An alumnus documents the life and history of Iowa’s African American communities.
When David Jackson describes his work to colleagues from across the country, he sometimes surprises them with a simple fact: established African American communities exist in Iowa. That’s one reason why telling their stories has become so important to him.
“I hope I can help put Iowa’s African American history on the map and encourage others to look at these communities,” says Jackson, a University of Iowa alumnus who’s now a visiting faculty member at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “There’s a lot of research to be done.”
Jackson’s doctoral work at the UI examined African American life in Waterloo and drew notice from Melvina Scott, executive director of the city’s African American Historical and Cultural Museum. She drafted him to help collect oral histories from community members.
The result is a series of video interviews shown in local schools and aired on TV during Black History Month. They feature housekeepers, meat packers, journalists, teachers, politicians, and activists like Anna Mae Weems.
“Weems was a major voice during the sixties who fought for employment rights and other things essential to basic survival,” Jackson says, quick to add that everyone he’s met over the course of the project has offered insight into the African American experience. He hopes the Waterloo interviews are the start of a larger project.
“I’m an Iowa boy, so I’d eventually like to launch a statewide initiative,” he says. The existing interviews already have provided material for other researchers, including a psychology student who looked to them for a study of resiliency and coping mechanisms.
“Here we have a student from California conducting research in Tennessee on African Americans in Iowa, then presenting her work at a national conference in New Mexico,” Jackson says. It’s exactly the kind of attention he hopes to foster.
General ignorance about black life in Iowa—and even African American life more broadly—doesn’t surprise Jackson. Growing up in Cedar Rapids, he learned little about African American history and culture in school, an experience that’s hardly unique.
“This is a national issue,” Jackson says, noting that a broader view of history, society, and current events enriches understanding for students of all backgrounds. The need is especially acute, he adds, for African Americans and others who draw on these lessons as they forge their own identities.
“I was confident, and that’s what got me through,” Jackson says of his early education and his undergraduate years at the University of Northern Iowa. “But looking back, I realize I didn’t have a particularly healthy sense of self.”
That began to change when he spent a year at The University of Iowa, meeting a close-knit community of African American studies scholars who encouraged intellectual exploration with a personal touch. “The faculty were always open and honest about the path I was taking,” he recalls. “You don’t find that everywhere—maybe it’s an Iowa thing.”
Jackson went on to enroll in graduate school at the University, earning his PhD in 2006. His research ranged from Nigerian politics to material culture in the United States, but the oral history initiative that originally developed as a side project gradually drew more of his focus.
The resulting interviews chart the diversity of African American life, fill gaps in Iowa’s historical record, and provide stirring testimony.
“Every one of them has inspired or motivated me in some way,” Jackson says. “Their stories are moving, and their experiences are experiences that all of us can learn and grow from.”
By Lin Larson; Photo by Tom Jorgensen
Sept. 15, 2008