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Grout Museum seeks to rectify years of poor Black history representation with new exhibit

Chaveevah Ferguson is the artist behind a mural at the Grout Museum that captures the rich history of Black people in the Cedar Valley, the centerpiece of the museum's Black Stories Collective Project.
Dani Gehr
Iowa Public Radio
Chaveevah Ferguson is the artist behind a mural at the Grout Museum that captures the rich history of Black people in the Cedar Valley, the centerpiece of the museum's Black Stories Collective Project.

The Grout Museum of History and Science has been serving Waterloo since 1956 but realized in 2020 it had not been adequately representing the entire city.

After the murder of George Floyd and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, Waterloo's Grout Museum realized Black history had not often been displayed on its walls — a particularly stunning discovery, given that more than 20% of Waterloo residents are people of color.

From that conversation, the Black Stories Collective Project was born.

"We kind of looked through what we had and we realized that we were really deficient in our collection of items, especially since African Americans are such a huge part of our community," said exhibit curator Jenny Bowser. "We decided that we would get together and form a committee and make this permanent exhibit."

The museum began sending out emails, corresponding with Black residents to assemble a committee and build the exhibit with Black voices at the forefront. LaTanya Gravespresident of the Waterloo chapter of the NAACP, became co-chair of the Grout Museum Black Stories Collective Project.

"When they were discussing it could be inclusive of the African American history here in Black Hawk County, we were so excited about it," she said on IPR's Talk of Iowa while touring the exhibit.

Graves said they started small and grew outward, beginning with various members of the committee who had extensive knowledge of the area's Black history. During the research phase of the project, Graves even discovered her own father owned a club in Black Hawk County and still had the articles of incorporation and lists of board members around.

She said the stories need to be told, even if they're coming several decades late.

"You never realized that there was no history that included African Americans, so it's amazing that after the riots and everything that took place, it was pushed to the forefront when in all actuality, it should have taken place long ago because there are so many pioneers here," she said. "It kind of makes you wonder why their stories were not told a long time ago ... Those stories are so important, and if they're not told, they're not repeated."

The museum exhibit begins with an overview of the state of Iowa and a timeline of the civil rights events that happened, starting in 1839 with In Re the Matter of Ralph, the case that established that no one could be enslaved in Iowa.

Though Iowa was never a slave state, Bowser says discrimination and racism were still present, and many of the people she interviewed and the research she conducted made that clear.

"A lot of folks would talk about how they came here, and there was almost a backhanded sort of racism to what they would encounter," she said.

Even today, Black Iowans face unfair treatment and systemic racism. A November 2018 report ranked Waterloo and Cedar Falls as the top cities in the nation for discrimination against Black Americans.

"Without [inclusivity], history perishes," Graves said. "When we start to involve and include everyone's history, then we're able to understand cultural norms and values and why some people do the things they do. A lot of times, when we don't understand, that's when we fall into discrimination."

The exhibit also includes images from Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. When Graves looks at them, she says she sees change.

"I see change. I see respect. I see people from all walks of life coming together to say that Black lives truly do matter," she said. "I see pain. I see confusion and then I also see love."

An enormous mural takes up a wall of the exhibit, painted by Chaveevah Fergusonthe host of North End Update. Her mural depicts moments and figures who contributed to significant events in Black history. An image of the Illinois Central railroad shows how Black people traveled to Waterloo from the South during the Great Migration.

"I see change, I see respect, I see people from all walks of life coming together to say that Black lives truly do matter. I see pain, I see confusion and then I also see love."
LaTanya Graves, president of the Waterloo chapter of the NAACP, co-chair of the Grout Museum Black Stories Collective Project

She also shows Black soldiers who joined the military in hopes of finding acceptance and moving up socially in addition to serving their country, though many were not shown the same respect as white soldiers once they returned home.

"The military was seen as a way to improve your situation, to show your patriotism and have an opportunity to advance yourself, to support your family," Ferguson said.

The mural includes an image of Nichole Hannah-Jones, who grew up in Waterloo and published The 1619 Project, as well as Anna May Weems, who brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak in Waterloo.

When Ferguson looks at the mural, she says it feels surreal. When others look at it, she says she wants them to reflect on their place, now, in history.

"I want them to understand that these things and so much more have happened and are happening right now, and they're a part of it," she said. "Their relatives, friends, neighbors are a part of it."

The Black Stories Collective exhibit is now permanently in the Grout Museum, with rotating topics to highlight different points of Black history in the Cedar Valley area.

Josie Fischels is IPR's Arts & Culture Reporter, with expertise in performance art, visual art and Iowa Life. She's covered local and statewide arts, news and lifestyle features for The Daily Iowan, The Denver Post, NPR and currently for IPR. Fischels is a University of Iowa graduate.
Dani Gehr is a producer for River to River and Talk of Iowa. Dani came to Iowa from her hometown in the northwest suburbs of Chicago to attend Iowa State University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in journalism, international studies and French. Before coming to IPR, Dani covered local government in Story County for the Ames Tribune and Des Moines Register.
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa