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A creative essay exploring efforts towards racial integration in an Iowa mining town and in an Iowa college town a hundred years later.


Copyright © 2009 Eula Biss




In a 2007 lecture at Amherst College, Marilynne Robinson spoke about the history of the many small colleges scattered across the Midwest: “They were founded as stations on the underground railway, and as centers for humane learning of a kind that would make their graduates and those influenced by them resistant to the spread of slavery.” These colleges were born from the Second Great Awakening and their faculties were drawn from divinity schools. Many of these colleges were racially integrated before the Civil War, but in the twentieth century these same institutions became resistant to integration. “A great amnesia had settled over the whole society,” Robinson says of this past century, “a forgetfulness that there had been racially integrated towns with black mayors, even that there had been regiments of black soldiers in the Civil War. It is not only interesting but truly ominous that such a significant part of our history could just slide into eclipse. This is another thing I learned from moving to Iowa, and could have learned in Kansas and virtually anywhere else in the Middle West ⎯ that a society with a history full of hope and intention can forget that anything bold or generous, anything of interest, had ever happened there.” Janet Weaver in the Iowa Women’s Archives at the University of Iowa Library helped me in my research for this essay, particularly by pointing me toward the book Buxton: A Black Utopia in the Heartland by Dorothy Schwieder, Joseph Hraba, and Elmer Schwieder (this is an updated edition of their 1987 Buxton: Work and Racial Equality in a Coal Mining Community). In my multiple readings of this book I occasionally found myself suspicious of the authors’ optimism, but I still remain more or less in thrall to that optimism. A 1948 economic survey by the Industrial and Human Relations Club of St. Ambrose College suggests that the residents of Cook’s Point were not forced into their living conditions purely by economic necessity. Housing discrimination almost certainly played a greater role than poverty in building that community. (A former Cook’s Point resident who moved to the city of Davenport and bought a home said, “I must be extra careful and work twice as hard with the upkeep of this home because all the people in the neighborhood had their eyes fixed on me.”) As for nostalgia about the place, a 1978 article in the Quad City Times notes that former residents of Cook’s Point were still holding reunions nearly thirty years after the town was bulldozed, and the photo caption reads, “Although they had no conveniences, residents of Cook’s Point held affection for the area. Some had to be forcibly evicted.”

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