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Honoring Juneteenth

10 moments that shaped Black civil rights in Iowa

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Before Iowa was even a state, the territory's Supreme Court declared that no man within its borders would be "reduced to slavery."

Ralph, a former slave who had been working in a Dubuque lead mine, could not be sent back to his previous owner, the court said in its first ever ruling.

When Ralph touched foot in Iowa, he was free.

More than 25 years and a long, bloody Civil War later, Union Gen. Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, a Confederate holdout, with a proclamation.

“All slaves are free,” he said on June 19, 1865, more than two years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation first guaranteed Black Americans their freedom.

“This involves an absolute equality of rights.”

Since then, Juneteenth — a portmanteau of June and 19th — has become a holiday commemorating the end of slavery and celebrating Black history, freedom and joy.

Juneteenth 2021: 

In Des Moines, the Iowa Juneteenth Observance plans to celebrate its 31st year with its largest celebration ever, culminating in Neighbor’s Day, a free festival with food, vendors and live performances on Saturday in Western Gateway Park.

After last year’s summer of protests, many Juneteenth events will highlight the future and the past, both where the fight for racial justice is going and where it has been.

In honor of how far Iowa has come since its first Supreme Court ruling declared no man would be a slave on its land, here are 10 moments that changed Black civil rights in Iowa.

1839: 'In the matter of Ralph'

The Territorial Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Ralph.
The Territorial Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Ralph. State Historical Society of Iowa

The first case ever heard by Iowa's Territorial Supreme Court was that of Ralph, a slave fighting for his freedom.

Ralph’s owner allowed him to leave Missouri to work in a Dubuque lead mine and eventually buy his freedom for $550. When Ralph failed to pay the amount in the agreed-upon time, his owner sent bounty hunters to capture him, claiming he was a fugitive slave.

The court rejected that argument on the grounds that Ralph’s owner had let him travel to a free state.

In the ruling, issued on July 4, the court wrote that while Ralph should pay the debt, “no man in this territory can be reduced to slavery.”

1868: Iowa desegregates schools

An artist's rendering of Susan Clark.
An artist's rendering of Susan Clark. WDM Historical Society

The wounds of the Civil War were still fresh when Alexander Clark, a well-known barber and civil rights advocate, noticed that his daughter, Susan, had outpaced her classmates at the Black school in Muscatine. Clark was turned away when he tried to enroll 12-year-old Susan in the local all-white school, and subsequently sued the district. 

In a landmark decision, the Iowa Supreme Court became among the first to rule that separate was not equal, writing: “All youths are equal before the law, and there is no discretion vested in the board of directors or elsewhere, to interfere with or disturb that equality.”

Nearly 80 years before Linda Brown was denied entrance to Topeka’s all-white school system, Susan Clark graduated from a white high school. Despite intense backlash that saw the Clarks’ house burned down, Susan Clark’s brother also graduated from the local all-white high school and later became the first Black man to attend the University of Iowa Law School.

Their father became the second.  

1873: Iowa desegregates public accommodations

An Union Packet Company steamboats advertisement.
An Union Packet Company steamboats advertisement. State Historical Society of Iowa

Emma Coger, a Black teacher, was 20 years old when she refused to leave the whites-only dining room of a steamboat traveling from Keokuk back to her hometown of Quincy, Illinois.

Initially given a meal ticket for the “colored” section near the deck’s guardrails, Coger asked a fellow passenger to buy her a ticket for the regular cabin, reserved for white guests. When she sat down for her meal, ticket in hand, she was asked to leave.

She refused. The captain violently forced her from her chair as she hung onto the table. He punched her knuckles and her head, eventually dragging her and most of the table’s settings out of the room.

Coger sued and won.

“If the Negro must submit to different treatment, to accommodations inferior to those given to the white man, when transferred by public carrier, he is deprived of the benefits of the very principle of equality,” the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision read.

