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Waterloo To Study Civil Rights Legacy In Historically Black Neighborhood

The University of Washington

The city of Waterloo has won more $47,500 in grant money to a study a historically black neighborhood

Because of restrictive covenants and de facto segregation, many of Waterloo's African American residents lived in an area known as Smokey Row. The area has been a home to the city’s black community for years. Workers who were brought up from Mississippi to break a railroad strike settled there in the early 1900s. Families, churches, grocery stores, barbershops and beauty salons followed. 

The fight for civil rights in the Cedar Valley grew out of the Smokey Row neighborhood. But due to what the city has called "an extended period of disinvestment" some of the area's buildings have been destroyed or abandoned. Ed Ottesen with the Waterloo Historic Commission says there's an urgency to this survey.

“Currently right now there’s been a lot of physical loss of homes in that area. So we’re trying to do this before we lose too much more,” Ottesen said.

Surveying the remaining buildings and collecting residents' oral histories is a way to preserve the legacy of the area and its ties to the civil rights movement. But Ottesen hopes the research will ultimately lead to a national historic designation, and with it a boost in economic development. 

“To some extent yes it’s a sense of pride. But there’s also still tax incentives still in place that developers can come in, and at least in commercial properties, to be able to rehabilitate them and fix them up and reuse them in new ways," Ottesen said.  "Hopefully in the future there will be new ways for residents to be helped with their repairs.”

The city is now in the process of selecting a firm to conduct the survey.