Our Iowa Heritage Index: Iowa – Rich Stories of Diversity.

Three different Americans living in three different generations have voiced the dream of what America could become. This 200+ year experiment in true democracy has had its ups and downs, but suffice to say that there have always been voices like Jefferson, King, Catt, and many others who cry out in the wilderness – beckoning us to rise about our pride, prejudice, and self-consumption.

Here at Our Iowa Heritage, we want to do our part as well. That’s why, as we write posts about the history of our state, our county, and our community, we not only want to share the powerful stories of those names most everybody knows, but we also want to strive to bring you those uplifting stories of men and women who, for no other reason than racial or sexual prejudice, have been overlooked in our history.

As our series Rich Stories of Diversity grows, we hope this story index will help you see that here in Iowa, we do have a very rich heritage of those who have gone before us – lighting the way.


Click here to access our Rich Stories of Diversity Timeline.

1838 to Today – Unity Through Diversity. Believe it or not, in 1838, when a group of seven pioneers gathered to chart out the future of Johnson County, there were five white men (no surprise, right?), but also a black man named Mogawk, and a Native American woman named Jennie, all working alongside two Meskwaki chiefs. Could it be that MLK’s Dream where men and women are judged by character, and not by the color of their skin, is possible today? Come look at what we’re doing to move forward together.

Rich Stories of Diversity Timeline. Over the last 300+ years, a diverse group of men and women have contributed much to what Iowa is today. On this timeline, you’ll certainly find some recognizable names, but we also want to introduce you to some names that you may not know – simply because their skin color, sex, religious beliefs, or cultural background has reduced their visibility in our history books. Our goal here at Our Iowa Heritage is to correct that error.

Iowa – This Is The Place. Long before Europeans “discovered” the Heartland, Iowa was a Native-American word that had several different meanings. Let’s start Our Iowa Heritage journey by honoring those who came long before us, and explore the truest meaning of our state’s name IOWA.

Ancient Iowa – Exploring The Land. Archaeologists believe that the first inhabitants of what is now the state of Iowa were Paleo-Indians, the earliest ancestors of Native Americans. They occupied ice-free land during the time when the Des Moines lobe was covered by glaciers, up to 14,000 years ago. The earliest archaeological evidence of settlement, however, dates from about 8,500 years ago, with many different tribes, speaking various different languages inhabiting Iowa.

Meskwaki People – True Native Iowans. At the time of the American Revolution, the Mississippi River Valley was lush prairie-land occupied by several Native American tribes: The Meskwaki (Fox), the Sauk, the Sioux, and the Ioway. Since Our Iowa Heritage website focuses primarily on eastern Iowa, here we give a tip of the hat to the Meskwaki people who migrated to the Iowa River Valley as white settlements began to emerge.

Preserving The Meskwaki Language of Iowa. Part of our great appreciation for the Meskwaki people includes doing all we can in helping preserve the rich heritage of this unique native people of Iowa. Hats off to Wayne Pushetonequa and his Meskwaki Language Preservation (MLP) team who are maintaining cultural identity through their dedicated efforts to revitalize the everyday use of the ancient Meskwaki language among native Iowans.

Chief Poweshiek – The Roused Brown Bear. During a very volatile time in Iowa history (1830-1854), the Meskwaki Tribal Chief Poweshiek did a masterful job of maintaining peace yet never sacrificing his strong principles, believing that all men should live in freedom. Read the story behind this brave warrior who loved his people and cherished the Iowa River valley, the place we now call Johnson County, Iowa.

Honoring The Ioway Tribe Of Johnson County. Elders in the Ioway Tribe have said that before white people came, no other nation could put a moccasin inside the land between the Missouri River and Mississippi River without the Ioway knowing about it. Nearly 200 years after the 1838 treaty that forced the tribe from the state, the Ioway people once again have land in Iowa – seven acres in Johnson County! Read the full story as shared here from The Iowa City Press-Citizen.

Our Indigenous Land Acknowledgment. Here at Our Iowa Heritage, we want to fully acknowledge the historical records of this land we call Iowa. Learn more about our friends & neighbors – celebrating who they are and the contributions they have provided in the face of violence, oppression, and colonialism.

The Johnson County Business Meeting That Changed Iowa History. With the creation of Johnson County, John Gilbert went to work, calling for a “business meeting” where a diverse team of six men and one woman met to draft a strategic plan that would be presented to the Iowa Territorial legislature, requesting major funding for roads, bridges, and a post office! The plan worked and over the next year, big preparations were made to make Johnson County the home of Iowa’s new capital city.

Alexander Levi – Dubuque’s Man Of Firsts. In 1833, Iowa’s first Jewish settler found a new home in Dubuque. Over the next sixty years, Alexander and Minette Levi set many firsts – 1) their daughter was the first Jewish child born in Iowa (1848), 2) they became founding members of Iowa’s first synagogue (1856), 3) A Frenchmen, Alexander became the first foreigner naturalized (U.S. citizenship) in Iowa (1837); all while becoming one of Dubuque’s most highly-respected couples.

