Black Civil War Veterans built 'vibrant' Iowa communities

A historian's research shows how Black Civil War veterans 'came home together' to build new lives in Iowa and press for social change.

The 1st Colored Regiment of Iowa – aided by Black women – fought in the American Civil War for the Union Army then returned to Iowa to build communities and fight for civil rights.

A historian used military pension records and a defunct Black Iowa newspaper to uncover little-known details about the veterans of the 1st Iowa Regiment of African Descent (60th U.S. Colored Infantry). Dwain Coleman, a University of Iowa Ph.D. candidate in history and co-director of the Iowa Colored Conventions Digital Project, discussed the veterans in “‘We Came Home Together:’ Black Civil War Veterans and Community Building in Iowa,” which is part of the State Historical Society’s Iowa History 101 series commemorating Iowa’s 175th anniversary.

Historian Dwain Coleman. Photo courtesy of Coleman.

After the war ended in 1865, the Black veterans of the 60th settled in Newton, Des Moines, Keokuk, Clinton and Burlington, Coleman said.

“The thing that surprised me the most is how these communities that Black veterans helped to form – how vibrant they were,” Coleman said. “The Newton community was very vibrant. Almost every single Black family in Newton owned their own home, and they were active in their communities, active in church and active in politics.”

Coleman, who is from Las Vegas, said his curiosity grew after hearing about the regiment and it spurred his research into the lives of the Black veterans. His webinar is part of a series covering different angles of Iowa History. The series airs twice a month and participants receive a copy of the recording and additional resources following the broadcast.

“We hope that each one ignites and entices some new folks to tune in,” said Michael Morain, communications manager for the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.

'Most people don't know anything about' the 60th

Coleman conducted extensive research to uncover the movements of the Black men and women. He gleaned a “wealth of information” from military pension records and articles from the Iowa State Bystander, which was a statewide Black-owned newspaper that originated on June 8, 1894 and circulated in Iowa and throughout the Midwest.

“Former slaves who could barely read and write didn’t leave a lot of written records behind,” he said. “To get the pensions, they had to do a lot of paperwork and sit for depositions with pension agents.”

The agents also interviewed family members and members of the community. The widows' pension records contained even more details, he said.

“Because they really vetted these women,” he said. “And they really had to prove that they were who they said they were, that they were married to these veterans in order to get their pensions.”

The vetting had racial undertones and a “hostility” for the Black men and women, he said.

Newspaper articles from the Iowa Bystander further illustrated the busy lives of the veterans and their families.

“Even though it comes towards the turn of the century, it still contains a wealth of knowledge that helps us to understand the communities that these individuals had created and the extensive networks that they had created with one another as well,” he said.

The regiment operated from 1863-1865, according to the historical society. They were stationed in Arkansas. The regiment included 1,153 members, 11 were killed, 2 wounded, 1 died of wounds and 332 died from "disease and injury," Coleman said. Also, 100 men were "unknowingly infected" with syphilis during a smallpox vaccination, he said.

After the war, the relationships veterans had with each other and their families became vitally important to “making a new life after emancipation,” he said.

“It’s just a vibrant history that I didn’t know anything about, and I know most people don’t know anything about,” he said. “I just think it’s so important – especially for Iowans and others throughout the country to know about.”

Coleman said it's “unfortunate” more people don't know the veterans' stories.

“We don’t want another generation to go by that isn’t taught these things in school,” he said. “And so the more we can get these resources and information into the hands of people, the more likely it is that it becomes part of the curriculum.”

Before the Civil War

Before Iowa officially became a state in 1846, the territory had restrictive Black Laws, Coleman said. Blacks couldn’t serve on a jury, testify against a white person, go to school with whites, vote or serve in a militia, he said. The Iowa legislature in 1851 passed a law stating “no free negro or mulatto shall be permitted to settle in this state," he said.

