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Throughout last summer’s racial justice protests, demonstrators frequently called for an end to “systemic racism.” Broadly defined, it’s policies and practices entrenched in a society that harm certain racial groups and help others, whether intentionally or not. IPR News is looking at what systemic racism looks like in Iowa -- including housing, criminal justice, education, health care, business ownership, and farming -- and how it affects Black Iowans today.

Segregation Still Evident In Iowa Schools 150 Years After State Supreme Court Ruling

Waterloo's school board wrote up a desegregation plan in 1973. Today, elementary schools in Waterloo and around Iowa remain segregated to an extent because of the neighborhoods people live in.
Cece Mitchell
The Waterloo Community School District has put a big focus on narrowing the achievement gap between Black and white students and accelerating achievement for all. But, like other school districts around Iowa, its elementary schools have essentially remained segregated because of the neighborhoods people live in.

In 1868, Iowa was the first state to desegregate its public schools. But many schools essentially remained segregated for more than a century after. And it’s still noticeable today.

In the 1960s, Belinda Creighton-Smith of Waterloo spent most of her elementary school years in majority Black neighborhoods and majority Black schools.

“We had the old, outdated textbooks. We had the outdated materials. Our classrooms were jam packed,” Creighton-Smith said.

The Waterloo Board of Education voted in 1969 to allow students to be bused to any school in the district as long as there was room. This put the charge of desegregation on Black families, like Creighton-Smith’s, that wanted their children to go to better schools.

Carla Wehmeyer
University of Northern Iowa
Belinda Creighton-Smith is a pastor in Waterloo and an adjunct instructor at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

Creighton-Smith and her siblings would wake up early to catch the bus across town to one of those schools in a mostly white neighborhood. (Today, that neighborhood is mostly a Black neighborhood, Creighton-Smith said. The school, Krieg Elementary, closed in 1987.)

They experienced overt racism at Krieg. A white student called Creighton-Smith’s brother the N-word, so her brother hit him. A teacher then held him and told the white student to hit him back “as hard as [he] could,” Creighton-Smith remembered. Creighton-Smith said she also remembers how her white teacher wouldn’t call on her when she’d raise her hand in class.

“It’s a trade-off,” Creighton-Smith said. “The racial trauma and the better resources versus the inadequate resources, inadequate support.”

The school board wrote up a desegregation plan in 1973. Almost 50 years later, Creighton-Smith is a pastor in the city. Race relations have improved, she said, but racism is more “hidden and implicit” in how teachers treat students.

“It's what they believe about the students and therefore as a result of what they believe about the students, that's what they focus on,” Creighton-Smith said. “If they believe that they cannot excel, then they just focus on the bare minimum with those kinds of students.”

“It’s a trade-off. The racial trauma and the better resources versus inadequate resources, inadequate support.”
Belinda Creighton-Smith on her experience as an African American student at a couple different elementary schools.

Iowa legislators in 1839 passed a law that established schools in every county. The schools were declared “opened and free," but they were for white students only, age 5-21.

Nearly 30 years later, things began to shift. In 1867, 12-year-old Susan Clark was informed she couldn't attend her neighborhood school in Muscatine because she was Black. She was told, instead, to go to a school for Black children. Her father, Alexander Clark Sr., a businessman, sued the local school board.

The case went to the Iowa Supreme Court. The court declared in 1868 that segregated schools were unconstitutional and “all the youths are equal before the law.” The decision paved the way for a practice called “tokenism”, when white people would admit a select few Black students into schools. Then came integration, which continues to take place.

Underlying segregation still exists in school districts across Iowa, including in Waterloo, Des Moines and Sioux City, partly because housing policies and practices from earlier in the 20th century known as redlining and racially restrictive covenants that created segregated neighborhoods, which the elementary schools mirrored.

“They also created the perception that African American occupancy brings down property values,” said Colin Gordon, a University of Iowa history professor.

Housing discrimination because of race was banned in 1968, but the segregated neighborhoods still existed, Gordon said.

“And people still acted on the same assumption that that's not a good neighborhood, the school in that neighborhood is not a good school,” Gordon said.

The Dr. Walter Cunningham School for Excellence in Waterloo is just outside of a residential area that the government between 1935 and 1940 deemed “hazardous” and “the colored section.” According to 2020-2021 enrollment data from the Waterloo Community School District, the elementary school has a minority population of about 92 percent, while minority groups make up more than 50 percent of the student body in the whole district.

Cunningham School in Waterloo has a minority population of 92 percent.
Cece Mitchell
Cunningham School in Waterloo has a minority population of 92 percent.

Waterloo school district leaders acknowledge that their schools are still segregated to an extent today because of neighborhoods, and say that there is still work to do with confronting racial biases across the district. Superintendent Jane Lindaman said as a white superintendent, “I have become, every year, even more aware of the biases that we come to our roles with.” She said one of the biggest challenges is “acknowledging the biases that exist, attacking them, having conversations about them.”

The school district has put a big focus on combating the achievement gap between Black and white students.

“It does not matter which of our 11 elementaries you are in,” said Stephanie Mohorne, the school district’s associate superintendent for educational services. Mohorne said just because one neighborhood may be more African American or more Hispanic “does not mean that's a bad thing.”

“That doesn't mean that we should dismantle neighborhoods and dismantle schools just for the fact of having a more balanced system,” Mohorne said.

"It does not matter which of our 11 elementaries you are in."
Stephanie Mohorne, Waterloo Community School District

Mohorne said the district has been doing various things to boost achievement across all schools. Among them, they give monthly assessments to understand student progress and they break down data across the district by race. The district ensures that all students are able to access “rigorous core instruction.”

The goal, Mohorne said, is to not only narrow the gap, but accelerate achievement for all students.

“So it's not just a ‘let's close the gap by bringing one group down and one group up’,” Mohorne said. “It's ‘let's close the gap by bringing everybody up’.”

Iowa State University education professor Gabriel Rodriguez said it’s important to acknowledge academic disparities between Black and White students and focus on how schools can better support minority students’ needs. But school districts also need to hold themselves accountable in fighting those disparities. He said that means looking beyond students’ test scores.

“But looking at ways that everyday schools function, their policies, the relationship with students and belonging as other measures to assess whether or not the school is serving its students,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez continued, “And when schools tend to do that, research shows that students tend to do better through the traditional metrics of assessing student progress academically.”

Families that don’t feel their school is serving them well do have options for their children, like open enrollment, transferring to another school in their own district, or even attending private school. But just like when Belinda Creighton-Smith was an elementary student in the 1960s, this also puts the burden on individual families.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.