Black Iowa lawmakers expressed pride for Black history makers, lauded their own connections to history and uplifted each other during a Black History Month program at the Iowa Capitol.
More than 75 people, including Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, legislators — including two Republicans — attended the annual Black History Month celebration hosted by the Iowa Legislative Black Caucus and the Wells Fargo Black/African American Employee Resource Network.
The ceremony, which included lunch, began with the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” written by James Weldon Johnson.
“Every February we recognize Black History Month to remember the remarkable contributions of these men and women whose courage helped us embody our highest ideals,” Reynolds said, before signing a proclamation deeming February as Black History Month in Iowa. ”As we honor their legacy, may we also imitate their example.”
Reynolds in 2021 signed a law prohibiting “divisive concepts” related to racism or sexism trainings at, and diversity and inclusion efforts by, governmental agencies and entities, school districts, and public higher education institutions. Reynolds this year has pushed for laws targeting LGBTQ+ people, banning books and restricting abortions. During the proclamation, she mentioned several Black Iowans who made history and important moments in Iowa history, including:
- African American men were first allowed to serve on the Iowa General Assembly in 1880.
- Women were allowed to serve on the Iowa General Assembly in 1926.
- Willie Stevenson Glanton and James H. Jackson became the first African Americans to serve in the House of Representatives during the 61st Iowa General Assembly in 1965.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Grimes, said Iowa has a long tradition of honoring the contributions of Black Iowans, including scientist George Washington Carver, athlete Jack Trice, athlete, lawyer and judge Duke Slater and opera star Simon Estes.
“These examples only scratch the surface of the accomplishments of Black Iowans,” Whitver said.
Iowa Speaker of the House Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, ensures every February when the session begins that Black stories are shared on the floor.
“And it’s because of your leadership we continue to do that,” Grassley said.
Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D, Coralville, also recognized Abdul-Samad, former Iowa legislator Wayne Ford, Wahls’ mentor Rep. Ross Wilburn, D-Ames, and newcomers to the legislature this year, Rep. Mary Madison, D-West Des Moines, Rep. Jerome Amos Jr. D-Waterloo and Sen. Izaah Knox, D-Des Moines, and he thanked Rep. Eddie Andrews, R-Johnston.
“Black history is Iowa history and American history and it is essential that we take time this month to recognize the contributions of Black Americans to our state and our country,” Wahls said.
During Black History Month, legislators have shared Black stories in the Iowa House of Representatives at 8:30 a.m. every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Watch live.
“And I want to be here today to tell you that Black stories matter — that Black history matters, and that no matter what you hear, through legislative proposals or through other things that are happening at the Capitol, there are plenty of us here who want to hear your stories,“ said House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights. “There are plenty of us here who understand the importance of understanding and knowing our history.”
“I want to make sure that every kid in Iowa knows all of history so we can learn from it and not repeat it. That is what our schools are for,” Konfrst said, to applause. “And at the end of the day, the most important thing we can do to make our state a welcoming community, to make this a place that Iowans want to live, work and play is to tell the stories that got us here and not erase stories that make us uncomfortable or in other ways make us not proud.”
Black Iowa lawmakers on making and marking history
Knox, who made history by becoming the second Black senator in Iowa, recognized his mentors Ford and Mary Chapman, who holds a doctorate in education and is vice president emeritus of Des Moines Area Community College. Knox said he sought the advice of Thomas Mann Jr. who served two terms as Iowa’s first Black senator.
“I ran, I won, and now I want to make you all proud,” he said.
“This may be a theme, but we stand on the shoulders of giants,” he said.
Wilburn served as the first Black mayor of Iowa City, first Black state representative in Ames and was the first Black to lead the Iowa Democratic Party. He said Black history is critical but can’t be limited to a month. He said he takes pride in his great-great grandfather who was a Black Civil War veteran who served in the 1st Colored Regiment of Iowa. He said his cousin was a Tuskegee Airmen in WWII and another cousin was one of the first Blacks to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York.
“Those are the stories that lift us up, that build pride,” Wilburn said.
Madison said when she studied her family’s origin story, a directory listing showed her great-great-great grandfather was born in Africa in 1780.
“And they came directly over here and made history every day,” she said.
Amos said he’s a product of Buxton, Iowa, a coal-mining town in southeastern Iowa, founded in the 1800s, where Blacks and whites worked together.
Andrews said while Iowa is not perfect, Iowa has led the way on racial equality in many ways, including Alexander Clark who fought and won a school desegregation lawsuit in 1868, and by sending more people to fight in the Civil War than any other state per capita.
“We still have a long way to go, but we can work together to get this done,” he said.
Speaker Kesho Scott, an associate professor of American Studies and sociology at Grinnell College who has a doctorate in American Studies, discussed the need for inclusive American history.
“If we are to be responsible to our young people, if our legislators are to be responsible to young people, if we as citizens are responsible to young people then we have to provide them with the knowledge to our youth that is very specific, so that they can play a role in American democracy in the 21st century,” she said. “Not only is Black history preparing African Americans, but it is preparing every youth everywhere to participate as global citizens in the world.”
Ford, who said he served in the legislature from 1996-2010, said Iowa was the first state in the nation to pass the minority impact legislation he authored in 2008. Now, a national bill has been named after him, the Wayne Ford Racial Impact Statement Act of 2023, which helps criminal justice policy makers determine whether pending bills, if enacted, are likely to create or exacerbate disparate outcomes among people of different races or ethnicities.
“Right now, 80% of America is trying to replicate what we’ve done here in Iowa,” Ford said.
Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, D-Des Moines, chair of the Iowa Legislative Black Caucus, said when Ford retired, he told the administration she was the best person to take the job.
“And our main goal is to make sure that every segment of the state of Iowa knows that there is a Legislative Black Caucus working for the betterment of African Americans and everyone else in this state, because y’all if we make it better for African Americans, we’re going to make it better for everyone,” she said.
In addition to Gaines, the legislative caucus includes Abdul-Samad, who serves as vice chair and members; Amos, Knox, Madison and Wilburn. Abdul-Samad said the caucus is working on creating a website.
Gaines said caucus goals include improving upon minority impact statement legislation with Ford’s help, passing the CROWN Act, which prohibits race-based hair discrimination, and passing bills about metastatic breast cancer, SIDS, which is sudden infant death syndrome, and more. The legislative caucus plans to host several in-person events to invite the public to speak with legislators, she said.
“I want all of us here today to take the charge to help make this a better state, a better Iowa, a welcoming state for everyone,” Gaines said.
Event host Phil Hall, senior vice president, employee relations director in global employee relations at Wells Fargo, said the event, in its 7th year, has continued to grow and gain support. The Wells Fargo Black/African American Employee Resource Network presented awards to community leaders during Monday’s ceremony, dubbed “Wells Fargo Day on the Hill.”
Longstanding Pillar awards🏆
Abdul-Samad, founder and CEO of Creative Visions
Dwana Bradley, Des Moines School board member, executive director of Iowa Juneteenth and owner of Iowa Urban Media
Rising Star awards⭐
Mary Chapman, an economic, social and racial justice advocate who is vice president emeritus of Des Moines Area Community College
Tira Mays, government programs coordinator at Broadlawns Medical Center
Rev. Rob Johnson, co-founder and host of the Urban Impact Show, community advocate
Sam Powell, a former girl’s basketball coach at East High School for whom the school’s basketball court is named
John Martin Sr. entrepreneur, author, volunteer at the Central Iowa Shelter & Services
Will Robinson, Omega Elite basketball coach