Black on white : Black students at a PWI : U of Iowa

         "Coming to Iowa felt like culture shock."
Dr. K. Pittman, psychologist
Member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc.

(Unedited) Over the last few days I’ve been posting pics from my college years at the University of Iowa, (’92-’99). It wasn’t just about memory lane, there was intentionality in disrupting the heaviness of the times that we are in. It was cathartic and therapeutic filling my social media, Facebook page, with Black joy and gratitude.

In the wake of Trump’s pending presidency, I’ve thought a lot about Black students on white campuses. I thought about how I/we would navigate these trying times if we were still in Iowa, at the University of Iowa. I am VERY grateful for my college experience and the two degrees that I earned—bachelor of arts and my first master degrees.

I have enjoyed you including us as we took a walk down “Hawkeye Memory Lane”. Wonderful times, and I am a better person having known you, and so many others.

N.R, lawyer & educator

Over the years I’ve gotten into several conversations HBCU grads, and it is often assumed that I also went to a HBCU, because of how I talk about my undergrad experience. Moreover, in talking to other PWI grads, they did not share much about creating lasting bonds. For the most part, they did not share much beyond their college years being anything other than, painful.

Black history at the Univ of Iowa:

  • 1879 law alumnus G. Alexander Clark  is believed to be the first African American in the nation to earn a law degree.
  • Frank Kinney Holbrook, an Iowa football player in 1895, is believed to have been the first African American to compete in varsity athletics and one of the nation’s first black college athletes.
  • The first Black Greek lettered org on the yard was Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., 1914.
  • 1919, the first sorority on the yard, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. was formed.
  • Elizabeth Catlett, a notable sculptor and civil rights advocate, was one of the first students to earn an MFA from Iowa in 1940.
  • Iowa PhD recipient Jewel Limar Prestage was the first Black woman to receive a doctorate in political science from an American university, 1954.
  • Donald W. Tucker, graduated with a BA in sociology and criminology in 1961, and went on to become one of the nation’s first black federal narcotics agents. He became one of the nation’s first black Secret Service agents in 1965.
  • Margaret Walker Alexander, a noted African American poet and activist, completed her doctoral dissertation at the University of Iowa in 1965. It was later published as a Civil War novel titled Jubilee.
  • Philip G. Hubbard, who received a PhD from Iowa in 1954, becomes the first African American vice president at any Big Ten university when he is promoted to vice president for student services and dean of academic affairs at Iowa in 1966.
  • The university establishes the Afro-American Cultural Center, 1968.
  • UI English Professor Darwin Turner established the African American Studies Program and the Darwin Turner Action Theater in 1968-69.
  • C. Vivian Stringer, 1983, became the first African-American to coach a Big Ten women’s basketball team.
  • 1983, Kappa Eta chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho, Sorority Inc., was formed.
  • Tony Robinson, a journalism major, became the first African American student to be editor-in-chief of The Daily Iowan in 2004.

Oddly enough, University of Iowa has a rich history of Blackness. We’ve been navigating the campus for decades. Nonetheless, for much of my undergrad career, I was the only Black student that was in my cohort of Communication Science and Disorders (Speech Pathology/Audiology). When I was ending the program there was a brotha coming into the department. When posting the pics from our years in Iowa he shared…

I just wanted to say thank you for lending me your experiences in Communication Disorders via your notes. It was because of them, in part, that I was able to be the only Black and male speech therapist to graduate in the field from University of Iowa. I probably wouldn’t be a speech therapist without your help. It was because you understood the struggle that I passed it on at the graduate level with this those who came after me at University of Northern Iowa. Again thank you.

J. J., speech therapist

It was a difficult experience, but I had supports outside of the department—most of us did. Because of my experiences in Iowa, I chose a different path for grad school, foundations of education. And years later, I returned to school yet again, and now I am a mental health counselor/art therapist.  For me, ALL of my experiences, including my experiences as a Black student in Iowa led me to my current profession and living my purpose.  I utilize all my schooling with the students I work with in secondary education, it all makes sense to me, it all has been worthwhile. University of Iowa helped to inform the kind of therapist I am today.

As Black students at the University of Iowa, we co-created spaces of refuge and healing. We had our smaller circles of friends who we were closest to, but we came together often to love on one another. Weekly, there was a party, or gathering, of some sort. Study groups. Social talks. Camaraderie. Dancing. Fun. Expression, kept us sane and as a community.

