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African Americans in Davenport, Iowa

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African Americans in Davenport, Iowa

African Americans in Davenport, Iowa are the third largest black community in Iowa, with a history reaching back before the Civil War.

Geography and demographics

The Davenport, Iowa Metropolitan area straddles the Mississippi River and a state line in a quintet of cities called the Quad Cities. The Quad-Cities, with Davenport as its largest member, has for years been one of four cities that have been home to a majority of the state's black population. The other three being Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Waterloo. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, these cities comprised 55.2% of Iowa's black population.[1]

Of a total 2008 U.S. Census estimated population of 99,514,[2] 9.2 percent - or 9,200 citizens are African-American. For comparison, the average African-American population in Iowa cities is 2.5 percent.[3] In recent history, Davenport has been home to the third largest - in absolute numbers and percentage - African-American community in Iowa, behind Des Moines (16,025 in 2000, 13,164 in 1980) and Waterloo (9,529 in 2000, 8,398 in 1980). In 2000 9,093 (9.3%) of Davenport's population was African-American, up from 6,229 in 1980.[4] United States Census Bureau estimates between 2005 and 2007 showed a somewhat larger community in Davenport: 11,300 or almost 12 percent of the city.[5]


19th century

The African-American population of Davenport can be traced back to at least the 1830s. Dred Scott, whose legal fight for freedom culminated in the 1857 Dred Scott Decision of the United States Supreme Court, lived in Davenport as he followed his master to various military postings in the Midwest. Residing in free states and territories, including his stay in Davenport in 1834-36, was the basis for Scott's legal arguments. A plaque now marks the spot where Scott lived.[6]

Davenport saw two major periods of African-American migration; the first, in the years up to and including the Civil War; the second, in the early 20th century. In the 19th century, African Americans fleeing both slavery and the Civil War came to Davenport because it was a major port on the Mississippi river, and because ports in Missouri were deemed too hostile to migrants. But even in Davenport, meetings and newspaper petitions of white residents agitated against continued African-American migration to Davenport.[7]

On October 31, 1865, months after the Civil War, 700 members of the 60th U.S. Infantry Colored Regiment met at Camp McClellan in Davenport to rally for the right to vote and other civil rights. It was an early meeting in a campaign which resulted in an Iowa referendum that granted the right to vote in 1868. Alexander Clarke of Muscatine, elected to preside over the meeting, told the audience, "[W]e have discharged our duty as soldiers in the defense of our country, [and] respectfully urge that it is the duty of Iowa to allow us the use of our votes at the polls.... [H]e who is worthy to be trusted with the musket can and ought to be trusted with the ballot."[8]

Late 19th and early 20th centuries

A small black business district developed on Fifth Street, starting in 1884 when Linsey Pitts, a former slave from Missouri and a Civil War veteran who had previously worked as a laborer and barber, opened his saloon at 120 E. Fifth St. By 1886, Mattie Burke, who ran a combination saloon and house of prostitution (serving both blacks and whites), moved her business to 124 E. Fifth from Front Street (in the 1870s, about a half dozen black women ran prostitution businesses on Front Street and on the blocks east of Brady Street downtown). In 1888 a city directory described her business as a restaurant, which would have complemented Pitts' saloon. Pitts' business did well. In 1890, Pitts' saloon was assessed at $340; the next year, $1,740. It also attracted other businesses. By 1890, four black businesses and households had moved to the same block, and by 1900 there were 10, with Pitts' saloon acting as an "anchor" for the little business district, which faced the Chicago Rock Island & Peoria railroad tracks just east of Brady Street. The businesses were two blocks from the CRPI&P depot, from which black dining-car workers, porters and passengers might visit.[9]

According to historian David Brodnax, African Americans in Davenport experienced a relative lack of "open violence" from the Civil War to the turn of the 20th century, but "several high-profile events – including a race riot, waves of hysteria following alleged rapes of white women by black men, a near lynching, and legal harassment of African-American activists — show that even the threat of violence was a tool of social control to maintain class and racial privilege." An established, middle-class black community mixed with other ethnic and social groups, including Southern, Midwestern, foreign-born, wealthy and poor whites and more recent Southern migrants, "especially in the wharfs, bars and illegal enterprises along the waterfront, where interaction between the races was often greatest".[10]

