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Johnson County History

Saturday Postcard 232: Blacks in Pioneer Iowa City


A 1907 postcard shows an African-American family on a typical cotton country farm. 
Although blacks frequently were present in small numbers in the Midwest during pioneer times, 
written evidence is rare. A search of local pioneer materials yields several traces.

By Bob Hibbs


Pioneer Iowa City left an extremely limited written record of African-Americans.

The earliest dates to a January 1838 gathering at Gilbert’s trading post located not far from what is now Napoleon Park near Iowa City’s southern boundary. To break winter’s boredom, seven locals gathered, including “a person called by the Indians Mogawk (sic), a tall and very black negro.”

No clue is offered as to who he was, nor any other record of him, only that he was present among the earliest local settlers while the area was still a wilderness. A site for Iowa City was selected 16 months later.

His presence is noted in an 1883 county history in a brief report written by pioneer Henry Felkner, a farmer and saw mill operator who served several public capacities, including territorial legislator.

Another record reveals the 1841 purchase of a black man for $250 during a meeting at Swan’s Hotel then on the site now occupied by the University of Iowa’s Gilmore Hall. Thus, a slave has been sold on what is now the University of Iowa campus.

New presidentially-appointed secretary of Iowa Territory O.H.W. Stull bought the slave from Richard Chaney, a mill operator working upstream from what is now Butler’s Bridge between Iowa City and River Heights. Chaney came from Virginia by way of Keokuk.

Stull was imitating appointed territorial Gov. John Chambers, an ex-congressman from Kentucky, who had a black servant at his office in Old Capitol, meaning a slave has worked in Old Cap. Just months later Stull lost his job after the White House changed hands, moved to Burlington and gave the slave to a Maryland son-in-law.

Predominant early local sentiment clearly opposed slavery, and Iowa became a leader among northern states in providing Civil War volunteer recruits. In 1858 when public schools were organized separately from the City Council, the following was adopted by the new Iowa City School Board.

“Resolved, that the colored children be instructed to attend the schools of their respective sub-districts (wards) until objections be urged by the white families sending to said schools; and that the secretary be instructed to inform such colored families of this arrangement.”

Thus, district policy integrated local schools on inception prior to the Civil War.

Another recorded incident involves Lone Tree farmer John Curtis, who was charged in 1860 with taking two black girls to sell. To avoid a kidnapping conviction, Curtis and wife Nancy adopted the children; then, reportedly sold them in Memphis for $500 and $800.

Noted Kansas abolitionist John Brown frequented Iowa City during visits at a Quaker stop near West Branch on the Underground Railroad between 1856 and his hanging at Harper’s Ferry, W.V., in 1859. He sought counsel and money from several prominent locals, including lawyer and city councilman Penn Clark.

In 1858 Clark, noted retired sheriff Samuel Trowbridge and others surreptitiously rented a railroad box car to carry Brown and 12 escaped slaves to Chicago. When they were picked up in West Liberty, many who had heard street talk turned out to cheer the group.

On another visit Brown and friends were eating in a Clinton Street café now site of The Summit restaurant downtown when a mob seeking a $3,000 reward formed outside Metropolitan Hall where the Jefferson building now stands.

Brown slipped out the back door and found refuge nine blocks away at Dr. Jesse Bowen’s home along Iowa Avenue beyond Governor Street.

About 3 a.m. old sheriff Trowbridge led Brown and party on a circuitous route safely to rural West Branch. During his return trek Trowbridge encountered three separate groups of bounty hunters awaiting Brown, but kept the secret that the Kansas abolitionist already was safely away.

Such is some early local black history.

Next Saturday: Paved streets and highways arrive in Iowa City.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them. 

Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday February 21, 2004 

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