Welcome To Salubria, Iowa! In 1839, a 65-year-old preacher named Abner Kneeland escaped the religious persecution he suffered in Massachusetts, settling in Van Buren County, where he founded a religion-free community called Salubria. A pantheist, Kneeland was jailed in Boston for heresy, but here in Iowa, he and his followers were able to live in religious freedoms never offered them back east.

Ralph + Wilson + Mason = The Road To Freedom. Did you know that Chief Justice Charles T. Mason, along with his fellow judges Joseph Williams and Thomas S. Wilson, ruled, in the Case of Ralph vs. Montgomery – 1839, that under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery in Iowa Territory was “forever prohibited?” This impressive anti-slavery decision on July 4, 1839 not only freed Ralph Montgomery of Dubuque, but it set a precedent for all future decisions in our state’s court system.

1853 – Opening Doors For The Visually Impaired. In 1853, Samuel Bacon came to Iowa City to oversee the newly-formed, state-supported Iowa School for the Blind. Over the next nine years, Professor Bacon took this “asylum” – which was perceived as a hospital or poorhouse and made it into a fully-functioning educational center that literally changed the way our society responds to visually-impaired citizens of our state.

Iowa & The Underground Railroad. From the moment Iowa was first proposed to become the 29th State in the Union, the pressure was on the good people of The Hawkeye State to decide if we would be a northern state, siding with those against slavery, or join with our neighbors to the south, Missouri, which was a slave state. Iowa overwhelming supported freedom for all, thus becoming an important stop in The Underground Railroad.

Iowa & The Civil War – 1861-1865. As a ‘free state’ Iowans played a major role in the Civil War. Under the leadership of Iowa’s Civil War Governor – Samuel Kirkwood – Iowa offered 48 infantry regiments, 9 cavalry regiments and 4 batteries of artillery to the Union troops. The Hawkeye State also furnished one black regiment and one thousand replacement troops for the war effort between 1861 and 1865.

The Wide-Awake Abolitionist & Keeper Of The Fair. Did you know that in the late 1850’s, Republicans were the “awakened” party, with thousands of young voters joining “Wide-Awake” chapters in nearly every county of every Northern “Free” state? It’s this awakened generation that played a huge part in electing a relatively-unknown senator from Illinois, named Abraham Lincoln, to be the 16th President of the U.S. Here in Iowa, brave abolitionists like Dr. J.M. Shaffer of Fairfield helped set the pace for such radical change, and by the way – Dr. Shaffer was also the key leader that helped pull together Iowa’s very first State Fair!

St. Agatha’s of Iowa City – Breaking The Glass Ceiling. In 1861, Mary Haberstroh donated one of her late husband’s prime properties, The Park House, to the Sisters of Charity (BVM), who then transformed it into a cutting edge educational haven for women. Over the next fifty years (1862-1911), St. Anthony’s Seminary joined the State University of Iowa in making Iowa City into one of the most opportune places in the nation when it came to attaining equality in education.

Clark + Clark + Cole = Equality in Education. Did you know that the Iowa Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools in 1868 – eighty-six years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education in 1954? Thanks to Muscatine’s Alexander Clark and his 12-year-old daughter Susan, working alongside Judge Chester C. Cole, the color barrier was broken, placing the Hawkeye State on the cutting edge of the civil rights movement.

Coger + Beck + Miller = Liberty & Justice For All. Did you know that these three heroes struck a huge blow for civil rights in 1873, when the Iowa Supreme Court wrote the decision for Emma Coger v. The North Western Union Packet Company? After Coger’s attorney, Daniel F. Miller, defended her case, Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, Joseph M. Beck ruled that a black woman who bought an unrestricted meal ticket on a Mississippi River steamboat must be served equally. Sadly, the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t see it that way until 1964.

George Washington Carver – Iowa’s Mr. Peanut. Carver was an agricultural scientist and inventor who developed hundreds of products using peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans. Born into slavery a year before it was outlawed, George left home at a young age to pursue education and continued that training in Iowa – Simpson College in Indianola (1890-1891), agricultural science (Iowa State University -1894) and was the first black faculty member at ISU (1894-1896) earning a master’s degree. He would go on to teach and conduct research at Tuskegee University (1896-1943).

Frank “Kinney” Holbrook – Tipton’s Iron Man. In 1895, the son of a runaway slave overcame many obstacles, fighting the good fight for racial equality, as he embarked on one amazing journey, becoming the first African American college football player in the state of Iowa. This Tipton, Iowa native attended SUI for two school years (1895-1897), leading the Hawkeyes to their first-ever conference championship while blazing a trail for others to follow.

Hannah Elizabeth Irish – Iowa City’s Business Entrepreneur. In 1895, a visionary named Elizabeth Irish opened a business college, becoming Iowa City’s first business woman to be included in The Commercial Club – the forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce. Over the next 45 years, Irish’s University Business College successfully prepared 12,000 students for productive jobs in the business community.

Meet The Good People Of Block 98. Beginning in the 1840’s – and continuing right up through the turn-of-the-century – an eclectic group of Iowa City newcomers gathered together to make up a small but widely-diverse neighborhood living on less-desirable, flood-prone land near the Iowa River. Here are some of the stories of these lesser-known Iowa City residents who lived and labored in shadow of Old Capitol right up until the 1920’s.