A description of African Americans in Davenport with a completely different tone was published in a chapter of Them was the Good Old Days, a 1922 book by William L. Purcell containing material revised from newspaper columns in the Davenport Democrat. Written in humorous dialect, the book gives reminiscences about the "good old days", often without specifying the years involved and always with an eye toward amusing the reader. The chapter "Old Time Cullud Folks", mentions Linsey Pitts and gives short descriptions of various people, including John Hanover Warwick, a barber on Third Street who had four sons, one of whom ran off to become a minstrel; George Washington, a whitewasher and the first black man in the community to marry a white woman; Milton Howard, who worked at the federal arsenal and who learned several languages; Henry McGaw, who started a night janitor service for doctors and lawyers; Jake Busey, the first black Davenporter to graduate from the public schools, and who had "a style of his own in jugglin' hard words that made the cullud folks gasp"; Busey and his two brothers would not respond to racial insults with anger, according to the book, "No sah! They'd just laugh at you," and they would sing a racist song with mock solemnity.[11]

City officials in the 1910s commented on the visible segregation of Davenport, but contented this was largely self segregation.[12]

In this period, the African-American population of Davenport was tiny: 569 counted in the 1910 census, from a total city population of 43,028. Although second in Iowa to Des Moines, it was far behind the recorded community there of 2,930.[13]

At the beginning of the 20th century, labor unions too were segregated in Davenport. When the American Federation of Labor Brotherhood of Leatherworkers went on strike against Davenport employers in 1904, their policy of excluding African Americans meant that black workers were brought in as scabs. Leaders of this union, in the wake of this failure, called on their members to reject segregation.[14]

The Great Migration of the 20th century

The Great Black Migration of the early 20th century, during which millions of African Americans migrated North also saw immigration into Davenport.[15][16][17][sources do not support assertion re: Davenport]

According to John D. Baskerville of the University Northern Iowa: "The years between 1910 and 1920 marked the beginning of a major shift of the African-American population within the United States. The nation's African-American population shifted away from underdeveloped rural areas in the South to industrial centers in the cities, particularly in the North and the West.

"It has been estimated that nearly 500,000 to a million African-American men, women and children 'left the South before, during, and shortly after the first World War, settling in urban areas such as New York, Chicago, Detroit and other areas in the North and Midwest. For example, Chicago's African-American population increased from 44,000 to 110,000 during this period. (Franklin and Moss 1994) Because of this mass movement of the African-American population, this phenomenon has been commonly refer to as the "Great Black Migration.""[18][quotation does not discuss Davenport]

Davenport was at the time a manufacturing center related to farming, with factories of J.I. Case, John Deere, Caterpillar, Alcoa and others employing locals. This factory work was paid nearly as well as the alternate destinations of Detroit and Chicago factories, but in a less urban environment. Southern states weren't the only tributaries.[Of what?] Small Northern towns like Quincy, IL and Hannibal, MO also provided Davenport a steady stream of families[black families?] and individuals looking to better their positions in life.

But, in the late 1970s, when the manufacturing sector began to slow down and shed jobs, African Americans — the last hired — were the first to feel pain. A sustained economic downturn led to rough financial seas for most African Americans in Davenport, closing centers of the African-American community such as The Strip, a thriving collective of black businesses located along the 600 - 900 blocks of Harrison Street, Buckner Hauling, owned by Louis Buckner, one of the area's first African-American-owned garbage collection businesses, the "Green Apartments," an apartment complex on Eighth Street in which future Super Bowl star Roger Craig's family lived.

