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  • "The Brightest Star under the Blue Dome of Heaven"Civil Rights and Midwestern Black Identity in Iowa, 1839–1900
  • David Brodnax Sr. (bio)

In 1868, Ulysses S. Grant referred to Iowa as a "bright radical star" that could lead the country in granting voting rights to black men.1 This phrase was warmly embraced by the Hawkeye State, becoming the title of a leading book on black Iowan history and even showing up on T-shirts. Three decades after Grant's letter, the black journalist John Lay Thompson offered similar but retrospective sentiments in the Iowa State Bystander newspaper, calling Iowa "the brightest star under the blue dome of heaven; the first state to wipe the black laws from her statute books."2 Thompson's words have never been as well-known as Grant's, just as African Americans have never been well known in Iowa, and yet this state and the broader nineteenthcentury Midwest have never been as white as is oft en thought. Thousands of African Americans settled in Iowa, mainly from the South, and thousands more grew up there. Their identity was shaped in part by being greatly outnumbered while still having vibrant communities in cities, towns, and mining towns. It was also shaped by key civil rights victories that enabled them to see Iowa as more egalitarian than the South or other midwestern states. This identity in turn shaped future civil rights activities as African Americans and their allies used it as a rhetorical device in daily interactions, community institutions, the courtroom, and the court of public opinion, even as their victories failed to always bring about real change. Although they emphasized escaping southern oppression and saw themselves as uniquely suited to advocate for southern blacks, they also noted the opportunities that were available in the South but not in the overwhelmingly white Iowa, and they maintained connections to the South through culture and travel. Finally, because of the civil rights legacy and because they were largely urban [End Page 41] dwellers, they defined Iowa more by its legal atmosphere than by its agriculture. In sum, their identity was both complementary to and contrasting with a broader regional and national identity, based on the fact that many of them came from the South and saw themselves as part of a larger community but also saw Iowa as a better place to live.

Like their peers in every other antebellum midwestern state, Iowa's first lawmakers enacted bans on African Americans voting, attending public schools, or settling in the state at all without a $500 bond, although segregated black schools were eventually permitted.3 African Americans came anyway.4 Some were former slaves or free-born northerners who had left because of anti-black laws in other states. John Warwick had been a slave in Richmond, traveled throughout the Atlantic world as the free servant of a government employee, moved to rural Arkansas and Little Rock but left because he feared being kidnapped into slavery, and lived in Pittsburgh and St. Louis before settling permanently in Davenport in 1848. The historical record does not clearly state why he preferred Iowa, but Davenport was a growing city free of slavery and comparatively far from it.5 Another Davenporter named Emmanuel Franklin came to town in 1855 with his master, who offered to let him purchase his freedom, but Franklin declared that he was now "breathing the Freedom's air" and should not have to pay anything.6 Alexander Clark had been born free in Pennsylvania, moved to Cincinnati as a teenager, and left after proslavery whites nearly destroyed the black community.7 In Muscatine, Clark became wealthy and devoted his time to civil rights efforts such as helping fugitive slaves and petitioning (unsuccessfully) the legislature to repeal its racist laws.8 In 1850 Fayette County became home to an extended farming family that had left the South and three other midwestern states due to the worsening racial climates, and although some neighbors tried to drive out the so-called "Fayette mulattoes," their land titles were unquestionable. The fact that they ended their western migration in Iowa suggests that they saw this as a place where they could live...