Newswise — By the end of the spring 2019 semester, 10 University of Iowa students will be the world’s foremost experts in a little-known aspect of Iowa history—and will have begun the process of bringing that history to life for the public.

“They will know more than anyone else on Earth about the Iowa colored convention movement,” Leslie Schwalm, UI professor of history and chair of the Department of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies, says of her students in the inaugural course, “Making Change, Making History: Iowa’s Black Activists and Digital History.” “These conventions were radical experiments in grassroots democracy. They laid a foundation of political activism that has not been embraced as a critical history of American politics and citizenship struggles.”

Long before they secured citizenship rights, including the right to vote and hold electoral office, African Americans across the country came together in state and national political meetings from the 1830s to 1890s. There, they developed strategies to demand the same citizenship rights that their white neighbors enjoyed, such as sending their children to public schools, the right to vote, and legal protection from bigotry and violence. Iowa’s black residents were no exception.

“We knew there were at least three colored conventions in Iowa: in 1857, 1865, and 1868,” Schwalm says. “But we now know there were at least 12. Iowa is not peripheral to this national story.”

The UI class is part of a larger national effort to uncover the history of Midwestern black communities and their political activism. This semester, two members of the UI campus community—Schwalm and Tom Keegan, head of the Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio—were named co-directors of the first pilot satellite partner of the acclaimed Colored Conventions Project (CCP), which aims to recover and share information about this historic collective organizing effort and bring it to digital life for a new generation of students, scholars, and communities.

The Iowa effort was inspired by a November 2017 lecture and workshop on the UI campus by CCP faculty founder and University of Delaware professor Gabrielle Foreman.

Foreman says the CCP wanted to establish satellite partnerships both to honor the statewide structure of the conventions and to make it more likely that local and regional stories and documents—often scattered or hidden in obscure places—would be found.

“Participation across the geographic space where conventions were held can help uncover puzzle pieces that make little sense on their own” Foreman says. “But as more and more snap into place over time and space, the larger picture emerges. Working collectively allows us to pose better questions and resurrect a history that no one person, however able, would be able to piece together.”

The expertise and resources found at the UI proved to be a perfect match for the CCP.

“One reason we wanted to work with the University of Iowa is that it’s a leader in digital humanities and also houses a leading scholar in Reconstruction history.” Foreman says. “Those two things are important because this is a digital archive that needs DH, library, meta-data and subject expertise. That marriage between research and technology is crucial.”

Soon after Foreman’s visit, an interdisciplinary and inter-institutional team of faculty, staff, and students from the UI, Iowa State University, and Grinnell College began meeting and planning an Iowa satellite to the CCP. They applied for and received a Digital Bridges for Humanistic Inquiry grant through the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, which allowed them to spend summer 2018 developing goals, researching, and bringing in guest speakers.

“We’re so pleased to have partners who are leaders in their field and who envision a way to move forward collectively. The CCP Iowa satellite has provided a model in gathering cultural institutions, different universities, and diverse groups of researchers working together,” Foreman says. “We’re hopeful their best practices, as well as the challenges they’ll share, will provide roadmaps for other satellite partners moving forward.”

The group decided that their primary audience would be Iowa’s K–12 teachers and their students. Schwalm says because the black population in Iowa historically has been low, people mistakenly assume there isn’t much black history in the state.

“Our ultimate goal is to change the way people understand African American history in Iowa,” Schwalm says. “We want to provide the resources to help teachers become more confident in teaching African American history. We want to make accessible and available a very important, rich history of social justice activism that precedes the Civil War and became enormously important after the war.”

Maya Buchanan, a fourth-year student majoring in African American studies and international relations, says she took the class because she was interested in telling the story of black Iowans. The Waterloo, Iowa, native says that before the class, she couldn’t name a black Iowan from history.

“What’s exciting to me is that kids, especially black kids, will be able to see these exhibits, understand this history, and know that black Iowans were extremely active throughout history,” Buchanan says. “They fought for a long time, and it wasn’t just during the civil rights movement that monumental bills were passed or people were active. It was before the Civil War.”