1894: Iowa Bystander rolls off the press

Lawyer and publisher of the Iowa Bystander newspaper,  J.B. Morris, of Des Moines.
A 1949 newspaper clipping from the Iowa Bystander, a black newspaper.
(Top) Lawyer and publisher of the Iowa Bystander, J.B. Morris, of Des Moines. (Bottom) A 1949 newspaper clipping from the Iowa Bystander, a black newspaper. (Left) A 1949 newspaper clipping from the Iowa Bystander, a black newspaper. (Right) Lawyer and publisher of the Iowa Bystander, J.B. Morris, of Des Moines. (Left) A 1949 newspaper clipping from the Iowa Bystander, a black newspaper. (Right) Lawyer and publisher of the Iowa Bystander, J.B. Morris, of Des Moines. Iowa Civil Rights Commission/Special to the Register; Register file photo

Printing under the motto, “Fear God, tell the truth and make money,” the Iowa Bystander newspaper, founded in 1894, provided coverage of Black Iowans that many felt was missing from the city’s mainstream presses.

The paper expanded in 1917 with the arrival of the first Black officers at Fort Des Moines, eventually dedicating whole issues to stories from and about the training camp.

In 1922, Iowa newspaper giant J.B. Morris took the Bystander's helm and pushed its journalists to cover social justice issues, including the rise of Black culture as well as the threat of the Ku Klux Klan. The paper became a leader in the push for federal anti-lynching legislation, prompting harassment of the Morris family by the KKK.   

When the Bystander faced a financial crisis during the Great Depression, Des Moines Register publisher Harvey Ingram donated $100 to the paper and encouraged many other businessmen to give as well, ultimately ensuring the Bystander would continue publishing for decades.

Another war in Europe brought new energy to Fort Des Moines — and to the Bystander — when the site became the first Army training center for women, including 40 Black female officer candidates. Coverage of the women's distinctions and honors became routine in the Bystander's pages.

The Bystander eventually transitioned to a digital publication and continued publishing until its final owner, Jonathan Narcisse, died in 2018.

1915: Des Moines branch of the NAACP established  

Charter for the Des Moines Chapter of the NAACP.
Charter for the Des Moines Chapter of the NAACP. State Historical Museum of Iowa

Founded by attorney S. Joe Brown and his wife, Sue, the Des Moines branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People started with just 35 members.

But within a year, their constituency had grown to 200.

The group’s first action was to lobby against passage of a “Jim Crow” marriage law, which would have outlawed unions between races. Rallying their membership, the organization ensured the bill did not pass.

Since then, the Des Moines chapter of the NAACP has been instrumental in creating a legacy of racial justice in Iowa.

1948: Edna Griffin’s sit-in at the Katz Drugstore

Civil rights activists picket outside Katz Drug Store in downtown Des Moines, where in 1948 Edna Griffin was refused service at the lunch counter because she was black.
Edna Griffin is honored in 1998 on the 50th anniversary of her protests of a Des Moines drugstore that refused to serve black customers.
(Left) Civil rights activists picket outside Katz Drug Store in downtown Des Moines, where in 1948 Edna Griffin was refused service at the lunch counter because she was black. (Right) Edna Griffin is honored in 1998 on the 50th anniversary of her protests of a Des Moines drugstore that refused to serve black customers. (Left) Civil rights activists picket outside Katz Drug Store in downtown Des Moines, where in 1948 Edna Griffin was refused service at the lunch counter because she was black. (Right) Edna Griffin is honored in 1998 on the 50th anniversary of her protests of a Des Moines drugstore that refused to serve black customers. (Left) Civil rights activists picket outside Katz Drug Store in downtown Des Moines, where in 1948 Edna Griffin was refused service at the lunch counter because she was black. (Right) Edna Griffin is honored in 1998 on the 50th anniversary of her protests of a Des Moines drugstore that refused to serve black customers. Iowa Civil Rights Commission/Special to the Register; Fandel Gary, Copyright 1998 Des Moines Register

Before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, Edna M. Griffin rebuffed giving up a seat at a Des Moines lunch counter.

Born in Kentucky, Griffin, a graduate of Nashville’s Fisk University, moved with her husband to Des Moines just a year before a hot July day led her to order an ice cream cone at Katz Drug Store. The store refused to serve her and her friends because it was “not equipped to serve colored people.” Griffin used the incident as the impetus to organize sit-ins of the shop and file civil and criminal lawsuits against the lunch counter’s owner for violating Iowa’s Civil Rights Act.

