Segregation in Black Hawk County

The African American community of Waterloo was established during the Great Migrations of the first half of the twentieth century.  Despite the promise of better employment opportunities and an escape from the clutches of “Jim Crow,” African Americans still faced segregation and racism. This discrimination was a product of both longstanding prejudices and beliefs, and a reaction to the “threat” posed by the new migrants.  Local white homeowners and realtors used racial restrictions on property to accomplish and sustain segregation. Even after such restrictions were held unenforceable by the Supreme Court in 1948, that segregation persisted, Waterloo is one of the most segregated cities in Iowa.

In the early twentieth century, the African American population in Waterloo was very small—just 29 persons at the 1910 census. This changed when the Illinois Central brought in African American workers as strikebreakers during the 1911 Shopmen’s Strike.  In the decades that followed, other employment opportunities opened up at local industries like Rath meatpacking and John Deere.  The African American population (see “demographics” tab”) grew to almost 1,000 (about 1.5 percent of the population) by 1920 and to just over 1,200 by 1930.  The next major growth of population came with the Second Great Migration, spurred by the economic boom of World War II. In all, between 1910 and 1950, the African American population of Blackhawk County grew from 29 to 2,623 (2.61% of the total population) with more than 40 percent of that growth coming between 1940 and 1950.

In many respects, the experience and reception in Waterloo echoed black migrant’s experiences in the South. Segregation and discrimination in businesses, public facilities, and housing and labor markets were all common. Private business owners, such as cafe owners, routinely excluded black customers. Public facilities including pools and the municipal beach on the Cedar River prohibited black people from swimming in white areas.  Segregation was enforced through violence and intimidation. White citizens and property developers justified segregation by creating and sustaining negative stereotypes. In the 1920s, city planners intentionally confined Waterloo’s vice district, “Smokey Row,” to black neighborhoods north of the river.  White residents, following the lead of local newspapers, used this to sustain a stereotype of black criminality and immorality. Such stereotypes, in turn, heightened white fears, including the conviction that African American occupancy destroyed property values. 

Waterloo’s African American community responded to this discrimination by creating their own social institutions and political organizations. These institutions included churches, political clubs, and fraternal organizations to protect and sustain African American culture, society, and community in the face of white hostility.  Community groups (especially churches), the local chapters of the NAACP and a militant biracial local of the United Packinghouse Workers of America advocated for civil and labor rights.

In Waterloo, as elsewhere in the north, migration was met with elaborate efforts to racially segregate neighborhoods. Following the Supreme Court decision in Buchanan v. Warley (1917) that struck down racial zoning, realtors, developers, and homeowners turned to race-restrictive deed covenants. These race-restrictions took three forms (see Black Hawk County map). Parcel restrictions were individual restrictions attached to deeds, by the buyer or seller, at the sale of a single property. Subdivision restrictions were attached, by developers, to all the properties in new subdivisions. Such restrictions, which were often accompanied by a long list of other restrictions on land use and building design, were aimed at the creation of exclusive havens of white occupancy.  Petition restrictions, which were assembled by collecting signatures on older neighborhoods, were often a “panic” response (by homeowners or realtors) to racial migration or neighborhood transition,

The language of racial restriction in Waterloo shifted over time.  Early racial covenants in Black Hawk County often offered a long list of exclusions reflecting the era’s anxieties about immigration, elastic conceptions of “race.” An early petition restriction in north Waterloo, for example, excluded a wide variety of races and ethnicities stating that “no part of said real estate shall be sold, conveyed, rented to or occupied by and Negro, Indian, or person of the African, Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Italian, Servian [sic], or Bulgarian race, nationality, or descent.” Such language, often in petition covenants, captured the early efforts to keep neighborhoods homogeneous.  In later years, and especially during the Second Great Migration, the list of excluded races was replaced by a single inclusive designation: “Caucasian.”  From the late 1930s, restrictions (especially on subdivisions) increasingly allowed “no race or nationality other than the Caucasian race” to occupy the home.  Such restrictions (which often included an exception for domestic servants) reflected the exclusive pretentions of the new subdivisions.

The Black Hawk County map, along with the interactive figure below, trace the timing and location of race restrictions in an around Waterloo. The first restriction was a large petition-based restriction, covering almost 300 parcels, designed to confine the black population that had settled in the vicinity of the railroad yards during the Shopmen’s strike. This restriction (the largest that Waterloo would see) hemmed African Americans into an area bounded also by the river, the railroad, and the downtown commercial district.  In 1915, a subdivision restriction adjacent to the petitioned neighborhood hardened the northern boundary to African American occupancy.   Over the next twenty years, the African American population grew more slowly, and the pace of restriction slowed as well. Furthermore, once the Great Depression hit in 1929, new construction ground to a halt, curtailing the opportunity for developers to impose new subdivision-based restrictions.

During the Second Great Migration of the 1940s, the pace and scale of property restriction grew dramatically. In fact, there were more restrictions in one year (1941) than in the previous decade.  The restrictions of this era were primarily subdivision restrictions, as Waterloo’s development echoed the national pattern of white flight and suburbanization.  As the Shelley case (which would prohibit enforcement of these restrictions) made its way through the lower courts, developers and real estate agents in Waterloo made one last push to stoke fears of racial “invasion” and to market exclusive suburban havens.

This sketch draws upon Herbert Jones, “The Shaping of Freedom: Industrial Urbanism and the Modern Civil Rights Movement in Waterloo, Iowa, 1910-1970 (University of Iowa PhD, 1997); Robert Neymeyer, “May Harmony Prevail: The Early History of Black Waterloo,” The Palimpset 61:3 (May-June 1980).