The untold stories of Iowa’s Black leaders



Maya Buchanan is the guest columnist of this op-ed.

Maya Buchanan, Guest Columnist


Why do we focus on Black trauma rather than Black joy, achievement, and success?

Editor’s Note: This op-ed is apart of the NI’s Black History Month Coverage. 

When I was in elementary school, I was always excited when Black History Month was celebrated. When I was in middle school, this excitement started turning into dread and shame. We would learn about enslavement, beatings, rapes and murders — but never about the range of Black Americans who fought from the inception of slavery to today to achieve freedom and equity. I often asked myself if this was all there was to our history. Did my ancestors just bow their heads and allow this to happen to them until Abraham Lincoln delivered their freedom? Or did we just have one hero, Martin Luther King Jr., that was brave enough to stand up to injustice? Things came to a head for me when in a high school history class a student asked the teacher why enslaved people never rebelled against their oppressors. The teacher literally stood dumbfounded and had no answer. I decided that day that I would seek the answers.

I majored in African American Studies and immersed myself in a project called the Colored Conventions. This project changed my entire perspective on Black history, specifically Black achievement. We learn about some of the greats like Madame C.J. Walker or George Washington Carver, but what about those who paved the way for them — those whose names are not written in the history books? I would like to tell the story of three important Iowans who have slipped through the cracks of our books. 

From 1830 until long after the Civil War, the Colored Conventions took place. They were gatherings of Black American delegates from different communities throughout the country. These conventions were political meetings, held on state and national levels, to advance human and civil rights for Black Americans. Throughout Iowa’s history, there were a series of Colored Conventions, and Iowa sent a delegate to the national convention in Washington D.C. This delegate, Alexander Clark, was a barber in Muscatine, Iowa. Alexander dedicated his life to advocacy and the advancement of Black Americans. His most notable petition was for integrated schools in Iowa. Clark’s daughter, Susan, attended the colored school in Muscatine which only went to 8th grade. Susan wanted to continue her education, which meant she could only attend the white schools. Iowa schools were segregated and would not allow her admittance. Clark sued the public school system and ultimately the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in his favor. Clark’s case desegregated schools in Iowa 90 years before the rest of the country. Clark’s experience with the Supreme Court led him to apply to University of Iowa Law School where he was denied entry because he was Black. Clark fought for his son, Alexander Jr., to attend the law school, where he became the first Black graduate — Alexander Sr. became the second. Father and son later practiced law together in Iowa and Illinois. 

Often overlooked was the role Black women played in Black activism. Mary Dove and Charlotta Smith were two Black mothers who fought for their childrens’ right to equal education. After Clark’s landmark case desegregating schools, the two friends, Smith and Dove, found themselves fighting against the school board of Keokuk, Iowa to allow their sons into the white public schools. Dove wanted her son, Charles, to attend the white school, only three blocks from their house, because he had an illness that made it hard for him to walk to the Black school 11 blocks away. She was given a battery of excuses from the principal and school board. Dove went through the court system alone and won. Charles was able to begin attending the school near his house. Smith’s son, Geroid, finished 8th grade and was unable to continue his education at the white school. Smith, like Dove, took her case alone through the court system up to Iowa’s Supreme Court. She won. Geroid was able to continue his education despite the mass of people against him and his mother. 

It is important to learn about the trauma Black people have endured throughout American history, but I think we must also learn about the ongoing fights that have led to a lasting legacy on our communities. The achievements of Clark, Smith and Dove have been instrumental in the history of Iowa. These narratives are important for young children, especially Black children, to understand that Black history is larger than trauma. Black history is pride — pride in the fight for equal rights from the stories of small communities of Iowa to the stories of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Black history is vibrant. I hope not another Black child feels the sadness and shame I did in my history classes, but instead feels the pride that I do now.