Iowa became a state in December 1846. The history of Black people in Iowa began much earlier when York, a frontiersman enslaved by Capt. William Clark, explored Iowa near Council Bluffs in 1804 as part of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Thus Black history in Iowa predates by far the existence of the state itself.
Years later as explorers, settlers, and those involved in commerce traveled up and down the Mississippi, communities began to be established along the Iowa side of the river. Self-emancipated Blacks, free people of color, and enslaved Blacks were part of these earliest communities. By 1838, a territorial census enumerated 72 Black people living in Dubuque. Some communities were welcoming and supportive while others were decidedly not. Click on the towns & cities above to learn more about Black history in those specific Iowa communities.
The video above from the State Historical Society of Iowa gives a good overview of how Black communities spread across Iowa from the earliest days to present; presenter Ricki King includes data, maps, records, and shares some of her own family history. Duration: 47 min.
Much of Black history in Ames is connected to Iowa State University. Please see the ISU Black History column on the left side of this web page. Early Iowa censuses show that Ames and all of Story County had very few Black residents, a pattern that persisted into the early 20th century. The university was a primary reason many Black individuals and families came to Ames. In the words of one researcher, while Blacks were generally accepted into the Ames and university communities, still "de facto segregation and overt racism existed" and made life challenging for Black students and families. Well into the 20th century, Iowa State and Ames remained quite segregated. View the video below for more information.
Presented by Gloria Betcher of ISU and sponsored by Ames History Museum. Historic census data presented by Betcher show that Story County (where Ames and ISU are located) had no more than 10 Black residents enumerated during 1865-1910! George Washington Carver arrived in Ames in 1891and became the first Black student to graduate from Iowa State. He likely was also the first Black individual to live in Ames. Duration: 90 min.
Muchakinock (founded circa 1877 in Mahaska County) and Buxton (founded in 1895 in Monroe County) were early coal mining communities in southeastern Iowa. Both towns were notable for being thriving communities that were racially integrated, tolerant, and free of racial violence, and both became cultured communities that attracted many Black professionals. These two towns were created by railroad entrepreneurs specifically for coal mining to meet the coal-burning needs of trains and the railroad industry. Due to white coal miners striking at Muchakinock in 1880, 62 Black coal miners were recruited from Virginia to come work in the mines. They were soon joined by their families and neighbors and additional Black miners recruited from Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, all together forming a flourishing Black community. As Muchakinock's coal began to give out, the town of Buxton was founded in nearby Monroe County. Black miners from Muchakinock moved to Buxton which soon became a highly developed Black majority town boasting schools, churches, banks, a YMCA, and many Black-owned businesses, and a total population of more than 4600. Some Buxton residents including E.A. Carter were able to pursue more specialized higher education opportunities in nearby Oskaloosa, which had a strong Quaker presence. Carter later became the first Black student to graduate from the University of Iowa's medical college. As Buxton's coal began to give out around 1910, Blacks began leaving Buxton for other parts including Des Moines, Knoxville, Waterloo, Detroit, and elsewhere. Today both towns are defunct and no buildings remain.