at age 68 and is buried at Fairview Cemetery in Waterloo. Presiding at his funeral was the Rev. I.W. Bess, one of Waterloo's leading crusaders for equality in the early 20th century.

Buxton: Oasis of opportunity

While Waterloo's African-American community can trace its earliest roots back to the Civil War and its aftermath, it was an oasis of African-American opportunity in the southern part of the state -- the community of Buxton - that brought another stream of skilled and professional people here, from about the turn of the century through the 1920s.

Today little remains of Buxton.

The southern Iowa town cropped up at the end of the 19th century, flourished for over 20 years, then disappeared.

During its peak, it had between 5,000 and 7,000 residents -- most of whom were African-Americans.

At a time when segregation, Jim Crow laws and grandfather clauses were a way of life, Buxton was a place where blacks and whites lived in harmony making it a sort of "utopia" for the blacks who lived there. Waterloo ultimately benefited from it.

"A lot of the professional people in the community came from there," said Mary Potter Spencer of Waterloo, one of many Waterloo residents who can trace family roots back to Buxton. "There were lawyers, doctors and teachers."

Spencer's parents both came from Buxton. Her mother, Grace Harris Potter, taught school in Buxton and came to Waterloo in 1921. Her father, Robert George "R.G." Potter, came in 1923. They were active in the YMCA and the A.M.E. church in Buxton. Spencer's aunt, Nora Maybelle Harris, also taught school in Buxton and later moved to Atlantic City, N.J., where she taught school for many years.

"I really think Buxton was that special to the African-American people who lived there. I think for them it was an incredible experience," said Dorothy Schwieder, professor of history at Iowa State University.

Schwieder, along with colleagues Joseph Hraba and husband Elmer, wrote "Buxton: Work and Racial Equality in a Coal Mining Community" in 1987, a book depicting life from the perspective of those who lived there.

Schwieder said at first, as a historian, she was skeptical of the accounts of the Buxton experience. But all but one of her 75 interviews of former residents, black and white, consistently painted vivid pictures of a cultural "utopia" where people worked and lived together.

"What we got through those interviews over and over and over and over was that Buxton was a wonderful place to live," she said.

It all started in 1881 when the Chicago & North Western Railroad purchased the Consolidation Coal Co. in Muchakinock in Mahaska County, making it a captive coal mine to supply coal for its train engines. By 1900 operations moved south to Buxton when Muchakinock mines were depleted.

According to Schwieder, blacks in Buxton enjoyed steady employment, above average wages, good housing, and minimal racial discrimination, if not a total absence of it.

For example, she said, "I would ask those who rode the trains to work where they sat and if they sat with all blacks or whites, and they all said 'we just got on the train and sat down wherever we wanted."

"It was exciting to me because here is a town that was primarily African-American with people of different races living together in Iowa at that time," said David Gradwohl, professor emeritus of anthropology at ISU.

Gradwohl added that the people of Buxton promoted racial harmony and often turned a cheek to interracial marriage.

"Blacks from Buxton often had a hard time coping with the real world of Jim Crow laws and segregation that existed outside of Buxton," Gradwohl said. "When they visited other towns in Iowa like Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Waterloo they often experienced racism and didn't understand it."

Blacks made up over 55 percent of Buxton's population, with a mixture of native-born people and immigrants from the British Isles and Sweden rounding out the total. Most of the blacks were recruited and brought by train from Virginia and Missouri to replace striking miners.

"People talked about how they brought whole families down there in the boxcars," Elmer Schweider said.

The blacks of Buxton kept abreast of local happenings through one of two black newspapers, the Negro Solicitor and Muchakinock State, or at meetings of several black clubs and lodges. They also sought to uplift members of their race by sponsoring appearances by prominent blacks like Booker T. Washington who had achieved success in the outside world.

Gradwohl said he researched Buxton for several years in the early to mid-1980s to provide documentation to get the community listed on the National Register of Historic Places. By the fall of 1983, as a result of his work with Osborn, it was added to the national register.

The utopia, ultimately, ran out with the coal.

"As the old saying was, the mines petered out," Spencer said, triggering a stream of Buxton residents to Waterloo, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and other Iowa cities. But Buxtonites did not forget their roots, with "Buxton clubs" active in each of those communities well into the 1980s.

Mississippi comes to Waterloo

They were promised better work, but were literally "railroaded" into breaking a strike. They were promised homes, but forced to live next to prostitutes, pool halls and bootleggers. Then they were blamed for those activities by the very people responsible. They asked for a voice in their community, and received silence in return.

