African American History in Fort Dodge, IA

Periodically in The Iowa Griot we will feature a particular city or area in Iowa. This issue, we examine the history of African Americans in Fort Dodge.

African Americans have lived in and around the Webster County city of Fort Dodge in north-central Iowa since the town was a frontier fort protecting settlers in northwestern Iowa from the Sioux. Major Williams, the founder of Fort Dodge, recorded in his journal that “when the soldiers began to hunt the Indians there was a very stout Negro with them who was always reported as the most insolent and daring. Every effort was made to catch him, but he always managed to keep out of the way when any outrage was committed. We could hear of him but we couldn’t catch him.” Probably an escaped slave living in freedom in the territory, no mention was ever made of him again.

The next African American in Fort Dodge was a man named Pete, who came during the land rush after the government abandoned the fort. He made his living as a cook. 1860 census records show a family of mulatto farmers named Baxter. The Baxters, who owned property worth approximately one thousand dollars, did not appear in subsequent censuses.

From the Civil War until 1881, a handful of African Americans moved to Fort Dodge to work for the railroad. In 1881, the first major migration of African Americans occurred when coal miners went on strike and strikebreakers were brought from Tennessee. According to Jane Burleson, long-time Fort Dodge resident, “Sometimes this sort of thing led to fights but in this case the miners offered to pay the black men to work, so they spent the winter here collecting union pay without lifting a pick or a shovel.” Many of the strikebreakers returned to Tennessee, but several families remained. Most of the 120 African Americans at the turn of the century were descended from these families.

African Americans also came to Fort Dodge in the late nineteenth century to work for the Illinois Central Railroad. Most of the employees settled in “The Flats,” an area of town between the rail line and the Des Moines River. Most of the African Americans brought to work for the railroad were originally from Louisiana.

African American social life revolved around church. In 1887, the community established its first Sunday school and in 1888 the first church. That church became the Second Baptist Church.

Burleson described the most important African Americans in the late nineteenth century, the “Cake Walk Ball.”
The Ball was the time when the dudes and the dandies would get all dressed up in fancy threads and top hats, and the ladies would put on their finest dresses and we would strut our stuff and compete to see who could do the “cake walk” the best. It was more than a gala ball, however. It was black Fort Dodge’s talent night. There were individual fancy dances where one could show off his or her talents. One man danced with a bucket of water on his head and didn’t spill a drop. Some of us did interpretive readings, others did comedy skits, and some sang. In 1895, we had an especially grand show. Everyone attended, all the black people participate, even Auntie Cinda Bell who was already 96, entertained with a song and dance. We invited the white folk to come. In fact, we even got the most important white people to be judges of the dance competition: Mike Healy, who was the big lawyer in town and a Democrat and William Kenyon, a Republican, who later became a United States Senator and a big federal judge.

While African American men primarily worked as miners or on the railroad, many women found work in the homes of white people as domestic servants. Senator Jonathan Prentiss Dolliver, Fort Dodge’s most prominent resident, even hired an African American woman as a maid, and buried her in the family plot.

Many of the African Americans who moved to Fort Dodge had been involved in the Civil War or were former slaves. Two African American Civil War veterans are buried in Oakland Cemetery. Joseph A. Palmer, who served in Company K of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry and was wounded in 1863 at the Battle of Fort Wagner, moved to Fort Dodge by 1885, when he is listed on the Webster County tax rolls.

SOURCES:

Burleson, Jane. “Fort Dodge Black History.” Typed, no date.

Burleson, Jane. “Joseph A. Palmer.” Typed, no date.