HIDDEN HISTORY: West Des Moines Historical Society Presents 'Buxton- A Black Utopia in Iowa?'

Hidden History

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — February is Black History Month, and we’re shining a light on the hidden history in Iowa. You can learn more about a couple places in Iowa this month.

You may have driven by a historic home on Fuller Road in West Des Moines, or at least heard the name of its original owner.

“You are in the James C. Jordan house. He was one of the first Anglo European settlers to this area, and he was an important guy. He was more than having a mall named after him,” said Gale Brubaker, West Des Moines Historical Society Executive Director.

The West Des Moines Historical Society owns the home now. It showcases Victorian era items, including china displayed on the dining room table. Brubaker said, “The china here on the table is original to the family and the times, so James and his family used the china on the table.”

You can also learn more about the home’s history while there. “Most people come visit the Jordan House because it’s a stop on the Underground Railroad, and James was the chief conductor in Polk County for the Underground Railroad.”

The basement features an exhibit about the Underground Railroad and how Iowa played a role. Brubaker said, “To be part of the struggle for African Americans to reach freedom in Canada, which is how far they had to go. It’s really an amazing thing and something Iowans should be proud we have in our heritage.”

A little more than an hour southeast of West Des Moines, is a town that no longer exists. “Really, I couldn’t believe a place like this existed,” said Author Rachelle Chase.

She has written two books about Buxton, Iowa. Her latest is called Creating the Black Utopia of Buxton, Iowa.

“It was a coal-mining town that was established in 1900 by the consolidation coal company, which was owned by the Chicago Northwestern Railroad, but what makes it really fascinating is the fact that again, this was 1900 and blacks and whites were treated equal and blacks were leaders in the community,” said Chase.

“They made up between 40 to 55 percent of the population for most of Buxton’s existence. This is a time in Iowa when the whole state was like 99.3 percent white or foreign-born, and here you have this town of 5,000 people literally in the middle of farmland and the predominant race is African American.”

The West Des Moines Historical Society is bringing Chase to the metro for a talk called “Buxton – A Black Utopia in Iowa?”

Buxton only existed for a couple decades, but lessons from the community remain today.

“One of the big takeaways for me was that, what can happen when people are treated equal. When people have equal access to opportunities, to jobs, to equal pay, what can happen in that little environment.”

Brubaker said, “I think it’s something everyone should know about, that there was this one shining moment in Iowa history where equality and integration ruled.”

The West Des Moines Historical Society presents “Buxton – A Black Utopia in Iowa?” as part of its Iowa Files series. The talk is Sunday, February 16 at 2:30 p.m. at the West Des Moines Public Library. Author Rachelle Chase will be dressed in period attire and will share audio clips and pictures from Buxton.

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