Schwalm says the group also has embraced one of the main philosophies of the national project: emphasizing the role of women in the colored conventions.

“If you look at the lists of delegates, the vast majority fail to mention women as crucial actors in this movement, and we know better,” Schwalm says. “We know women were involved in central civil rights cases in the 19th century to change legal segregation in the state. We know women helped organize and fund the churches that sent delegates to the conventions. We know women signed petitions. We know women were part of this movement. We just have to work a little harder to recuperate their role.”

Team members and students of the class signed an official memorandum of understanding with the national project that for every male delegate they researched, they would research an associated female.

The inaugural class that Schwalm is teaching will help launch the online presence of the Iowa Colored Conventions Project by creating two online exhibits, with the goal to eventually house them on the national CCP website. Staff with the Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio and Iowa Digital Engagement and Learning (IDEAL) worked with students to develop the online exhibits.

“I love this project because students get to discover historical facts about the state in which they live,” Keegan says. “There’s a tendency sometimes for all of us to take a shallow view of history, of it beginning when we’re born and ending when we’re gone. But the fact that we’re a part of a much longer conversation is important.”

The first half of the semester was dedicated to a mapping exhibit showing the Iowa communities in which the 1868 convention delegates lived, including Keokuk, Muscatine, and Des Moines, which hosted the convention.

“It’s fun learning about the communities they set up for themselves and the societies they created because they were excluded from so much,” says Buchanan, whose group focused on Keokuk. “I hope these exhibits help people understand how amazing these people were, and how progressive it was for this period of time.”

In the second half of the semester, students annotated the proceedings of the 1868 convention in Des Moines in order to explain references to particular historic events.

Robert Shepard, geographical information systems specialist in the Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, says he was impressed with how quickly students learned the technology necessary to create the digital exhibits and sought ways to do more with it.

“They’re eager to explore new technologies and push the boundaries of them,” Shepard says. “Sometimes students just want to finish an assignment, and I don’t get that from these students. They are invested in the presentation aspect of it and determined to have their work live on.”

Schwalm plans to teach the class again in spring 2020, but in the meantime, team members will continue researching Iowa’s Colored Conventions. Funding through the national project’s grant from the Andrew W. Mellow Foundation may be available in the future to hire student researchers to help create more exhibits and teaching resources.

“We’re deeply invested in bringing this to teachers,” Schwalm says. “Our long-term goal is to create curriculum around the exhibits and attend teacher education workshops. But first, we need to know the history. So, we’ll do the work that historians have always done. We look in state court records, state newspaper, church records. We’ll look at Iowa’s black newspaper, the Iowa Bystander. It’s hard work, but if you’re determined to find the answers to your questions, you will find them.”

Pilot satellite partner team

  • Leslie Schwalm (co-director) professor and chair of the Department of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies, University of Iowa
  • Tom Keegan (co-director), head of the UI’s Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio
  • Aiden Bettine, PhD student, history, University of Iowa
  • Matthew Butler, senior developer, Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, University of Iowa
  • Dwain Coleman, PhD student, history, University of Iowa
  • Heather Cooper, visiting assistant professor, history, University of Iowa
  • Kathleen Diffley, associate professor, English, University of Iowa
  • Dellyssa Edinboro, PhD student, education, University of Iowa
  • Petrina Jackson, head of special collections, Iowa State University
  • Stephanie Jones, assistant professor, education, Grinnell College
  • Mila Kaut, undergraduate student, history as well as gender, women’s, and sexuality studies, University of Iowa
  • Leah Gehlsen Morlan, program manager, Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, University of Iowa
  • Janalyn Moss, American history librarian, University of Iowa
  • Rob Shepard, geographical information systems specialist, Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, University of Iowa
  • Katrina Sanders, associate professor, education, University of Iowa
  • Miriam Thaggert, associate professor, English, history, University of Iowa