African American women played a key role in the development of African American communities across the state of Iowa. African American women led the way in organizing churches and social activities of all kinds, taking stands concerning civil rights issues, and holding all kinds of jobs, in addition to family responsibilities. As opportunities for women generally have expanded, so have opportunities for African American women.
Charlotta Pyles faced a situation typical of many slave women in 1850. She was married to a free man, Harry Pyles, but she and her twelve children were owned by a Mr. Gordon. Gordon died in the early 1850’s, leaving Charlotta and her children to his daughter in his will with the expectation that she would free them. Miss Gordon freed Charlotta and the children and then, due to the difficulties facing free people of color, accompanied them north, settling in Keokuk, Iowa, in 1853. Charlotta went on a speaking tour of the north to raise $3000 to buy freedom for the husbands of two of her daughters and bring them to Iowa. Charlotta was also reported to be very active on the Underground Railroad, assisting many freedom seekers in the Keokuk area. She died in 1880 at age 74. Photo courtesy of Lee County Historical Society.
Though it was frequently difficult to do, African American women earned degrees and participated in higher education in Iowa. Lulu Johnson, a native of Gravity, Iowa, attended the University of Iowa, receiving her B.A. in 1930, her M.A. that same year, and her Ph.D. in history in 1941. She was the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa and the first African American woman in the United States to receive a Ph.D. in history.
Since many Iowa African American communities were small and isolated, there were few opportunities to socialize with other African American women outside of church. In larger communities, some African American women formed their own clubs or established women’s auxiliaries of men’s organizations. African American women were not allowed to join white fraternal organizations, and so developed their own versions of fraternal organizations such as the Daughters of the Elks.
Virginia Harper and Lois Harper Eichacker
During the 20 th century, African American women became increasingly active in community affairs. Virginia Harper and her sister, Lois Harper Eichacker, were both active in many community activities in Fort Madison. Virginia was one of the African American coeds that integrated the dormitories at the University of Iowa in 1946. She worked in her father’s medical practice and served on the Iowa Board of Parole and the Iowa Board of Public Instruction, was president of the Fort Madison NAACP, and also served on many boards in the Fort Madison area. Harper is credited with saving the historic African American and Mexican American communities in Fort Madison from demolition in a highway expansion project. Lois Harper Eichacker headed the Southeast Iowa Community Action Agency for many years in addition to serving on the Fort Madison School Board. Virginia was elected to the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1992; Lois was elected the following year. They are the only pair of sisters to be named to the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame.