Celebrating Black History

How to decrease racial discrepancies in incarceration rates was one of the topics brought up at an event celebrating African-American history Sunday afternoon.

The presentation on Iowa’s African-American history was given by Hal Chase, emeritus instructor of history at Des Moines Area Community College. Chase coordinated work on a book called “Outside in: African-American History in Iowa, 1838-2000,” and on Sunday gave a slideshow by the same name.

Before and after his talk, Chase asked for people to share their stories and ask questions. One statement he made near the end struck a chord with the Rev. Madai Taylor, pastor of Agape Church in Fort Dodge.

“Recently, Charles Clayton has launched Athletes for Education and Success, in part to reduce Iowa’s No. 1 ranking in the nation for the highest incarceration of black men per capita of black population,” Chase said.

“There are more per capita locked up in Iowa compared to the District of Columbia,” Taylor said. “To me I think it’s a major problem, because they are our neighbors, our sons and our daughters. I think it stems from a problem that relates to education, it relates to stereotypes, it relates to a lot of different issues. It relates to racism.”

Too many are not even aware of the problem, he said.

“It’s not something that’s even on their radar.”

Iowa state Rep. Helen Miller, D-Fort Dodge, said the answer might be to fight this problem the same way school bullying has been attacked in recent years.

“About five years ago when the Democrats were the majority, … it was a fight to get legislation just to recognize that children don’t need to be bullied in schools,” Miller said. “In the last couple years Gov. Branstad has had anti-bullying summits, and now this year he’s proposing legislation.

“May I suggest that you advocate for an anti-incarceration of African-Americans summit, and have the governor bring the folks together.”

This would also help raise awareness, she said.

Chase called for action as well.

“Now is still the time,” he said. “It’s not only a ‘problem in the black community,’ it’s a real problem in the white community. It’s up to us and now is always the time.”

As he manually operated two carousel slide projectors, Chase’s voice on a cassette tape highlighted college graduates, educators, business people, politicians and other notable African-Americans from Iowa, giving a sampling of the 887 photographs contained in the book.

He showed Alexander Clark Jr., the first black University of Iowa graduate in 1879. He talked about Jack Trice, the first African-American athlete from Iowa State University, who suffered fatal injuries because of racism, Chase said.

“George Washington Carver overcame Jim Crow by pursuing higher education at Simpson College and Iowa State University,” he said.

He had a picture of W.E.B. Du Bois’ first wife, Nina Gomer, who was from Iowa. He also highlighted George E. Taylor, an African-American from Oskaloosa, who was nominated for President of the United States in 1904 by the Equal Rights party.

He told of hatred also. He showed slides of lynch mob killings in Chicago and Omaha in 1919. He showed the Ku Klux Klan parading through downtown Des Moines in 1926, led by police commissioner John W. Jenny.

He recognized Madai Taylor for both his art and his church leadership in Fort Dodge. He mentioned Jane Burleson, the first black Fort Dodge City Council member, who was later voted citizen of the year. He acknowledged Charlene Washington’s work to compile scrapbooks of African-American achievement in Fort Dodge.

White racism still exists, he said, and is a problem for both black and white to confront. He said people should stop thinking of themselves as “black” or “white,” and come together.

“So fill in the blank for race with ‘American.’ citizen of a nation dedicated to the belief that no one is born a bigot,” he said, “that God made all of us of one blood, and that the other, the outsider, is who we are on the inside.”