Segregation in Johnson County

Iowa City and Johnson County were marked by both formal and informal institutions of segregation.  The race restrictive deed covenants mapped here both restricted housing opportunity, and served as a powerful reminder of community norms and assumptions.  Beyond such formal restrictions, African-American and Latinx residents faced broader patterns of discrimination including steering by realtors and outright exclusion by most landlords.  Landlords followed their own prejudices, or ceded to those of their white tenants.  By one count, only nine landlords in Iowa City were willing to let rooms to African-Americans in the decade before World War II.   The prewar Latinx population was centered in a railroad “barrio” erected by the Chicago, Rock Island, Pacific Railroad Company to house migrant workers.  These temporary structures, located south of the railyard and then relocated to company land on nearby Page Street, stood from 1919 to 1936.

Segregation was maintained by the University of Iowa as well, which did not open on-campus housing to African-American students until 1946 and actively discouraged African-Americans from renting in the vicinity of campus.  Many female African-Americans found lodging as domestic servants in private homes, but options for male students were few.  Efforts to establish an African-American residential fraternity were meet with resistance—leading one member to conclude that “there is an organization of the Ku Klux Klan here, and I have not the least doubt but that they are financing the scheme to affect our ruin.” 

Some respite from these limited options came with the establishment of the Iowa Federation Home (942 Iowa Avenue) for female African-American students in 1919 and the Tate Arms boarding house (914 S. Dubuque) for male African-American students in 1940.  But segregation was extensive and persistent—not only in housing, but in employment, in public recreation, and in most University activities. “Conditions in this city,” as one resident wrote the Des Moines chapter of the NAACP in the early 1920s, ”are at present unlivable for a student of color.”

For more information, see Herbert Crawford Jenkins, The Negro Student at the University of Iowa: A Sociological Study, MA thesis, State University of Iowa, 1933; Nathaniel Otjen, Creating a Barrio in Iowa City, 1916–1936: Mexican Section Laborers and the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Company, The Annals of Iowa 76 (2017), 406-432; Preserving Black History in Iowa City: Tate Arms and the Iowa Federation Home (City of Iowa City, 2018); Richard Breaux, Maintaining a Home for Girls”: The Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs at the University of Iowa, 1919-1950, The Journal of African American History 87 (Spring 2002), 236-255.