Civil Rights struggles in the mid-20th century

Agitation for civil rights began in Davenport in the 1940s. In 1942, the first civil rights discrimination lawsuit in Davenport was won by Charles Toney and his family against proprietors of an ice cream parlor[19] A ban on interracial dancing at the Melody Mill high school youth center was dropped in 1943 after protests.[19]

In the 1960s and 1970s, because the African-American population was segregated in certain neighborhoods, "mostly below the hill," certain schools increased their black populations dramatically. Among these were Lincoln Elementary, Jefferson Elementary, JB Young Jr. High School, Sudlow Junior High School and Central High School.[20]

School desegregation, first ordered by the state of Iowa in the early 1970s, was resisted by the Davenport Board of Education. It was only in 1977, after refusing state orders to develop a desegregation plan, protests against desegregation by white parents, and a discrimination investigation, that the Davenport school board implemented a plan which changed school cachement boundaries to facilitate racial integration.[20]

Other developments in the latter 20th century

The 20th century marked several "firsts" in the history of African Americans in Davenport:

  • 1960 (c.) – Lafayette J. Twyner, Dentist and first African American elected to the Davenport School Board
  • 1965 (c.) – Bi-State chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) founded by Charles Westbrook
  • 1970 – Soul Kitchen opens, first restaurant owned and operated by an African-American woman - Claudine Jackson.
  • 1971 – James Smith becomes city's first African-American principal at Lincoln Elementary
  • 1976 – Bill Cribbs selected as first city Affirmative Action Director[21]
  • 2001 – Jamie Howard elected as first female African-American alderman.

In the mid-1990s, Davenport's African-American community became one of a small number across the Midwest (including Waterloo, Iowa, and Detroit) to start holding cotillion balls for teen-age males. The idea behind the male cotillions in the various communities was to celebrate the achievements of outstanding blacks graduating from high school and bolster self-esteem.[22]


African-American-influenced music in Davenport

In the early 20th century, steamboats paddling up the Mississippi brought jazz musicians and others to river ports as far north as Davenport, where Streckfus riverboats[explain] that Louis Armstrong played on would moor and turnaround (or stay during the winter months), or sometimes St. Paul, Minnesota.[unclear: was northern point Davenport or St. Paul?] Answer: Lock and Dam 15 in Davenport is several hundred miles south of Lock and Dam 1 in St. Paul, exact numbers to be updated soon. The Coloseum dance hall (1012 W. 4th Street) (nicknamed "the Col"), opened in 1914, has been a venue for jazz and blues artists, as well as other music. Artists who have played there include Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix[23] and Louis Armstrong (who also played on the riverboats that came to Davenport).[24] Music historically originating among African Americans, such as jazz and blues, also developed a following among the public at large in Davenport as they did elsewhere.[23]

Bix Biederbecke, a German-American Davenporter and famous jazz musician (who was not African-American), learned more about jazz music in his home town, although he also had other important sources for his initial interest. According to Scott Allen Nollen, a biographer of Armstrong, Biederbecke's career in jazz "really began" after listening to Armstrong on one of the riverboats when Bix was 17.[25] In his memoir, Satchmo, Armstrong said that in 1920, on his second visit to Davenport on the Sidney, he "met the almighty Bix Biederbecke, the great cornet genius. Every musician in the world knew and admired Bix. He made the greatest reputation possible for himself, and we all respected him as though he had been a god. Whenever we saw him our faces shone with joy and happiness, but long periods would pass when we did not see him at all."[26] Other sources say the two met the year before, on Armstrong's first visit to Davenport, aboard The Capital.[27][encyclopedic tone?]

Some say Biederbecke's music was influenced by Armstrong,[25] others say that Biederbecke was one of the few white musicians of his day who developed original tone and phrasing independent of Armstrong's style.[28] After his death, Biederbecke influenced Miles Davis, who often sought out musicians who had played with Biederbecke to learn more about him. Another white Quad Cities musician, Louie Bellson (born "Luigi Ballasoni") of nearby Moline, Illinois, the son of a music store owner, played drums for the Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington bands, and married Pearl Bailey. Danceland, once located on the second floor of 501 W. 4th St. but now closed, was also a jazz venue in Davenport where Biederbecke and others played.[24]

During the Little Rock Integration Crisis of 1957, Armstrong was in Davenport when he sent a telegram to President Dwight Eisenhower pledging his support for enforcing the law to integrate Little Rock schools. "Mr. President. Daddy if and when you decide to take those little negro children personally into Central High School along with your marvellous troops, please take me along ... I am swiss crissly yours Louis Satchmo Armstrong" the telegram read in part.[29]

