Each February, those in the U.S. see references to and promotions for Black History Month. It is a repeated call to learn about and celebrate the many contributions and accomplishments of African Americans to this country and the world.
Kirkwood Community College is also tied to some of these contributions and accomplishments. Kirkwood alum Bruce Teague was elected to the Iowa City Council in 2018 and appointed as mayor in 2020.
The college has hosted several events this past month and continues to celebrate with Caleb Rainey “The Negro Artist” on March 3, at 11:15 a.m. in Ballantyne Auditorium.
The origins of Black History Month began as “Negro History Week” in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson to combat the faulty, incomplete or non-existent entries of African Americans in U.S. history accountings. Black History Month grew organically through institutions of higher education and was nationally recognized in 1976, the bicentennial celebration of the U.S., by President Gerald Ford and every subsequent president.
Iowa has ties to many contributors in the fields of civil rights, the sciences, sports and the arts.
George Washington Carver made his way to the state seeking higher education. He was directed to Simpson College, where he studied art. He was a man who flourished in nearly every pursuit to which he applied his mind and his hands. In 1891, having outpaced his instruction, he transferred to Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts in Ames. Carver studied there for five years as the only black student, becoming the first black person to earn a master’s degree, as well as becoming the first black faculty member. Carver’s intention was to pursue his doctorate, but his reputation brought him to the attention of Booker T. Washington. Washington wrote to Carver to solicit his help to launch an agricultural department at the Tuskegee Institute, the leading black educational institute in the south, ending Carver’s stay in Iowa.
Harriette Curley, a Des Moines native and graduate of Drake University, became the first black educator in the Des Moines Public School system in 1946. She became a Kindergarten teacher. Amidst protests against her hiring, Superintendent N. D. McCombs addressed the public with these words: “She topped the list of applicants by a wide margin. The board has had a policy, in writing, for years that all boys and girls get the best teachers for the money we can pay. And they are not hired on a basis of color, creed, or nationality.”
Iowa can be called home to several outstanding athletes, including world champion Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson and hurdle event Olympic competitor Lolo Jones, both from Des Moines. Reggie Roby, renowned kicker and punter from Waterloo, broke numerous records in collegiate play at the University of Iowa in the 80’s with a successful and notable 16-year-long career in the NFL as one of a handful of African American kickers in National Football League history.
When asked if he thought we were victims of fate or makers of our own destiny, Estes answered quickly, “Makers of our own destiny.”
Simon Estes, born in Centerville in 1938, began singing as a youth in his church choir. He started college as a pre-med student at the University of Iowa in 1957, but was soon discovered by a voice teacher while singing in the university choirs. An introduction to classical recordings redirected Estes on the path to a career in professional singing. After graduating, he attended Julliard in 1964, made his professional debut in 1965 at Deutsch Opera in Berlin as Ramfis in Aida, and catapulted into fame as a remarkable voice in the classical realm. He has served as a professor at Iowa State, Boston College, and Wartburg College and has established humanitarian foundations to serve youth and the arts, both in the U.S. and abroad. When asked if he thought we were victims of fate or makers of our own destiny, Estes answered quickly, “Makers of our own destiny.” All according to the Iowa State University website.
Al Jarreau, the only artist to win Grammy Awards in three categories (jazz, pop, and R&B), also has Iowa ties. After earning a degree from Ripon College, Jarreau earned a master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation at the University of Iowa in 1964. He went on to serve as a rehabilitation counselor in San Francisco while moonlighting in a jazz trio. His success in the clubs lead to a career change as a professional musician, which spanned over 40 years filled with recordings, performances and numerous awards.
Although a New York native, Cheryl Browne attended Luther College in Decorah. Brown took home the Miss Iowa title in 1970 and became the first African American woman to compete in the Miss America pageant.
You can learn more about the contributions of African Americans from Iowa by visiting the African American Museum of Iowa, searching the Iowa Project by Iowa Public Television, or reading the “Outside In, African American History in Iowa 1838-2000.”
The African American Museum of Iowa is located at 55 12th Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids, currently open Thursday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tours available for groups of 10 or more by advanced request.