Coleman shared many details in his presentation about early Black Iowa life, including:

  • In 1840, Iowa had 188 Black people, of whom 16 were enslaved, and as the numbers began to grow, so did concerns and calls for “expulsion," he said.
  • Alexander Clark, a key civil rights figure associated with the regiment, secured legal victories in Iowa school desegregation and constitutional reform.
  • In 1857, Blacks organized the Iowa Colored Convention to petition for rights.
  • By 1860, more than 1,000 Blacks lived in Iowa, with the largest population residing in Keokuk, he said.
  • In 1863, Iowa’s Black regiment was situated in Keokuk, known as a “gate city” to the south, and recruited soldiers from Iowa, Missouri, Illinois and Minnesota. They received a $2 recruitment fee from Clark, he said.
  • After the war, the Black veterans held the Iowa Colored Soldier's Convention in 1865.

Display at the State Historical Building highlighting the works of Alexander Clark. Photo by Black Iowa News

Iowa is thought of as a “very progressive” place but that discounts the back-and-forth struggle Blacks endured in order to make it what it is today, Coleman said. From the 1850s until the turn of the century, Black Iowans held the Colored Conventions – more than 20 conventions – to fight for civil rights, he said.

“More research needs to be done,” he said. “We’re just scratching the surface.”

Why isn’t the 60th's history well known?

“It’s the question of whether or not those who recorded histories deemed their stories to be worthy or not,” he said. “And oftentimes, the contributions that these early Black settlers and soldiers made didn’t necessarily match the narrative that those in the community or researchers wanted to display.”

After the end of the war, the focus centered on the North and the South coming together, he said.

“And so, the contributions of Black people to the war effort – to the freeing of enslaved people, that counters the Lost Cause narrative,” he said.

During the war, the men cared for each other’s wounds, buried the dead, and returned home to fight against injustices, he said. Some men wanted to attend school, and at first, whites in Newton bristled, he said.

“By claiming full citizenship rights through this past military service, free Black people made a powerful argument for birthright citizenship,” he said.

A ‘labor of love’ from Black Iowa women

“But Black male soldiers were not the only ones who wished to demonstrate their patriotism and citizenship through their service,” Coleman said. “Women of Keokuk and Muscatine were also eager to show their commitment to the cause for uniting the nation and ending slavery and fighting for equal citizenship rights for Black Iowans.”

Their "labor of love" includes a hand painted silk Battle flag that reads 1st Colored Regt. of Iowa.

1863 Civil War Battle Flag by Black Iowa women made for the 1st Colored Regiment of Iowa (60th U.S. Colored Infantry) hanging in the State Historical Building in Des Moines. Photo by Black Iowa News.

“The flag thus became an important symbol of the bonds of obligation between the Black women of Iowa, Black soldiers and the federal government,” he said.

Black Iowa women stepped forward, he said. They served in the camps as nurses, cooks, laundresses and scouts. Some also followed their husbands, he said.

During the webinar, Coleman discussed Elizabeth Fairfax, a Black woman who served in a variety of roles with the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and she worked as a laundress, weaver, nurse and scout with a white regiment, the 26th Iowa Infantry. After the war, she settled in Clinton, was active in the GAR and received a nurse’s pension, he said.

“It was a rare thing for a woman – especially a Black woman,” he said.

Black members of the 60th transformed their communities, Iowa

The men of the 60th sought to preserve the bonds they'd developed during the war; in Newton, eight of the men and their families settled together, he said.

“I think it is really telling of the political capital and goodwill that military service helped to earn these men but also the communities that they helped to found. They became pillars of the communities,” he said.

Their determination had lasting effects across Iowa.

“Future generations benefited from the actions that these individuals took to claim their rights that they believed were theirs as a result of having served as soldiers,” he said.



Exhibit: Iowa’s People & Places

Civil War Battle Flag, 1st Colored Regiment of Iowa (60th U.S. Colored Infantry

Civil Rights in Iowa

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