Anthony Arrington is a Cedar Rapidian through-and-through. Both of his parents were born in Cedar Rapids, with much of his family graduating from Washington High School. Today, Arrington is a successful business professional and he is proud of the progress his hometown has made. Overall, Arrington's childhood was a positive one, but now that he can reflect on it as an adult, he recognizes how his race influenced his upbringing.
“I grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood,” he recalls. “You always knew you were black. I didn’t think about race as a kid until I hit my teen years.”
Anthony experienced plenty of subtle racism throughout his youth, and as he grew older, he started to recognize a conflict between his identities as an Iowan and an African American. “There was just this sense from the outside that Iowans are all farmers. And black people don’t grow up on farms,” he explains. “It was like, if you’re black, you’re not really from Cedar Rapids, you’re from Chicago, St. Louis or the Twin Cities.”
Fortunately, African American leaders in Cedar Rapids recognized these conflicts, and they organized in an effort to educate black young adults about their history to instill a sense of pride in their heritage.
“A lot of the black leaders in Cedar Rapids at the time were organized through Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church and other churches,” Anthony recalls. “I was fortunate that my uncle was a civil rights activist here for years, and he and a group of other black men used to try to teach us about our identity growing up – they tried to teach us about our blackness.”
These role models helped Anthony and his peers understand that the civil rights movement was not an isolated event that took place in the South. These community leaders were able to pass on stories about the segregation and racism that happened in Iowa, and how these community leaders had fought against it.
“I remember hearing stories about black entertainers and athletes,” says Anthony. “When they came to Cedar Rapids, they couldn’t stay in the hotels where white people stayed.”
Eventually, these leaders went on to create the African American Museum of Iowa. LaNisha Cassell, the Museum’s Executive Director, explains, “At the time when the Museum was founded, there was an understanding that African American history wasn’t being taught to a large extent. Our history is a shared history, and the founders of the Museum wanted to bring those shared stories to life.”
Anthony agrees, “When I was in high school, black history - and especially local black history - wasn’t taught. I did not have a sense of black history in Iowa, until I started listening to my uncles, his friends, and those leaders from the churches.”
Since its founding in 1993, the African American Museum of Iowa has been on a mission to highlight the history of African Americans in the state.
“Knowing the past helps you understand where things are today and where they could go in the future,” LaNisha explains. “The vision of the Museum is to foster understanding and appreciation of Iowa’s African American history.”
This history of African Americans in Iowa starts with the West African Slave Trade. “In many ways, Iowa is a microcosm of the nation,” LaNisha explains.
Displays at the museum include a replica of the Katz Diner, a Des Moines establishment that refused service to Edna Griffin, an African American, in 1948. Edna organized a boycott, conducted a sit-in, and picketed, in the same way that civil rights activists in other states across the country had.
In contrast to the history of racism and discrimination, the African American Museum of Iowa also takes the opportunity to highlight some stories about the bright spots in Iowa’s history.
“Everyone loves the story of Buxton,” says LaNisha. Buxton, Iowa was a small coal mining community in the southern part of the state. It existed from 1900 to 1920, and in its time was a fully integrated community – which was unheard of in the rest of the country. “Iowa was also one of the first states to legalize interracial marriages and to desegregate schools, so there are a lot of positives to our history as well,” LaNisha explains.
While the museum’s work is statewide, it is physically located in Cedar Rapids. It provides traveling exhibits and educational opportunities throughout Iowa, and many Cedar Rapids area schoolchildren interact with the museum throughout elementary and middle school.
“One of our goals is to start the conversation,” explains LaNisha. “We want people to walk away having learned something new about Iowa, about themselves and about how our stories are shared.”