Black Hawk County History

Jesse Cosby

Photo courtesy of Jesse Cosby Center.

The Jesse Cosby Center in Waterloo is named for this man who lived in Waterloo for only 12 years. He was a very talented in music and leadership. Born in Jefferson County, Alabama, in 1907, he was employed at the Waterloo Recreation Center, was a UNI instructor and a participant in the White House Conference on Children and Youth. Cosby organized the first black A Cappella choir in the city.

Members of Antioch Baptist Church in Waterloo pose for a picture in 1914. The Illinois Central Railroad played a big role in bringing many blacks to Waterloo in the early part of the century. Photo: DesMoines Register, 2/14/99

The following excerpts:
Des Moines Sunday Register
February 2, 1999:

Waterloo had 29 African-American residents in 1910. By 1920 there were 856, most of them from towns along the Illinois Central Railroad -- Water Valley, Durant, and other places in Mississippi.

They were recruited as strikebreakers. The men who came here first lived in boxcars, and later moved into an east-side area that formed a triangle near the tracks.

Lee Smith, 94, remembers the bitterness. She was born in Water Valley, Miss., and her father was a Pullman porter. " It was the railroad that brought most people up from the South," she said. The Illinois Central offered blacks seven times what they made in the South.

However, they found Waterloo wasn't exactly the promised land. We couldn't eat everywhere," she said. "That's one of the reasons my husband opened a restaurant.

The Smiths had three daughters and a son. The daughters all went to school to become teachers, and then went to Washington, D.C., to find work.

I knew I couldn't stay in Waterloo," said Betty Lou (Smith) Lawton, one of their daughters. African-American children couldn't wrestle or be cheerleaders or dance.

The son, Clifford Smith, Jr., went to Jersey City, N.J. after medical school, but hated it. His wife and children went back to McGregor with him, but they didn't like Iowa, and left. Despite the outmigration, Waterloo became a center of African-American culture in Iowa; blacks grew to about 8 percent of the metropolitan population.