Collection traces civil rights movement in Davenport

2010-01-16T02:00:00Z Collection traces civil rights movement in DavenportBrian Wellner The Quad-City Times
January 16, 2010 2:00 am  • 

The heart of Davenport’s civil rights movement was a barbershop at 11th and Ripley streets.

Joseph McLemore remembers that barbershop well.

That’s where he got his first job. Charles Toney hired the 24-year-old in 1968.

“I called Toney, and he said, ‘Don’t call me. Come and see me,’” McLemore said.

He went to Toney’s house at 1010 Western Ave. to inquire about reopening the barbershop.

McLemore had been to the house before. As a teenager, McLemore would play in a pool in Toney’s backyard because black children were not allowed to swim in a nearby public pool.

Toney ran the barbershop until 1968. And a few months after he closed it, he handed the reins of the business to McLemore. Toney also handed the reins of the civil rights movement to the next generation of young black men.

A month or so before Toney died in October, McLemore — now owner of Joe’s Barbershop on Harrison Street — wrote a letter to his old mentor.

“I wanted to thank him for giving me an opportunity,” McLemore said.

The centerpiece of a civil rights exhibit opening today at the Putnam Museum is a re-creation of Toney’s barbershop. Guest curator Arthur Pitz said the barbershop was the main gathering place for local civil rights leaders.

“You had Toney. He was president of the Catholic Interracial Council. Next to him was Bill Cribbs, president of the local NAACP,” Pitz said. “You can’t get more synergy than that.”

Toney also worked for Deere & Co., starting as a foundry worker and moving up to lead the company’s affirmative-action efforts.

Pitz mentioned another important name: Monsignor Marvin Mottet. 

Ordained a priest in the Diocese of Davenport in 1956, Mottet became “the spiritual leader of the movement,” Pitz said.

A lawyer named Tom Kelly moved to Davenport in 1958 and became head of the Davenport NAACP and later the Iowa NAACP.

And there were other key leaders and the organizations they belonged to. 

There were the supporters who marched Davenport streets fighting discriminatory policies over housing, such as not allowing blacks to live north of Locust Street. There were the countless victims of those policies.

There were Davenport city leaders such as Mayor Don Petruccelli, the first elected official to show interest in the local movement.

There were national leaders, most notably Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who helped galvanize efforts locally with his visit in 1965 to receive the Pacem in Terris award from the Pacem in Terris Coalition of the Quad-Cities.

And there were those who stood in the way, such as the Ku Klux Klan, whose membership in Davenport numbered 3,000, Pitz said.

The exhibit touches on all of these.

A collaborative effort of the Davenport Civil Rights Commission, St. Ambrose University and the Putnam Museum traces the civil rights movement locally from 1945 to 1974. 

St. Ambrose University students helped conduct interviews and gather archival materials such as photos, film, letters, audiotapes, key documents and artifacts.

Most haunting of the artifacts is a KKK hood.

Judith Morrell, of the Davenport Civil Rights Commission, said it was found in an attic somewhere in the Quad-Cities and dropped off anonymously at her office.

“It’s always horrible to look at it, but it’s there,” Morrell said.

A $15,000 Humanities Iowa grant funded the exhibit, which has been in the works since 2008.

The Putnam will display the exhibit until March 28 and then it will travel to libraries and schools throughout Iowa. 

According to Pitz, Davenport and Iowa were ahead of their time in the civil rights movement.

A march in Davenport preceded the famous march on Washington in August 1963 and helped lead the Iowa legislature to pass the Fair Employment Practices Act that year.

A few brick-and-mortar examples of Davenport’s civil rights movement still exist, including Toney’s house and the LeClaire Park Bandshell, where a rally of 2,000 St. Anthony Catholic parish members and other local residents was held. They will become part of a future walking tour, Pitz said.

Toney’s barbershop is gone, but not gone from McLemore’s memory. 

“If you rise up, someone will give you an opportunity,” he said. “Toney was way ahead of his time.”

Copyright 2015 The Quad-City Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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