The Mississippi Valley Blues Society, headquartered in Davenport, is an organization promoting the knowledge and appreciation of blues music in the Quad Cities area. In addition to school programs and other activities, the organization sponsors an annual Mississippi Valley Blues Festival held each July and considered one of the major blues festivals in the United States. The group asserts that it has the most extensive blues education in the schools of any blues society in the country. The organization, the artists it invites to the festival, the audiences and others served by the organization are from any race, although the heritage of the music in the black community is recognized.[30] In 2004 the 40th anniversary of the passage of the federal 1964 Civil Rights Act was celebrated in conjunction with the festival.[31]

Social service organizations

The Semper Fidelis organization, a Davenport chapter of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and the third-oldest chapter of the Iowa Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, is an African-American women's association whose purpose has been described as "to promote interracial understanding, peace and justice, as well as to raise standards in the home and among families". Founded in 1958, Semper Fidelis meetings were originally held in private homes because public places were unwelcoming to minorities, according to a long-time member of the group.[32]


Midwest Ebonics vernacular has been studied as a form distinctive from other Mississippi river valley forms.[33]

Community Gathering Places

  • Soul Kitchen – Harrison Street (Defunct)
  • Joe's Barbershop – Harrison Street
  • Dempsey's – Marquette Avenue (Defunct)
  • Jewell's Pool Hall – Harrison Street (Defunct)
  • California Club – Harrison Street (Defunct)
  • Cork Hill Park
  • The Brick House – Ripley Street (Defunct)
  • DeShay's – Harrison Street (Defunct)
  • Wilma's – Harrison Street
  • Ragan's Market – Harrison Street (Defunct)
  • Eighth Street Flea Market – Harrison Street (Defunct)


  • Bethel AME Church – a major church for African-American Protestants in the area.
  • Community Outreach Church of God in Christ – a major church for African-American Pentecostals in the area.

Notable African American residents of Davenport

Notable figures and community leaders include Roger Craig, All-Pro NFL running back, Jamie Williams, NFL receiver and original writer of the film, 'Any Given Sunday," Titus Burrage, who frequently danced with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson; Michael Nunn, Middleweight Boxing Champion; Ricky Davis, Professional Basketball Player; Jae Bryson, Author, Media Owner; and Dana Davis, Actress, Singer[34] Local leaders of the community include the Rev. Charles Westbrook[35] founder of the Community Outreach Church of God in Christ.


