Racial History of the Midwest

Dubuque, IA, home to approximately 60,000 residents and known as the Masterpiece on the Mississippi, is uniquely located at the intersection of Illinois and Wisconsin. It boasts scenic views and a strong commitment to sustainability, which includes preserving its historic, architectural, and archeological resources.  The commitment to preservation is not just about economic prosperity—which has been developed through construction trades, tourism, private financial investments, and business growth—but also includes creating a strong sense of place, of neighborhood, as well as community pride. Together, all of these different aspects of Dubuque create the community’s narrative identity, that is, the way we as a community come to understand ourselves through the stories we tell about ourselves (our history) and the stories that others tell about us. Our history and the stories others tell about us becomes part of Dubuque’s collective memory, and it is into this collective memory that those who reside here weave their own narrative identity.

Viewing our local history through a narrative identity lens helps us see that our community is shaped through both individual and cultural narratives, and it becomes apparent that who we understand ourselves to be, both as a community and as individuals, affects how we relate to each other. This is especially true when our narratives differ from the narratives of others.

Like many other communities, Dubuque’s history is convoluted, with racial differences being a large factor. In the early 1800s, Dubuque was home to Iowa’s largest African American population.[1] Most of the African American community left after a young black male was lynched and Iowa began to pass laws to prohibit free African Americans from settling in the state. In the mid 1800s, it appears that Iowa became more progressive in their support of African Americans.[2] For example, slaves who reached Iowa were not forced to return to their slave state. Interracial marriage was legalized and segregated schools were outlawed 100 years before most other states.

In the early 1920’s, following Jim Crow legislation, there was strong pushback on Iowa’s progressive agenda, which took the form of a serious Ku Klux Klan movement.2 Chapters of the Dubuque Klan targeted Catholics (Irish), Jews, African Americans, and bootleggers, and focused on getting members elected to the school board. Local businesses, including the newspaper, railroad, and electric companies, supported several large Klan gatherings with estimated numbers between 30,000-50,000 by reducing transportation fares for attendees from Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Although there was some local individualized pushback against the Klan—for example, in 1933 high school teammates refused to enter any establishment that didn’t serve their African American football captain—the Klan’s disappearance from Dubuque was largely due to the national weakening of Klan influence.

From 1950 to 1981, there were no outward manifestations of racial tension. Perhaps this was due to the fact that there were very few families of color (approximately 2%) who called Dubuque their home. Racial tensions escalated in 1982 when a cross was burned in the yard of a Black couple. The community responded swiftly, and 250 community members participated in an equal rights march. In 1985, five more cross burnings took place, and the community responded again with counter demonstrations and organizing a local chapter of the NAACP.

In the late 80s and 90s, the underlying racial tensions that had occasionally surfaced since the 1920s became apparent after the City proposed bringing 100 families of color to Dubuque in a move to become a more racially diverse and inclusive community. Even as a group of community residents, including business leaders, government officials, and educators, began to push for racial equity and inclusion, those who were threatened by the changing demographic narrative became more demonstrative in their reactions. In 1991, 11 cross burnings, graffiti, and KKK rallies were matched by equal rights demonstrations, human relations conferences, diversity speakers, and the formation of local diversity councils. In the midst of this tension, some local leaders who supported a more equitable and inclusive Dubuque were threatened with physical violence and felt forced to leave the community.

In the subsequent 30 years, racial tensions in the community seem to come and go. Young white residents who left Dubuque for bigger cities are returning to raise their children here, bringing with them a desire for a more diverse and inclusive city. There is an increased understanding that if we can’t attract and retain a diverse workforce, we will not retain global companies such as IBM, John Deere, and Prudential, nor will we be able to attract other businesses to help grow our local economy. Equity and inclusion work has become a primary focus of the City Council, as well as the nonprofit, education, arts and culture, and business sectors.

Yet, in spite of this emergent understanding, a troubling narrative remains. Many residents who have family connections that go back for generations continue to be uncomfortable with the current demographic shift to 90% white. There is an insider/outsider vibe that results in a closed network, usually limiting new residents, especially of color, from obtaining jobs. Oftentimes these jobs are given to those the employer know through family and community affiliations. The limited number of living wage jobs, as well as the Cliff Effect, also impacts racial tensions due to job competition. Many low income whites assume the lack of good job availability is due to new residents of color ‘stealing’ jobs from them.

And thus the narrative identity cycle continues: these stories we hold so tightly, both inclusive and exclusive ones, impact the way we move through our community. This includes our personal interactions with others and the policies and structures we create. In turn, those who are impacted, both negatively and positively, respond accordingly, weaving their experiences into the collective whole.

Viewing our community through the lens of narrative identity gives those of us working toward a more equitable and inclusive community a way forward: we must approach our work through systems thinking (working at the personal, institutional, and structural levels at the same time) and we must collaborate across sectors and structures for equity, inclusion, and justice. We must remember that we did not become the Dubuque we are in one day, nor will we become the Dubuque we wish to be tomorrow. The future of our city depends on what we do today and our willingness to persevere, for as long as it takes, regardless of personal or professional costs.

[1] http://www.encyclopediadubuque.org/index.php?title=AFRICAN_AMERICANS

[2] Blum, William G. “The History of Race Relations in Dubuque from 1987 to the Present and How This History Affects Fair Housing Choice Within the City.” 2010.

Written by Katrina Neely Farren-Eller, PhD