During the Civil War, a large percentage of Iowans served in Union armies.
The state also became an active part of the Underground Railroad, a network of secret hiding places that sheltered runaway slaves, most traveling a route from Kansas to the Mississippi River, Chicago and eventually Canada. Sympathetic Iowans opened their hearts and homes to these freedom-road travelers, signaling refuge with coded messages in the language of the Underground Railroad.
Many Iowa homes and buildings served as "stations" along the Underground Railroad, and a few remaining structures have been preserved and are open to visitors.
Two stops in southeast Iowa offered refuge for escaping slaves. The Lewelling Quaker Shrine was built in the town of Salem, one of the earliest Quaker settlements west of the Mississippi. Quakers were opposed to slavery and many were active in helping runaway slaves. Visitors follow the stone steps leading underground from the Civil War-era kitchen to the hiding place in the cellar.
Located near the Missouri border, Keosauqua played an important part in the freedom movement. At one time there were four "stations" in this small community. The Pearson House, an 1840s brick and stone home with a small secret cellar for harboring slaves, is open to the public. Damaged by a tornado in the late 1960s, it was repaired with bricks from the historic Negro Methodist Church, one of two Keosauqua churches built for African American residents in the 1870s.
In southwest Iowa, slaves could find safe haven at the Todd House in Tabor, built in 1853 by Rev. John Todd. It was headquarters for the famous John Brown and the Free Kansas Fighters. See 19th-century furnishings, original flooring and woodwork, and historical documents from the Civil War period. The home is open by appointment.
The Reverend George B. Hitchcock, a Congregational minister, built the Hitchcock House in the west central Iowa community of Lewis, in 1854-56. This two-story sandstone house is located in Hitchcock Park, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Tours include rooms on both floors, plus the full basement with its secret room and massive fireplace. The basement - accessible from the kitchen and by an outside entrance - consisted of two rooms. A large, hinged supply cabinet concealed the entrance to the secret room, where fugitives hid in times of danger.
A stately mansion in Valley Junction (later renamed West Des Moines) was built by the city's first white settler, James C. Jordan, in the 1850s. He was regarded as Polk County's "chief conductor" on the Underground Railroad network. Visitors can see the basement where slaves were hidden while learning more about the antislavery movement at the Jordan House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The story of Iowa's rich African American history will soon be told at two new museums. In Des Moines, the Fort Des Moines Black Officers and Women's Army Auxiliary Corps Memorial Park will commemorate two historic "firsts." Fort Des Moines graduated the first officer candidate class open to blacks in 1917, and later became the birthplace of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, or Women's Army Corp. (WAC) A historical museum will feature period artifacts, photographs, art and interactive video/film displays.
A 14,000 square-foot museum celebrating African American history and culture is under development in Cedar Rapids. It will portray the history of African Americans and focus on the Iowa connections to black history.
To learn more about Iowa homes that were part of the Underground Railroad, call 800-345-IOWA and request a free Iowa Travel Guide. Or visit www.traveliowa.com.