Midcentury Milestones--African-American alumni recall a time of challenge and change
Illustrations: This page: A Feb. 4, 1956, Saturday Evening Post spread marking Dora Lee Martin Berry’s selection as “Miss SUI,” an event that made national headlines. Courtesy the Saturday Evening Post  and University Archives.

Spectator home page: Auditions for a staged reading of Oren Jacoby’s Invisible Man adaptation, to be performed Dec. 3 at Shambaugh Auditorium in the Main Library. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Iowa and Invisible Man

In January 2012, director Chris McElroen and playwright Oren Jacoby will debut the first stage adaptation of Invisible Man at Chicago’s Court Theatre. In November 2011, they’ll visit the University of Iowa for a residency sponsored by Hancher and other campus units.

Dubbed “Iowa and Invisible Man: Making Blackness Visible,” the project culminates with a staged reading at 7 p.m., Dec. 3, at Shambaugh Auditorium in the Main Library. All events are free and open to the public.

Other events include:

• “Black Hawkeyes: Midcentury Memories of the University of Iowa,” an alumni panel moderated by historian Richard Breaux, 7 p.m., Nov. 29, Shambaugh Auditorium

• “Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man — A Roundtable on the Literary Past and Theatrical Future of a Great American Novel,” 4 p.m., Nov. 30, Iowa City Public Library

• “Visions in Process: Orations from the University of Iowa’s Invisible Man Residency,” a panel discussion and reading, 6:30 p.m., Nov. 30, African American Museum of Iowa, Cedar Rapids

• “For My People: Elizabeth Catlett at Iowa and Beyond,” a talk an exhibit, 3 p.m., Dec. 1, Illinois Room, Iowa Memorial Union

• “Now You See it, Now You Don’t — A Civic Reflection Discussion,” 7 p.m., Dec. 1, Shambaugh Auditorium

WorldCanvass taping, 5-7 p.m., Dec. 2, Old Capitol Museum

For more information, go to www.hancher.uiowa.edu/invisibleman.

“Play the game, but play it your own way — part of the time at least. Play the game, but raise the ante, my boy. Learn how it operates, learn how you operate … ”
— from Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, 1952

Ralph Ellison published only one novel during his lifetime, but the book left a lasting mark on American culture.

1952’s Invisible Man tackled questions of social change and personal identity in a unique literary voice, winning the National Book Award and becoming a touchstone for African-American readers, in particular. In November, the University of Iowa will examine the book’s legacy with a series of special events, including a panel of 1950s-era alumni who’ll reflect on their experiences at the UI.

African-American grads also talked to Spectator about life on campus in the years around Invisible Man’s publication. Their stories highlight both opportunity and challenge.

Iowa was among the nation’s first schools to award a law degree to an African-American (G. Alexander Clark in 1879) and name a black player to a varsity sports squad (Frank Kinney Holbrook, 1895). But African-American students also encountered prejudice, sometimes from official sources.

In the years between World War II and the crest of the civil rights movement, attitudes and policy began to shift.

“It’s almost as if Midwestern universities were engaged in a friendly competition to see which school could offer the most liberal campus,” says Richard Breaux (M.A. ’98, Ph.D. ’03), assistant professor of ethnic studies at Colorado State University, who’s studied African-American history at Iowa and other schools.

Individual students rode the wave of institutional change. Some became persistent advocates for reform, while others determined to set examples, create alternatives, or simply muddle through. In their own way, each learned to play the game.

Challenges in housing

Like most people, Lois Eichacker never saw herself as an actor in a historical drama. She just wanted to get an education.

“Iowa was one more step toward my future, toward the person I wanted to be,” she says. She came to the UI in 1952 after a year at the University of Wisconsin, looking to be closer to her Fort Madison, Iowa, home.

Eichacker arrived just after the university opened its residence halls to African-American students. Exclusionary housing policies exemplified the contradictions common at Midwestern universities in the early 20th century.

“Schools would let African-American students in the door by admitting them, but then place limits on their social and academic lives,” says Breaux. His research cited correspondence among officials at different schools that compared housing policies, often with a cautious eye toward liberalization.

World War II helped speed the process. As male students left campus for military service, universities had rooms to fill. After the war, African-American veterans sought the opportunities due them.

Betty Arnett Ward was the first African-American student to live on campus at the UI, moving into Currier Hall in 1945. The next year, Currier welcomed another group of African-American women — including Virginia Harper, Lois Eichacker’s eldest sister.

Virginia Harper had been known to challenge discrimination, Eichacker says. Growing up, the sisters patronized a movie theater where African-Americans were seated in the back.

“We would walk down to the middle of the theater — Virginia always sat on the aisle,” Eichacker recalls. “The usher would tap her on the shoulder and ask us to move. None of us would say anything. After weeks of this, they gave up.”

It took a few years for University of Iowa residence halls to open to all African-American students — women and men, Iowa residents and nonresidents, athletes and grad students. In the meantime, as always, Iowa City’s black community stepped in.

Centers for community

Local families boarded hundreds of African-American students during the first half of the 20th century. These homes offered not just accommodations, but vibrant centers for community.

Today, Iowa City schools are named for the women who ran two of the town’s best-known boarding houses for African-Americans — Helen Lemme and Elizabeth (Bettye) Tate.