But they stayed, knowing their present was better than their past and hoping their future could be as good as they wanted to make it. Slowly, painfully, their voices would be heard.

Today it's difficult to imagine Waterloo without an African-American community. In the decade from 1910-19, its leaders were challenged with winning recognition, let alone appreciation, from the community at large.

According to local historian Bob Neymeyer, in 1910 there were fewer than 20 African-Americans in Waterloo. By 1915, there were 500; and nearly 1,000 by the decade's end, about 3 percent of the city's population.

They came from the Deep South, from Mississippi communities like Durant, Canton, Brookhaven, Kosciusko and Water Valley. They came from the land of Jim Crow and the burning cross, to the land of the restrictive covenant and the cold shoulder. They may have escaped the specter of the lynch mob, but neither did they find a welcoming committee.

Northern black newspapers like the Chicago Defender pointed the way for what later became known as the Great Migration. Those publications promised African-Americans jobs and a better life in the North, if not an escape from discrimination.

African Americans began arriving here in earnest during a national railroad strike that shut down the Illinois Central Railroad's shop at the Waterloo rail yard on East Fourth Street.

Because Waterloo at the time was a major railroad crossroads between Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis, the shutdown of the Waterloo shop threatened to tie up railroad service throughout the upper Midwest. The railroad began looking for non-union personnel to staff the shop.

When it couldn't find enough people locally, the railroad began advertising along its southern lines and extensively in Mississippi, promising free passage to men willing to relocate to the North. Southern workers boarded IC trains for Waterloo and other Northern cities.

The arriving African-American workers were the target of a double enmity from strike-supporting Waterloo residents: The new workers were resented for being strike breakers as well as for being black.

They lived wherever they could find affordable housing, but many settled near the Illinois Central yards on the city's east side.

The east side had been a traditional "port of entry" for Waterloo's newer residents of more moderate incomes. It also became a haven for crime in 1912 after the city outlawed saloons, and bootleggers set up shop in the poorer neighborhoods like those near the yards.

The African Americans held together. Those who were lucky or enterprising enough to own property - seven black families owned homes in 1915, all financed without local banks' help - rented living space out to other African-American families coming to the community. Many of the new arrivals lived in boxcars provided by the railroad.

According to a 1980 article in the Iowa Historical Society publication, the Palimpsest, the bootleggers' barrooms "attracted gamblers, prostitutes, dope peddlers and all kinds of underworld characters."

The Courier and its competing paper, the Times-Tribune, began to identify the east side with "vice and criminality," according to the Palimpsest. The papers mistakenly blamed a good share of the problem on the growing African-American population. The area became known as "Smokey Row."

"That most blacks had come to work in factories rather than in gambling halls or that the halls themselves were owned by white businessmen, escaped the newspapers' attention," said the article.

The African-Americans held together. Those who were lucky or enterprising enough to own property -- seven black families owned homes in 1915, all financed without local banks' help -- rented living space out to other African-American families coming to the community. In summer, many of the new arrivals took up temporary shelter in boxcars provided by the railroad.

"Unusual was the black family that could afford to live without taking in boarders or sharing space with another family," according to the Palimpsest.

Local real estate agents began writing restrictive covenants into land developments.

"Whether by design or accident, the white (real estate agents) restrictive covenants forced Waterloo's African-Americans to set up housekeeping shoulder-to-shoulder with pimps and bootleggers," according to the Palimpsest.

Since it took faith for those early Waterloo African Americans to stick together, it was only natural that people of faith would lead them.

As a result, Payne African Methodist Episcopal Church and Antioch Baptist Church were formed. The two churches became a forum for blacks to express opinion on community issues.

In 1916, the city's Board of Realtors asked the City Council to pass an ordinance prohibiting the sale of houses to blacks in white districts. The council refused, but the real estate agents informally imposed the ban anyway. By the end of World War I, nearly all blacks in Waterloo lived in the east side "triangle" near the IC yards; only a few lived on the west side and those who did were close to the river. That meant African-American families had to raise their children within the shadow of the bootleggers and prostitutes of "Smokey Row."

Slowly, the African-American community was emerging from its outwardly imposed isolation.

"The years from 1911 through 1919 had been ones of building and consolidation from within for the black community," the Palimpsest stated. Despite increasing pressures for segregation, by the end of the decade, Waterloo's African-Americans "could no longer passively accept these conditions," leading to the formation of a local chapter of the NAACP.


Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News