Laws and African-American Iowans
African-Americans who came to Iowa in the early 1800s knew that slavery was illegal here. In 1820 before Iowa was a state, the U.S. Congress had passed a law called the Missouri Compromise which made slavery illegal in parts of the area known as the Louisiana Purchase, including Iowa.
Even though slavery was outlawed in northern states such as Iowa, African-Americans were not always welcome. Many northern states passed laws known as "Black Codes" to discourage African-Americans from moving north. Iowa was no different. In 1838 lawmakers passed laws that made it difficult for African-Americans to move to Iowa.
Another of Iowa's Black Codes, called the "Act to Regulate Blacks and Mulattoes," included bills that limited the rights of African-Americans. They were not allowed to vote, serve in the military, or testify in court against a European American person. African-American children were not allowed to attend Iowa's schools. A year after these laws were passed, legislators made interracial marriage illegal.
African-American communities often had to organize their own cemeteries because it was illegal to bury African-Americans in some town cemeteries.
Racist laws encouraged European American Iowans to discriminate against African-American Iowans. Without the law on their side, they experienced prejudice and unfair treatment for decades. But slowly, these legal injustices were reversed.
In 1868 Iowa was the first state outside New England to grant African-American men the right to vote. Minnesota also made it legal for African-American men to vote in 1868. These victories in Iowa and Minnesota led the national movement for the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1870, which allowed all men to vote regardless of their race. It would be another 50 years until all women—African-American and European-American—were given the vote.
In addition to the suffrage movement, the fight for civil rights is another important chapter in Iowa history. Civil rights are the basic rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. In 1884 the Iowa legislature passed the Iowa Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination in barbershops, theatres, hotels and on public transportation. In 1892 another law was passed that said discrimination was illegal in restaurants. While Iowa was the fourth state in the country to pass such laws, they were largely ignored. Finally, the Iowa Civil Rights Commission was established in 1965 to enforce the Iowa Civil Rights Act of 1965.
- Michelle Rubin, “Laws and African-American lowans,” The Goldfinch 16, no. 4 (Summer 1995): 14-15.
Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa.