The tarnished plaque on a building in downtown Davenport notes that black slave Dred Scott, subject of one of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most infamous rulings, once lived on the site with his owner.
Scott’s initial residency in free territory from 1834-36 allowed him to press his claim in the courts for his release from bondage. The nation’s highest court declared that he was not a legal person, could not sue in court, could never be a U.S. citizen and, as private property, could not be taken from his owner without due process.
“This is a case that started the abolitionist movement and led to the Civil War, and all we have left to show for a major historic site is a pathetic little plaque,” said Fritz Miller, of Davenport’s Historic Preservation Commission.
Charles Pearson said he knows this all too well. The African-American preservationist from Waterloo, Iowa, says that Davenport’s — and Iowa’s — black history “is becoming extinct.” As historic preservation movements throughout the state gained steam in the past few decades, the history of black Iowans was neglected or ignored.
As a result, many of the buildings or sites that were significant to the history of African- Americans in Iowa are gone, Pearson said.
— The site of the city’s first African-American church is on land now occupied by Scott County’s Bicentennial Building. There is no plaque marking the site.
— A once-thriving district of cafes and nightlife that catered to blacks on 5th Street off Brady Street is gone without a remembrance.
— A planned walking tour of civil rights sites in Davenport will have to rely on markers to show why they are significant because all the buildings have been torn down.
Other than the plaque dedicated to the Dred Scott site, Miller said, he could think of no other monument in the city erected to a black historical event, site or figure.
Ken Oestreich, city planner who also deals with historic sites, said nothing recognizing the past of African-Americans in Davenport has been designated under a city ordinance that allows recognition of local historic landmarks. The ordinance was passed in 1992.
As interest swelled across the state in the 1980s and ’90s in preserving Iowa’s past, African-Americans were largely left out of the process, Pearson said. Money that flowed from the state went primarily to preserve the history of white ethnic groups. At the local level, preservation of black historical sites got little consideration.
“Iowa is more than 90 percent Caucasian so when it came to preserving history, because whites are so dominant, many places never even thought about preserving the history of others,” Pearson said. “There were also bad officials. When they were asked for information on preservation, they only focused on a few groups and not everyone. The history of minority groups was lost.”
In Davenport, Pearson said, there was heavy focus on the city’s German heritage. As a result, there are many sites and entire districts that recognizes the city’s pioneering German population. The German American Heritage Center, at 712 W. 2nd St., has a museum, archives and cultural center. But there is nothing that recognize African-Americans.
Another problem, Pearson said, is that there are relatively few African-Americans who have long family histories in Davenport. Many of those who have come here to live are from someplace else and have little or no knowledge or interest in the past of black Davenporters.
Craig Klein, an English teacher at Scott Community College who has researched Davenport’s black history, said “there wasn’t the ethic to preserve it and it wasn’t considered important.” But, during a recent community forum for Black History Month, he reeled off a list of significant African-American residents and places from the past.
Preservation of black history has been a problem throughout the state, said Jeff Morgan, a spokesman for the State Historical Society of Iowa, which administers $1 million a year in grants for preservation. While the National Historic Register lists 2,059 significant sites in Iowa, only 68 pertain to black heritage. Morgan said that is not a comprehensive list of significant African-American sites.
“In the past, much of the work was focused on property owned by rich old white guys,” Morgan acknowledged.
Urban renewal in the 1960s and ’70s also resulted in wholesale demolition of sites significant to blacks, Morgan said. The society itself has no research capabilities at the local level. Instead, it relies on local preservationists and officials to bring projects forward. It then provides technical assistance and grants.
The society “is very interested in identifying landmarks of African Americans and other minorities,” Morgan said. It has already lent extensive support to sites like Fort Des Moines in Des Moines, which included the U.S. Army’s first officer candidate class for African- Americans, and Buxton, Iowa, which included a large African-American coal mining community. It is now involved in a project to identify and preserve Underground Railroad sites in Iowa, and Davenport has voiced interest in joining.
Tom Moore, executive director of Iowa’s only African-American museum and cultural center in Cedar Rapids, said that preserving historic sites of the state’s black population has been a continuous struggle. He pointed to unsuccessful fights in Des Moines and Fort Madison to save black neighborhoods where significant sites were likely to be found.
In those and other communities, the desire for municipal improvements won out over preserving the history of a part of its population, Moore said.
“What is lost when that happens is part of the character of a city and the pride of a portion of its population,” Moore said. “Many look at betterment of the community and don’t look at the significance of saving part of its identity. When we were looking at starting this museum, some asked if there was any history to preserve.”
Many of the places significant in the civil rights movement in Davenport have been knocked down, and artifacts that would illustrate its history remain undiscovered, said Arthur Pitz, who heads a joint project of the Davenport Civil Rights Commission, St. Ambrose University and the Putnam Museum to create an exhibit tracing the history of the movement in the city from 1945-74.
When it comes to the history of most groups, significant portions of it are often lost before people realize their importance, Pitz said. In the case of the project he is working on, it would be nice to have the actual places available for a planned walking tour but, as they were up for demolition, no one thought it was important to save them.
“That is why we will have to have historic markers,” he said.