In August of 1857, Iowans ratified their State Constitution, including Article IX, which established a popularly elected state board of education authorized to provide “for the education of all the youths of the State, through a system of common schools” which “shall be organized and kept in each school district at least three months in each year.”
On March 12 of the following year, the seventh General Assembly backtracked a little bit, creating a law for the “Public Instruction of the State of Iowa.” District school boards were required to “provide for the education of the colored youth, in separate schools, except in cases where by unanimous consent of the persons sending [students] to the school in the sub-district, [blacks] may be permitted to attend with the white youth.”
Two months later, Davenport formed its first Board of Education. Newly appointed County Superintendent A. S. Kissell allowed several black children to attend School No. 3, at the southeast corner of Sixth and Warren streets.
It took the editors of the Daily Morning News a month to notice—but notice they did. And on June 26, 1858, they stated their opinion on the matter of “Our Public School and the Education of Negro Children there”:
“It has long been a notorious fact in this community that in the large public school at the lower end of Davenport under the control and superintendence of Mr. A. S. Kissell, negro and white children are being educated together, sit in the same classrooms together , and under the guidance of the gentleman above named intermingle freely” […] “that can be very easily stopped by the parent of any child in the school we refer to[…]Under the School law if the parent of any child at such public school objects, it cannot be done. “
A petition, signed by thirty-eight Davenport citizens, was submitted to the Board of Education on September 15.
“[…] there are some four or five Negroes taught at the stone school house in district No. 2. If they are to be continued in the school as stated above, we will be compelled to take our children from the school and protest against the payment of the school taxed for the support of schools mixed with Negroes and white children.”
Three days later, the Board caved and, in accordance with the School Law of the State of Iowa, all the black students were dismissed from the Davenport school system.
Today, this would be inexcusable—but even at the time, some citizens were outraged. A letter to the editors of the Davenport Gazette, published September 25, reads as follows:
“[…]But in what consists the equity of this plea? In the standard color of the times? Surely not, for our people have not yet determined what the standard shade of complexion is. Until this shall be done it can be no virtue to be white and no crime to be black. We beg leave then to suggest to our worthy petitioners that they first call earnestly upon the Board of Education to determine what the precise shade of complexion must be, to entitle to education in District schools, and then grade and retain, in school according to their fixed standard; and one thing more, that they only tax such parents for the support of District schools whose children can be admitted, according to this arrangement.
— A Taxpayer”
This started off a city-wide debate and an editorial war between the Gazette and the Daily Morning News until, November 8, 1858, when the Board decided to rent a “colored school room” in the First Baptist Church.
Things settled down until the Board meeting on April 16, 1859, when it was reported that four children were enrolled at the school room, but only two regularly attended. It wasn’t particularly cost effective to have a separate schoolroom for two students, so it was recommended that the school be closed and the children attend the regular schools.
Cue up the debate again—and this time, it became ugly. In fact, the issue of several old laws about the treatment of black Iowans, and the circumstances under which they should be allowed in Iowa, were mentioned by both sides.
Finally, in November 25 of that year, the Board passed another resolution, “That the President [of the Board of Education] is hereby authorized to open a School for Coloured Children in the Brick School House, District No. 3, and employ a Teacher at the rate of Twenty dollars per month, teaching five hours per day for the term of three months.”
In December, it was reported that Mrs. M. A. Fearing had been hired as Teacher at the rate of $20 per month and that the School had been in session three weeks with a daily attendance of from one to four pupils.
But on February 3, 1860, the president reported that “agreeably to the authority given him at the last meeting he had closed the Coloured School at the end of [January] for want of pupils.”
We would like to think that the parents of any potential pupils distanced themselves from the School not from disinterest, as was assumed by a few Davenport citizens, but in concern for their children and in rejection of the whole business.
We would also like to offer reassurance that things did, eventually, improve, for the African-American students of Davenport.
Then again, it took a Civil War to get things rolling again . . .
The colored school controversy in Davenport, Iowa: News articles and Minutes of City Board of Education Meetings, 1858-1860 . Compiled by Craig Klein, February 2006
“A Stony Road: Black Education in Iowa, 1838-1860” by Arnie Cooper in Annals of Iowa Vol. 48 No. ¾, Winter/Spring 1986