I’ve attended other predominantly white institutions (elite ones) and never experienced the same comraderie and community at those schools. Blackness to Us, as Hawkeyes, mattered! For many of us, it mattered much more than being Greek or being a member of some other club or group.

-L.T., lawyer

We created spaces where we centered ourselves, our existence and our mattering on a predominately white campus. We had spaces like the Afro-House, the Black Student Union office and the computers in that area that we’d commandeer, spaces we created in dorms, Pheasant Ridge, Student housing, and many other physical and metaphorical spaces we co-created. We created events like: Black Love Week, Chocolate Love Affair, Black Greek Stepshow, Day of Atonement, Cultural Diversity Day, Black TV and movie night, Black Genesis showcase, Black Action Theatre plays, Nuru journal readings, Voices of Soul concerts, Messengers of Faith performances, Black Bird Poets poetry readings, potlucks, spring break trips, Founder Week service projects and activities for 8 of the 9, Divine Nine Black Greek sororities and fraternities.

Going to see Malcolm X at the downtown movie theater, and it being full of Black folks talking to the screen. Going to see Waiting to Exhale at the theater in the mall, and singing the soundtrack on our way to eat afterwards. Partying at the Old Brick, the Rec, and in the IMU. Passing one another and making eye contact and offering a head nod. Circulating the same $1000 at the beginning of the semester, from person to person, for us to pay our pending u-bills to be able to register and get our financial aid refund.

It was the lil things like having Black Cam(pus)-bus drivers who played soul music as we made our way around campus. Lil things like Black resident assistants and those of us who worked in the bookstore. And big things like, Special Support Services and Campus Programs where we were acknowledged and validated. Even bigger things like, African American Studies Department, not merely a program in a different department. Afro-Am profs and classes all over campus in film studies, religion, anthropology, history, school of art and art history etc. We had a whole department that was our own. Most of us even if we weren’t in Afro-Am, we took a class, or two, at some point during our college career. We were instrumental in diversifying the Women’s Resource Center, Honors House, and Black grad students held it down in the Colleges of Law, Dentistry, Medicine, Education, and beyond.

I remember Venise Berry’s class where we critically engaged Black movies. A class where I wrote a bomb arse paper about the Nation of Islam. I remember being introduced to Robin D.G. Kelley’s work and researching the life and experiences of Black womyn and children during slavery. I remember the anthopology class with Obiagele Lake, she introduced me to the term “Black underclass,” and the reserved army. Though I wasn’t in the College of Law, I knew Adrian Wing, she made her presence known on campus. I remember for classes like Chem(istry) 413, which was a weed out course, Black students sharing notes and studying together. Many of us were in isolation in most of our classes, but we made our way to one another after classes, communing in the Student Union, IMU. (continue reading after photos…only a select few posted here.)

We also unapologetically inserted ourselves into city life and spread out as Corralville, Iowa expanded. University of Iowa is known for being liberal, but it’s not liberal as it relates to race. We experienced racism and to this day, I have love/hate feelings about the University and Iowa City; however, it’s all love for the Black students who were there in the 90s.

Black joy was important to us to neutralize and dismantle the oppressive forces at play. And though I posted a lot of pictures of Black Greek letter orgs, you did not have to be Greek to have a place. We did not have a big separation between Black athletes; Black Greeks; Black scholars; Black activist; Black artist/creative etc., we all rocked with one another. We took care of one another. I’m not saying we weren’t messy at times, and there was plenta drama, we were youth, uncovering and discovering ourselves, but if something went down, we unified.

And on today, Thanksgiving, I am Thankful for you bringing back so many happy and fun memories for me! I hear a few people saying they blocked out their college experiences as well as the people who surrounded them! For me, I enjoyed EVERY year of my being there and have love for EVERYone of you that I met!! I get so excited whenever I see one of my Hawkeye family members!

N.S-M, social service administrator

The Black graduation rate at Iowa was high in the 90s, we graduated. Also, the other reason I posted all of these pics is because we must document our Black Iowa herstory/history. We were there!  So, when I came across a whole bin of scrapbooks and photo albums that I had taken time, years ago, to organize and write narratives etc., I felt it was time to share. I am a cultural worker; for me, documenting my herstory is apart of that.

You and these photos are such a blessing to my spirit! As you know, I don’t have many photos of my college years and I have very very few memories of those years. These photos are so fun to look at, it looks like we are really enjoying life – that’s everything!

V.H., higher education administrator at an HBCU

So, I wanted to put it out for public consumption, especially for other University of Iowa, Black alum. ©11.24.16



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