In 1949, Griffin won her case, effectively closing the loopholes Iowa businesses had used to skirt the state’s public accommodations law. She was awarded just $1 in compensation, but her lawyers called the decision “a moral victory.”  

Then and now: A look at the 50+ years between Des Moines civil rights protests

Griffin spent the rest of her life dedicated to the civil rights struggle, organizing Iowans to join Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington and founding the Des Moines chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, which supported voter registration drives in the South.

A longtime anti-nuclear advocate, Griffin joined a different type of sit-in decades after the one at Katz as she lined up next to a group of Quakers blocking nuclear warheads from entering Offutt Air Force Base, south of Omaha, Nebraska. When the protesters were arrested, she was the only grandmother among them.

1966: The Good Park Rebellion

A Des Moines Register report on the Good Park Rebellion.
A Des Moines Register report on the Good Park Rebellion. Des Moines Register archives

National protests, sit-ins and marches in 1966, coinciding with the building of a new Interstate, I-235, straight through a bustling Black neighborhood, led to a summer of tension in Des Moines.

And in the runup to that year's July Fourth, friction between the police and Black youth, who were getting arrested for being outside past a 10 p.m. curfew, bubbled over into the Good Park Rebellion.

Spurred by reports that local police had roughed up two Black teens, protesters created a barricade of benches and trash barrels at the park entry and fought the police back with rocks and bottles for a few hours.

The Good Park Rebellion would become a catalyst for civil rights activism in Des Moines, marking the first of many protests in the Capital City — and nationally — as the 1960s gave way to the '70s.

1968: Des Moines Black Panther Party founded

A photo in the Des Moines Tribune on April 28, 1969, after the headquarters of the Des Moines Black Panthers was bombed.
A photo in the Des Moines Tribune on April 28, 1969, after the headquarters of the Des Moines Black Panthers was bombed. Des Moines Register archives

After attending a Black Panther Party rally in California, Mary Rhem, 19, returned to Des Moines with the goal of starting a branch in Iowa. 

From the beginning, the Des Moines Black Panther Party focused on community-based programs, including its popular free breakfast initiative and bail bonds projects. The party also had its own patrol to rid the community of crime and drugs and maintained a required reading list of radical Black authors, including Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver.

The Panthers showed “the truth about what we can do if we unite … the power we have to help people,” said former member and current state Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad.

The organization dwindled after its headquarters at University Avenue and 11th Street was bombed in 1969. The bomb just missed Abdul-Samad, who remembers looking up at the sky from the basement and thinking he was in heaven.   

The bombing remains unsolved, and the group folded in 1970.

While active for only three years, the Des Moines Black Panther Party’s legacy lives on in the myriad of free breakfast programs offered through local Black churches and nonprofits.  

'The 2nd Amendment should be equal': National African American Gun Association groups take root in Iowa

1992: The Mid-City Vision Coalition advocates for better neighborhoods

The Des Moines Register metro section on June 22, 1992, the day after the grand opening of Forest Avenue Library. Its opening drew hundreds of people. The Forest Avenue Library was a result of efforts led by the community, notably Evelyn K. Davis and the Mid-City Vision Coalition.
A clipping of a Des Moines Register editorial on June 20,1992. The Forest Avenue Library was a result of efforts led by the community, notably Evelyn K. Davis and the Mid City Vision Coalition. 

The coalition was a handful of community members and leaders who fought for better quality of life in their neighborhoods.
(Left) The Des Moines Register metro section on June 22, 1992, the day after the grand opening of Forest Avenue Library. (Right) A clipping of a Des Moines Register editorial on June 20, 1992. The Forest Avenue Library was a result of efforts led by the community, notably Evelyn K. Davis and the Mid City Vision Coalition. (Left) The Des Moines Register metro section on June 22, 1992, the day after the grand opening of Forest Avenue Library. (Right) A clipping of a Des Moines Register editorial on June 20, 1992. The Forest Avenue Library was a result of efforts led by the community, notably Evelyn K. Davis and the Mid City Vision Coalition. (Left) The Des Moines Register metro section on June 22, 1992, the day after the grand opening of Forest Avenue Library. (Right) A clipping of a Des Moines Register editorial on June 20, 1992. The Forest Avenue Library was a result of efforts led by the community, notably Evelyn K. Davis and the Mid City Vision Coalition. The Des Moines Register archives

The Mid-City Library on University Avenue was a symbol of neglect in the early 1990s. Despite the community's repeated requests for the city to improve its building and offerings, the structure was small and the shelves limited. In 1990, the city announced plans to close the library for good.

