Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2007 | Reviews

The African American Women in Iowa Digital Collection, a Digital Library Services Web Exhibit

By Kathryn Howe
A Web exhibit sheds light on the historical student experience of African American women.


In the dog-eared photo, a classy lady wearing a smart dress and white pearls around her neck stands, hands clasped, in front of an old house. The picture bends where her name is scrawled, but it appears to be "Marie." Below, a caption reads, "Remembered by her kindness and remarkable character."

In other images, "Mary" and "Doug" stand together near a big tree in the winter snow, above the playful words, "He may be your man but he comes to see me sometime," while Lula M. Johnson is "lonesome to see Buddy." Throughout the album, men and women in sharp suits and ties, nice skirts and fancy tights pose along the familiar tree-lined streets of Iowa City and in front of UI buildings, including Old Capitol.

This 53-page volume of photos and other ephemera belongs to Altheda Beatrice Moore Smith, 28BA, 34MA [deceased], a black UI student whose scrapbook underscores a new University of Iowa Libraries online exhibit that showcases the 20th-century experience of African American women in Iowa.

Group of girls

The African American Women in Iowa Digital Collection. is the latest in a series of projects coordinated by the university's Digital Library Services. The photographs, clippings, newsletters, and other historical items span 1924 to 1970 and include materials from the Iowa Women's Archives and the African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa in Cedar Rapids.

Smith's scrapbook records the activities and memories of a clearly spirited young woman with an expansive assembly of friends and social engagements. Her album includes invitations to fraternity parties, recital programs, pictures of Homecoming and Hawkeye football games, cards and messages from loved ones -- even noting times when she attended productions at the Englert or Strand theaters, often in the company of a gentleman named "Billy."

Group of boys

Beyond Smith's scrapbook, a 1929 pamphlet for the Iowa Federation Home (a dorm-itory for black female students) and mid- to late-1960s newsletters of the Fort Madison branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People offer valuable perspective on the prejudices and obstacles that hindered black students over the generations, from segregation to the turbulent events that marked the crescendo of the civil rights movement.

Sorority girls to activists donated their materials for this project in hopes that the public can learn from and treasure the diversity of Iowa's past. As one of Smith's friends noted in the scrapbook, "To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die."