"Maintaining a Home for Girls": The Iowa Federation of Colored Women's Clubs at the University of Iowa, 1919-1950

Article excerpt

This essay examines the Iowa Federation of Colored Women's Clubs (IFCWC) campaign to operate a house for African American women at the University of Iowa from 1919 to 1950. (1) It seeks to add to a growing body of literature which focuses on African American philanthropy and collective black economic enterprises. An examination of the experiences of African American women at the University of Iowa and the IFCWC Home campaign offers an interesting case study that builds on recent research work on African American Women's philanthropy. (2) The IFCWC's economic enterprise developed because between 1913 and 1946, the University of Iowa barred African American students from campus dormitories and some student activities. The experiences of African American women at the University of Iowa are unique for two reasons: 1) the house they occupied was one of a few "women's dormitories" in the nation owned and operated by a formally organized group of African American women; and 2) the campaign to maintain the IFCWC Hom e provided mostly middle-class African American women students with the organizational, intellectual, and leadership skills necessary to become the next generation of black women activists. In general, the experiences of African American college women at predominantly white coeducational institutions in the early twentieth century are unique because white women often had the guidance and support of white women administrators and/or faculty. (3) African American women, on the other hand, had to look outside the university for such mentors and role models. The question remains then, how did the alliance with the IFCWC help to keep students connected to the African American community; and how did the community respond? How did limited employment prospects that resulted from race and gender prejudice help to bring about a sharply focused movement to make a college education available to a number of Iowa's young African American women? I contend that the IFCWC prepared African American women at the University of I owa to assume positions of leadership in organizations such as the IFCWC, National Association of Colored Women (NACW), the Order of the Eastern Star (OES), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and a host of other local and regional civil rights organizations. (4) Upon graduation, these women also assumed responsibilities in their local communities in their effort to "uplift the race."

This work places African American women's lives at the center of inquiry in a preexisting historiographical paradigm which often excludes them through a preoccupation with African American men and white women. A few scholars, such as Linda Perkins, Elizabeth Ihle, Jeanne Noble, and Ellen Lawson, have completed various studies on African American women's higher education. Other scholars, such as Amy Thompson McCandless, offer thorough and insightful comparisons of the southern white and southern black women's education in the twentieth century. Outside the works by this small group of historians, the experiences of college educated African American women have been marginal. Particularly missing from current studies is any examination of African American women in the midwest. (5) Although African American women's historiography has recently focused on Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, these works avoid any elaborate discussions of African American women's history in midwestern states west of the Mississippi River su ch as Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa. (6) To be sure, this study is not only specific to Iowa, but to African American women who attended the University of Iowa. I contend that racism did not paralyze these women's struggle for equality. They transformed their experiences with racism into a call for social activism, racial uplift, and service to their communities. (7)

As Kevin Gaines, Stephanie Shaw and other scholars point out, although African Americans agreed on the ideal of uplift they did not always agree on what types of behavior were appropriate. …


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