The History of Waterloo: A Case Study of Race Relations

Posted by Pat Kinney on Thursday, January 28, 2021

Despite Iowa's seeming homogeneity, the history of Waterloo, Iowa is a microcosm and case study of race relations in many northern U.S. cities. 

The epicenter of that history is concentrated in a triangular-shaped neighborhood near the Illinois Central railroad tracks on the city's northeast side, bordered by the tracks, extending north and east to Cottage and Mobile streets, respectively. 

According to local historian Bob Neymeyer, in 1910 there were fewer than 20 Blacks in Waterloo. By 1915, there were 500; and 1,000 by the decade's end, about 3 percent of the city's population. As industry and jobs expanded through the 20th century, the Black population grew along with the city; it now is 16 percent of the population, the highest percentage Black population of any community in Iowa. 

Blacks came from the Deep South, from Mississippi communities like Durant, Canton, Brookhaven, Kosciusko and Water Valley. They came from the land of Jim Crow and the burning cross, to the land of the restrictive covenant and the cold shoulder. They may have escaped the specter of the lynch mob, but neither did they find a welcoming committee. 

Blacks began arriving here in earnest during a 1911-15 national railroad strike that shut down the Illinois Central Railroad's shop at the Waterloo rail yard on East Fourth Street. Waterloo at the time was a major railroad crossroads between Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis, the shop’s shutdown threatened railroad service throughout the upper Midwest. The railroad looked for nonunion personnel to staff the shop. Not finding enough people locally, the railroad advertised along its southern lines and extensively in Mississippi, promising work and free passage. 

Southern workers, including Blacks boarded IC trains for Waterloo and other Northern cities. The arriving Black workers were resented by Waterloo residents for being strike breakers as well as for being Black. They lived wherever they could find affordable housing, but many settled near the Illinois Central yards on the city's east side, in the Northeast Triangle. It had been a traditional "port of entry" for residents of moderate incomes and diverse ethnic backgrounds. It also became a haven for crime in 1912 after the city outlawed saloons, and bootleggers set up shop in the poorer neighborhoods like those near the yards. 

According to a 1980 article in the Iowa Historical Society publication, the Palimpsest, the bootleggers' barrooms "attracted gamblers, prostitutes, dope peddlers and all kinds of underworld characters." Local newspapers began to identify the east side with "vice and criminality," according to the Palimpsest. "That most blacks had come to work in factories rather than in gambling halls or that the halls themselves were owned by white businessmen, escaped the newspapers' attention," said the article. 

White real estate agents’ restrictive covenants “forced Waterloo's African-Americans to set up housekeeping shoulder-to-shoulder with pimps and bootleggers" within the Northeast Triangle, according to the Palimpsest. Seven Black families owned homes in 1915, all financed without help from local banks. They rented living space to other Black families coming to the community. Many newcomers lived in boxcars provided by the railroad. "Unusual was the black family that could afford to live without taking in boarders or sharing space with another family," according to the Palimpsest. 

Faith unified the Black families. Payne African Methodist Episcopal Church and Antioch Baptist Church were formed within the Northeast Triangle and provided a forum for Blacks to speak out on community issues, "The years from 1911 through 1919 had been ones of building and consolidation from within for the black community," the Palimpsest stated. 

Pictured: Antioch Baptist Church Waterloo, 1930s. Grout Museum Archive.

Despite increasing pressures for segregation, by the end of the decade, Waterloo's Blacks "could no longer passively accept these conditions," leading to the formation of a local chapter of the NAACP. 

Black workers also eventually found empowerment in the local labor movement, specifically United Packinghouse Workers of America local P-46 at The Rath Packing Company, a national company and one of the city's largest employers. Black leaders emerged within the local union. Russell Lasley was a co-organizer of a bitter 1948 strike at Rath. He became national treasurer of the UPWA, which bankrolled Rev. Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. UPWA and civil rights activist Anna Mae Weems brought Rev. King to Waterloo in 1959, after Weems met him at a national prayer breakfast. 

In the 1950s and '60s, a new generation of Black leaders called for an end to racial disparities in housing, employment and de facto segregation. Grudgingly slow movement led to civil disturbances that erupted into riots in 1968 and the destruction of many white-owned businesses along East Fourth Street within the Northeast Triangle. A city commission concluded the city "must act now" to correct racial injustice in many areas of community life. 

Restrictive covenants and redlining faded and the geographic heart of the Waterloo community became more integrated in the 1970s, concurrent with more social agencies, school initiatives and empowerment. However, the city saw much "white flight" and urban sprawl into new neighborhoods on the city's southwest side. 

The farm crisis and recession of the 1980s led to the death of The Rath Packing Company and significant layoffs at John Deere's Waterloo operations. The impact was magnified in the already disadvantaged Black community, further entrenching urban problems of crime, drugs and disparate law enforcement. The city lost roughly 9,000 residents in the '80s from a peak population of about 76,000. An influx of new Bosnian, Burmese, Latino and other residents with the coming of meatpacker IBP to town in 1989-90 additionally challenged the community. 

In 2015, Waterloo elected its first Black mayor, Quentin Hart, an educator, veteran City Council member, and a resident of the Northeast Triangle. He sought to boost pride and empowerment within the city in general and the Black community, specifically working for more business development on the city's northeast side including the Northeast Triangle. But the city also faced a spate of use-of-force lawsuits brought against city police by Black citizens. A national online media outlet rated Waterloo as one of the worst places to live for Black Americans. The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police struck a responsive chord with many in Waterloo. The mayor shepherded the city through largely but not totally peaceful protests and had just hired the city's first Black police chief. A slate of police reform measures was unanimously approved by the City Council, as another generation strives to address century-old race issues.

Blog Contributors: Catreva Manning, Archivist, Bob Neymeyer, Historian

About The Author

Pat is the Oral Historian for the Grout Museum District.