Carrie C. Catt – Iowa’s Champion for Women’s Rights. Growing up in Charles City as a farmer’s daughter, very few people expected Carrie Lane to be a world-changer. But over her 88 years, this ISU graduate became one of the key leaders of the American women’s suffrage movement. Her superb oratory and organizational skills led to ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote in August, 1920.

Duke Slater – Iowa’s All-American Trailblazer. In 1921, Iowa had an All-American football player from Clinton that single-handedly took the Hawkeyes to a mythical national championship. A man cut from the same fabric as Nile Kinnick, Duke Slater has largely been forgotten over the last century, primarily because of his skin color. But no more. Beginning in 2021, the Hawkeyes will be playing on Duke Slater Field in Kinnick Stadium. Come read this amazing man’s story.

Johnson County’s New Namesake – What a Lulu! A graduate of SUI – BA in 1929 and a Masters in History (1930) – Johnson went on to distinguish herself as the second African-American woman in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. in History, and the first to receive a Doctorate of any kind in Iowa! In June 2021, Johnson County, Iowa did something that rarely happens – they officially changed their eponyn, removing a racist slave-holding southerner in favor of this amazing African-American Iowa farm girl who spent her life teaching us things we all need to know.

Ozzie Simmons + Racial Targeting = Floyd of Rosedale. In 1933, a young black man from Texas showed up in Iowa City, looking to follow in the footsteps of Duke Slater. Before he graduated in 1936, he had become an All-American football player, but more importantly, he blazed a trail for other people of color and is remembered each year with Floyd of Rosedale – going to the winner of the Iowa/Minnesota game.

Remembering Helen Lemme – Grinnell’s Golden Girl. In the 1930’s, a proud black woman from Grinnell, Iowa, who was denied an 8th grade gold-medal in scholarship because of skin color, came to Iowa City and helped transform it by opening doors for people of color. When prejudice closed SUI dorms to African Americans, Helen and Allyn Lemme freely opened their home, setting in place an example of servanthood that touches people’s hearts even to today.

Simon Estes – From Centerville to Center Stage. Born in 1938 in Centerville, Iowa, Simon Estes is the son of a coal miner, with a grandfather who was once a slave sold for $500. Crediting his strong faith in God, Estes rose above the racial prejudice, finding his singing voice at SUI in 1961, before establishing himself as a world-renowned opera singer, with many calling him the finest baritone-bass in the world.

Bethel AME – 150 Years Of Keeping The Faith In Iowa City. In 1868, the small but determined African-American community in Iowa City purchased a piece of land on South Governor Street for $50 and never looked back. 150 years later – in 2018 – the Bethel AME community continues to make a huge contribution to our city – taking care of people’s needs while also caring for souls.

A Penny From Heaven – Rev. Fred L. Penny. In 1958, Rev. Fred Penny and his family came to Iowa City to take over the struggling Bethel AME Church. The church was formed in 1868, but at age 90, had fallen into deep debt and disrepair. Over the next 36 years, Rev. Penny not only turned the church around, but became a true friend to the entire community with his caring hands, his friendly smile, and determined effort to help anyone in need.

The Day MLK Came To Iowa City. On Wednesday, November 11, 1959, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a standing-room-only crowd gathered in the SUI Memorial Union Ballroom. Dr. King warned his audience to not fall into complacency on the never-ending march toward social justice. Come re-visit this special day in Iowa City with the help of The Daily Iowan.

Old Stone Capitol Remembers – Abraham, Martin, & John. Since it’s inception in 1841, the Old Stone Capitol has been a gathering place for Iowa Citians. Revisit three iconic moments in American history: Lincoln (1865), Kennedy (1963), and King (1968) via photographs taken by iconic Iowa City photographers, Issac Wetherby and Fred Kent.

Lolly Parker Egger’s Library Legacy. In 1969, Lolly Eggers came on staff at the Iowa City Public Library. Over the next twenty-five years, this lion-hearted librarian transitioned the organization from being a simple small-town library to becoming one of the most widely-respected media centers around the country. A true mover-n-shaker, Lolly Eggers led the way for women across Johnson County.

Making Elbow Room For A Pulitzer-Prize Winner. Over a thirty-year period, James Alan McPherson, the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, found plenty of “elbow room” for both himself and others while teaching at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. In 2021, Iowa City renamed one of its city parks in his honor.

Honoring James Alan McPherson. On August 5, 2021, the City of Iowa City held a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the newly-renamed park honoring McPherson. Both the mayor and McPherson’s daughter, Rachel, were there for the festivities…and so were we. Enjoy the pics!

Johnson County Remembrance Park. As we close this journey into Our Iowa Heritage, allow me to retell one more story that comes from Johnson County’s first business meeting. It was January 1838. Seven pioneers met in John Gilbert’s Trading Post on the Iowa River to draw up an expansion plan for their new county. It’s not surprising to find five white men here, but what is absolutely shocking is that the other two individuals were a black man and a Native American woman. Unity through diversity. Could it be as we pause to remember, we might also choose to walk a similar path today … for a time such as this?


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