  1. ^
  2. ^ US Census Bureau.
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ African Americans in Iowa: 2009. State Data Center of Iowa. Retrieved 2009-02-25
  5. ^ Q-C minority population grows steadily, census data shows. Ed Tibbetts, Quad City Times. January 12, 2009. Retrieved 2009-02-25
  6. ^ Much of Davenport’s black history lost to the wrecking ball. Tom Saul. Quad City Times. 14 February 2009
  7. ^ Leslie A Schwalm. "'Overrun with Free Negroes': Emancipation and Wartime Migration in the Upper Midwest". Civil War History, Vol. 50, Number 2, June 2004, pp. 145-174.
  8. ^ Frese, Stephen J., Marshalltown High School, Marshalltown, Iowa Senior Division Historical Paper, National History Day 2006 Competition, "From Emancipation to Equality: Alexander Clark's Stand for Civil Rights in Iowa", article at the website of the journal The History Teacher, essay from the November 2006, Vol. 40, No. 1; article cites (footnote 23) Alexander Clark, "Address to the Convention of Colored Iowa Soldiers." Christian Recorder, November 18, 1865. Reprinted from Muscatine Journal, November 6, 1865; retrieved March 11, 2009
  9. ^ Wood, Sharon E., The Freedom of the Streets: Work, Citizenship, and Sexuality in a Gilded Age City, p. 95, "Mattie Burke" section, UNC Press, 2005, ISBN 978-0-8078-2939-4
  10. ^ Abstract of Brodnax, David, "The Mob Was in Complete Control: Racial Violence and the Law in Davenport, 1869-1905", paper presented at the annual meeting of The Law and Society Association, July 06, 2006, retrieved from All Academic Research Inc. website on March 11, 2009.
  11. ^ Purcell, William L., Them was the Good Old Days: In Davenport, Scott County Iowa, "Old Time Cullud Folks", Purcell Printing Company, 1922, retrieved via Google Books on March 13, 2009.
  12. ^ The Southern WorkmanSamuel Chapman Armstrong, Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. . Hampton (Va.) Institute (1913) p.338
  13. ^ Negro Year Book: An Annual Encyclopedia of the NegroMonroe Nathan Work (ed.). . Negro Year Book Pub. Co. (1916), p. 385.
  14. ^ Philip S. Foner. History of the Labor Movement in the United States: Policies and Practices of the A. F. of L., 1900-1909. International Publishers Co. (1964), pp. 254, 458. ISBN 0-7178-0389-9.
  15. ^ Black Exodus
  16. ^ [2]
  17. ^ Hill, James L. (1981). "Migration of Blacks to Iowa 1820-1860". Journal of Negro History 66 (4): 301. 
  18. ^ Hill, James L. (1981). "Migration of Blacks to iowa 1820-1860". Journal of Negro History 66 (4): 301. 
  19. ^ a b "Civil-rights battlefields were everywhere". Carol Loretz, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer, 1999.
  20. ^ a b "A History of Desegregation in Davenport". Quad City Times, 2008-05-18. Retrieved 2008-02-25
  21. ^ Civil rights-era artifacts sought. Kay Luna, Quad City Times. January 16, 2008.
  22. ^ Lynch, Annette, "Overview and description: Young Gentlemen's Beautillion" subchapter of Dress, gender and cultural change: Asian American and African American rites of passage, p. 98, Berg Publishers, 1999, ISBN 978-1-85973-979-2, retrieved March 11, 2009.
  23. ^ a b Web page titled "Jazz and Live Music on the Mississippi River in the Quad Cities" at "Destination Quad Cities: Official Tourism Website of the Quad Cities", retrieved March 13, 2009.
  24. ^ a b Bird, Christiane, "Davenport" entry in Da Capo Jazz and Blues Lover's Guide to the U.S.: With More Than 900 Hot Clubs, Cool Joints, Landmarks, and Legends, from Boogie-woogie to Bop and Beyond, pp. 267–68, 3rd edition, Da Capo Press, 2001, ISBN 978-0-306-81034-3, retrieved March 13, 2009.
  25. ^ a b Nollen, Scott Allen, Louis Armstrong: the life, music, and screen career, pp. 17, 181, McFarland, 2004, ISBN 978-0-7864-1857-2, retrieved March 13, 2009.
  26. ^ Armstrong, Louis, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, p. 209, Da Capo Press, 1986, ISBN 978-0-306-80276-8, retrieved March 13, 2009.
  27. ^ Lion, Jean Pierre and Gabriella Page-Fort, translated by Gabriella Page-Fort, Bix: the definitive biography of a jazz legend: Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke (1903–1931), Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005, ISBN 978-0-8264-1699-5, retrieved on March 13, 2009.
  28. ^ Crow, Bill, Jazz Anecdotes: Second Time Around, p. 247, 2nd edition, revised; Oxford University Press US, 2005, ISBN 978-0-19-518795-3, retrieved March 13, 2009.
  29. ^ Armstrong, Louis and Thomas Brothers, Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words: Selected Writings, M1 Appendix, p. 194, 2nd edition, revised, Oxford University Press US, 2001, ISBN 978-0-19-514046-0, retrieved March 13, 2009.
  30. ^ Web page titled "Our Mission", at the Mississippi Valley Blues Society website, retrieved March 13, 2009.
  31. ^ "Performance Report: Performance Results Achieved for Fiscal Year 2005", p. 6, Iowa Commission on the Status of African-Americans, retrieved March 13, 2009.
  32. ^ Baker, Dierdre Cox, "Semper Fidelis organization celebrates 50 years", article, Quad City Times, June 9, 2008, retrieved March 13, 2009
  33. ^ Hinton, Linette N.; Pollock, Karen E. "Regional Variations in the Phonological Characteristics of African American Vernacular English". World Englishes, vol. 19, no. 1, March 2000, pp. 59–71.
  34. ^ Dana Davis at the Internet Movie Database
  35. ^ Church founder about to celebrate his 90th birthday. Susan Anderson, Quad City Times. 1 April 2007

External links

  • African-American History in Iowa, 1838-2000Review: Outside In: . Davenport Iowa Public Library. 2 February 2009.
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