But Evelyn K. Davis, a powerhouse in Des Moines’ civil rights history, wasn’t going to let that happen. She joined with local business leaders and activists to form the Mid-City Vision Coalition, which fought for a bigger and better library. The fruits of their labor became the Forest Avenue Library, a big, bright building on the corner of the park eventually named for Davis.

For the next decade, the coalition would continue advocating for more recreational opportunities, lower public transportation fees and an improved quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods. Their work led, in part, to the founding of the Grubb Y and the opening of a nearby grocery store, C-Fresh.

2020: George Floyd’s murder rekindles a movement

Matthew Bruce leads protesters with BLM Des Moines in a march in on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020, to a home owned by Des Moines City Councilman Joe Gatto to vocalize a list of demands.
BLM organizer Matthew Bruce speaks during a press conference declaring a state of emergency for Black Iowans at Cheatom Park Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020.
Black Liberation Movement protester Jaylen Cavil speaks to protesters at the Polk County Jail while they await the release of Matthew Bruce on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, in Des Moines.
(Top) Matthew Bruce leads protesters with BLM Des Moines in a march on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020. (Center) BLM organizer Matthew Bruce speaks during a press conference declaring a state of emergency for Black Iowans at Cheatom Park Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. (Bottom) Black Liberation Movement protester Jaylen Cavil speaks to protesters at the Polk County Jail while they await the release of Matthew Bruce on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. (Top) Matthew Bruce leads protesters with BLM Des Moines in a march on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020. (Left) BLM organizer Matthew Bruce speaks during a press conference declaring a state of emergency for Black Iowans at Cheatom Park Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. (Right) Black Liberation Movement protester Jaylen Cavil speaks to protesters at the Polk County Jail while they await the release of Matthew Bruce on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. (Left) Matthew Bruce leads protesters with BLM Des Moines in a march on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020. (Top) BLM organizer Matthew Bruce speaks during a press conference declaring a state of emergency for Black Iowans at Cheatom Park Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. (Bottom) Black Liberation Movement protester Jaylen Cavil speaks to protesters at the Polk County Jail while they await the release of Matthew Bruce on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. Bryon Houlgrave and Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder under the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, protests erupted all over the country — including in Des Moines.

Largely peaceful, the demonstrations addressed frustrations in the Black community, including racism, police brutality, unequal opportunities and a lack of representation in government and on decision-making boards.  

'A year that's ripped my heart out': George Floyd family struggles with loss a year since killing

A nonviolent rally with over a thousand community members turned into a stand-off with police as night fell on Friday night, May 29, 2020. Law enforcement used tear gas and pepper spray on the crowd, while protesters threw bricks and water bottles at police.

Arrests continued for days. Some protesters described being tackled and beaten with batons.

About a month later, the newly formed Des Moines Black Liberation Movement became a driving force behind a police accountability law signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, which banned police chokeholds and required de-escalation and implicit bias training for law enforcement officers. Separately, she also signed an executive order restoring voting rights for many Iowans with felony convictions.

BLM and other nonprofit organizations, such as the Supply Hive, continue to hold protests and vigils, Black cultural events, voting drives, free food programming and criminal record expungement clinics.

Background sourcing for this article included interviews with state curator Leo Landis and research from “Outside In” by the State Historical Society of Iowa, “On the Ground” by Judson L Jefferies and “North Side Revolutionaries in the Civil Rights Struggle” by Bruce Fehn and Robert Jefferson.

Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. Reach her at ccrowder@dmreg.com or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.

Andrea Sahouri covers social justice for the Des Moines Register. She can be contacted at asahouri@registermedia.com, on Twitter @andreamsahouri, or by phone 515-284-8247.

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