Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
KEOSAUQUA’S INFAMOUS "NIGGER HILL"
Officially, slavery never existed in Iowa and it was generally viewed as an economic evil, but few settlers were willing to share with African-Americans the rights and privileges enjoyed by most white men. Van Buren County was no exception.
Atop a ridge south of the hospital stood a large brick church overlooking the river, until it was badly damaged by the tornado of 1967. When workers tore down the remains of "the old nigger church," as it was labeled, a symbol of Keosauqua’s colorful past was removed.
"The Negro of Iowa" was written by Leola Nelson Bermann of the state historical society, and was published in Iowa Journal of History and Politics in 1948. Bermann’s study of black history in Iowa determined that Keosauqua once had a higher percentage of black people than any other Iowa town or city.
A statement in Van Buren County, Iowa (WPA Guide Series,) 1940 pp. 24-26 places the figure at 400 (well over 50% of Keosauqua’s total population) but footnote number 64 in Bermann’s report says that the statement is a gross inaccuracy. Facts show that the highest ratio of black to white Keosauquans was about one out of seven.
Iowa was assembled as a free territory, but southern settlers and government officials brought in a few black slaves, and laws were soon passed following the lead of other areas. On April 1, 1839 no "black or mulatto" was permitted to settle in Iowa Territory unless he could present "a fair certificate of actual freedom" under the seal of a judge, and provide a $500 retainer bond as surety against becoming a public charge.
Few blacks chose Iowa as their residence. The 1840 Census of Iowa shows a total of 188 black people, and 16 were slaves. In the 1850 Census Iowa had 333 blacks. In 1860 the state’s total black population had only grown to 1,069.
Among the people in Iowa who violently opposed slavery were Quakers, who were convinced that all people should have equal rights. Quakers throughout northern America and thousands of other settlers from New England joined in forming a network known as the Underground Railroad that funneled former slaves from deep within the south to freedom in Canada. Evidence exists in both Bentonsport and Keosauqua showing that Van Buren County participated in this noble effort.
According to Bergmann, Keosauqua became a haven for Negroid people after the Civil War. Out of Keosauqua’s total population of 772 in 1873, 13% were black. A community of 102 living on the hill bearing the condescending slang name "Nigger Hill" had its own school, a Methodist church, a Baptist church and an Afro-Masonic lodge.
In 1867, Keosauqua counted 42 blacks out of a total population of 688. Bentonsport had one out of a population of 515; Birmingham had 8 out of a population of 549; and Farmington didn’t have any black people.
By 1869, Keosauqua’s Negro population reached 94 and Birmingham reported 24. The total number of blacks living in Van Buren County numbered as follows: 1869, 199; 1870, 211; 1880, 123; 1890, 130; 1900, 102; 1910, 60; 1920, 49; 1930, 44; and 1940, 13.
Of 78 living in the county in 1885, 59 lived in Keosauqua. Keosauqua’s heyday had passed, as the highest numbers and percentages of black population happened between about 1869 and 1875.
Keosauqua holds an interesting distinction. According to Bergmann, this 13% figure of negro population posted in 1873 is the highest percentage an Iowa community has ever attained. Unfortunately, the disrespectful, racially-prejudiced name (Nigger Hill) attached to Keosauqua’s black section has clouded the historical facts so that there is little honor for the community or county in uncovering these details.
As was the case in most towns and cities throughout America, sheer size of the black ethnic group in Keosauqua did not bring about immediate equal acceptance by most white people. Blacks learned quickly not to cross certain lines and barriers, thus there were few racial problems in Van Buren County, except on a personal level.
No doubt it was tough for black Keosauquans to survive, excel, and earn privileges, but perhaps they enjoyed better treatment and wider acceptance than in most areas. Many negro people from Keosauqua were well known, highly respected, beloved citizens of Iowa. Some made names for themselves with their music, while others offered a variety of other gifts and skills that were important in the state’s development.
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick