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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Harriet P. Macy – Iowa’s Own Teaching Artist. An art graduate from Drake University, the widely-celebrated artist – Harriet P. Macy – taught art for 38 years at East High School in Des Moines. Along the way, she and her students won numerous art awards, but more importantly, Macy instilled, through her life’s work, the beauty of diversity in God’s creation. One year after her death, the Iowa Art Guild celebrated her life by publishing a book of her sketches of historic sites around Iowa.
Mildred W. Pelzer – An Iowa City Artist. Meet Mildred Pelzer and her amazing collection of Iowa-related artwork. A student of Grant Wood, Mildred gained fame with her oil paintings of flowers – with one of her pieces appearing on the cover of Better Homes & Gardens in July 1934. Later that year, her eight 4′ x 12′ murals depicting important events in Iowa City history debuted in the lobby of the Jefferson Hotel – becoming a city-wide favorite for many years.
The Mildred Pelzer Iowa City Murals. In 1934, the Jefferson Hotel commissioned this Iowa City artist to create eight murals that represented our rich Iowa City heritage, focusing on the theme of transportation. For fifteen years, these murals were proudly displayed in the hotel lobby until a ill-fated remodeling effort nearly sent these beauties to an early demise. Today, five have been rescued and remain as a beautiful tribute to both Mildred Pelzer and Our Iowa Heritage.
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.
Marybeth Slonneger – Iowa City’s Artistic Historian. Iowa City has a rich heritage of talented artists and gifted historians, but Marybeth Slonneger just might be our city’s first resident who is actually both. Come meet Marybeth and take a brief look at her fourth book (2015), Finials: A View of Downtown Iowa City.
Iowa City’s Own Herstorian – Renée Sueppel. A fifth generation Iowan, Renée Sueppel comes from a long line of brave, pioneering women. In 2008, Sueppel and her team began The Women at Iowa Project – produced by the Council on the Status of Women and the University of Iowa cable network (UITV) and designed to tell the stories of recent Iowa women graduates. Today, she continues her endeavor to bring Iowa herstories to the forefront.
UI Herstory – Dr. Christine Grant. In December, 2021, one of Iowa City’s finest citizens passed into glory. Dr. Christine Grant – age 85 – served as the University of Iowa’s Director of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women for 27 years (1973-2000). Under her leadership, we not only saw UI women – in 12 different sports – bring home 12 NCAA championships and 27 Big Ten titles, but we all witnessed this gracious but gritty competitor from Scotland serve as a national pioneer and influential voice for gender equity in collegiate athletics.
Caitlin Clark From The Logo In Coralville. In April 2023, immediately following the exciting women’s basketball season with the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Final Four, Caitlin Clark dropped by the Coralville Community Food Pantry (CCFP) to meet and greet her many fans while raising funds for the CCFP Clark’s Team Up Against Hunger Campaign. This April, we raised over $50,000 and it all goes to help our neighbors in need throughout Coralville. Here’s a salute to Caitlin – maybe we need to restore Coralville’s old name – Welcome to Clarksville!
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?