“If you were on good terms with Mrs. Lemme, you could stay up all night with Duke Ellington, who played a party in her basement whenever his band stopped in town,” says Ted Wheeler (B.A. ’57), longtime UI track coach and former Olympic runner.

Wheeler came to the UI from Illinois, drawn in part by the university’s history of support for black athletes, especially in track and football. As a student, he found strong backing from key university leaders and a network of African-American mentors.

“We suffered in some ways, but occasionally those inconveniences pushed us into reality and into experiences we otherwise wouldn’t have had,” Wheeler says. “You have to put things in perspective — my grandfather had been a slave.”

Wheeler credits Paul Brechler, UI athletic director from 1947 to 1960, and, later, Sandy Boyd, the law professor who became UI president in 1969, for setting an inclusive tone. Influential faculty members like Writers’ Workshop director Paul Engle and space science pioneer James Van Allen — both fixtures at Wheeler’s races — also made a difference.

“Prominent people made their support known,” Wheeler says. “In addition, black alumni were very warm and approachable. They suggested paths that would see you through.”

The environment produced black leaders in athletics, academics, and the arts. Wheeler’s contemporaries included noted composer T.J. Anderson (Ph.D. ’58) and Phillip Hubbard (B.S. ’46, M.S. ’49, Ph.D. ’54), who went on to serve as UI vice president for student services — the first African-American vice president at a Big Ten school.

Another of Wheeler’s peers set a higher education milestone for African-American women, and took her considerable experience back home to the South.

Journey of opportunity

Jewel Limar Prestage discovered a passion for politics at Southern University, an historically black institution in Baton Rouge, La. She planned to study chemistry until she heard a law school dean describe scenarios for overturning Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld segregation.

“This kind of information just was not taught in Louisiana’s segregated public schools,” she says. “I thought to myself, ‘Chemistry, you’ve just lost a major.’”

Upon graduation, Prestage set out to pursue graduate study in political science on a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship. Since southern universities barred black students, she looked north to Iowa.

In 1954, Prestage would earn her doctorate at age 22, the first African-American woman in the country to do so in her field.

Like other African-American UI students at the time, Prestage had trouble finding housing, particularly after she married her husband, James (M.S. ’55, Ph.D. ‘59), a fellow Southern University grad studying zoology. Local landlords turned the couple away. They lived in the Tate home for five days, then secured a spot in the university-owned temporary housing communities near the Iowa River.

The Prestages used their experience at Iowa to help students back home. They eventually returned to Southern University, where James served as chancellor and Jewel became dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs.

“African American Ph.D.s were in kind of a bind,” Jewel Prestage says. “We needed to go back to historically black colleges and universities to find jobs, but many of us used those appointments to become accomplished scholars.”

Prestage, for example, became the first woman and the first African American to serve as president of the American Political Science Association. Her husband won a federal grant to establish a groundbreaking electron microscopy lab.

Prestage cites a long list of Iowa alumni who built programs at historically black schools—today, their names adorn campus facilities across the south. Most importantly, they shaped generations of students.

“People who came through Iowa had tremendous impact,” she says. “We did everything we could to earn the clout that would help our students succeed.”

Crest of the movement

Dianna Penny (B.A. ’62) recalls her reaction upon reading in Ebony magazine that Iowa’s male students had named Dora Lee Martin Berry “Miss SUI” in 1955.

“It certainly wasn’t as earth-shaking as the election of the first black president, but I remember thinking, ‘It’s about time,’” she says.

News of Iowa’s African-American “campus sweetheart” captured national headlines, maybe by design. Historian Breaux notes that other Big Ten schools, including Illinois and Indiana, elected black homecoming queens during the 1950s, driven by African-Americans’ larger roles in campus life, but perhaps also an interest in modeling racial tolerance.

The stories sometimes took a bleaker turn once the hubbub waned.

“Dora Lee Martin was allowed the title, but none of the honors typically associated with the role,” Breaux says. “Her election made national news, but the subplot of continued discrimination did not.”

African-American students knew this back-story, but Penny felt completely welcome at Iowa when she enrolled to study art in 1958. “To me, folks were just folks,” she says. “I never thought of myself as an outsider.”

An African Methodist Episcopal pastor, Penny’s father brought the family to Iowa City to turn a flagging AME congregation into a locus of spiritual and community life. The church’s role grew during the 1960s, as the civil rights movement, Vietnam war protests, and other political movements shook campus.

“My father counseled a lot of students during this era, and I spent plenty of time raising bail money to get protesters out of jail,” says Penny. Both her father and mother became surrogate parents to students far from home, hosting Sunday night dinners and stressing the love of learning they’d infused in their own children.

“My youngest brother was a chess prodigy,” Penny says. “He must have taught the game to half the football team in the church basement.”

Forces for change

Nearly 60 years after Invisible Man, helping students from diverse backgrounds achieve is a UI imperative. This means shedding light on historic inequities and providing the resources and support that help all students succeed.

Institutions can set the conditions for success, but individuals make it happen.

“Schools point with pride to examples of opportunity and historic ‘firsts,’ and some of that’s justified,” says Breaux. “But we need to acknowledge the groundwork behind the scenes, and the determination that inspires people to keep going.”

Lin Larson

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© The University of Iowa 2009