Race Relations in Waterloo

Chapter 1


The Central Regional Office of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, through its network of State Advisory Committees, has conducted a series of community forums focusing on race relations. The objective of these forums was to evaluate how various racial and ethnic groups were getting along with the majority community. The Advisory Committees wanted to explore what efforts were being made to improve race relations and to reduce prejudice and racial intolerance. They also wanted to determine the extent of enforcement of civil rights laws in the various cities and states in the region. Finally, the Advisory Committees wanted to find out whether residents knew how to access civil rights agencies to file discrimination complaints.[1]

With the above in mind, the Iowa Advisory Committee decided to hold a community forum in Waterloo, Iowa.[2] This decision was based in part on the fact that the Committee’s last major project in Waterloo was in 1971 with the release of its report, Walk Together Children. That report noted:

The situations that exist in Waterloo are symptomatic of racial hostilities and strain that exist in many American communities. There is a desperate need for a change in the employment and educational structures of the city. This change must come, however, from the government and the people of Waterloo.

Racial isolation not only harms the black community but the total community and all of its institutions. The problems related to this isolation in school or housing reflect many deep and subtle conflicts. These lie in attitudes which such segregation generates in a community—fear, frustration, and unsurety as to the future.

Problems of equal education are directly related to open housing. If discrimination in housing can be eliminated, it is possible to desegregate the schools without changing existing patterns. If the housing patterns in Waterloo continue, however, there will be no equal education in Waterloo.[3]

In 1977, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a staff report, School Desegregation in Waterloo, Iowa. That report noted:

Waterloo has suffered poor race relations for years. In addition to housing problems, blacks tend to hold low-paying, low-status, blue-collar jobs and few white-collar positions. In the summer of 1967, black youths demonstrated to protest their parents’ acceptance of segregated housing and education in exchange for “good” jobs. As the result of these demonstrations, the Waterloo Human Rights Commission held a hearing which revealed the extent of segregation and lack of opportunity for blacks in Waterloo.

According to a former member of the city council, the black community views the council as particularly hostile to measures to improve the lot of minorities. One member of the council serves as president of the Neighborhood School Association (NSA), a group opposed to busing for desegregation. The council abolished the low-rent housing commission when it persisted in proposals to establish such housing, which might be occupied by blacks, on the predominantly white side of town. Also, the black community has expressed concern about the distribution of community development funds, alleging insufficient benefit to minorities and the poor. Charges of inequity first made in 1969 were repeated in 1971 by the director of the Waterloo Commission on Human Rights.

Some community leaders, including the heads of larger organizations and businesses, are reportedly determined that greater opportunities for minorities be made available in Waterloo. For example, business groups grew concerned about the racial situation after the 1967 disturbances when they found that white managers and professionals were reluctant to move to Waterloo, a problem that continues.

This long and growing frustration over racial tension and related problems appears to have been an important inducement for civic leaders and the general public to work seriously for the success of school desegregation when the time arrived.[4]

With the 1972 Iowa Advisory Committee report and the 1977 Commission staff report serving as rough benchmarks, the Advisory Committee held a community forum in Waterloo on December 20–21, 1999. The objective of the forum was to obtain information about Waterloo’s public education system, police-community relations, and issues involving fair housing and community development. The Advisory Committee also wanted to obtain information about the enforcement of civil rights laws in the Waterloo area. The Advisory Committee invited local community leaders, city and county government leaders, federal civil rights officials, and interested citizens to share their concerns about race relations and civil rights enforcement in Waterloo. What follows is a summary of information presented during the community forum.

[1] Alabama Advisory Committee, Crisis and Opportunity: Race Relations in Selma, December 1991; Louisiana Advisory Committee, A Community Meeting on Race Relations in Baker, Louisiana, transcript, June 24, 1997 (February 1999); Nebraska Advisory Committee, Race Relations in Western Nebraska, December 1994; and Iowa Advisory Committee, A Time to Heal: Race Relations in Dubuque, Iowa, June 1993.

[2] Iowa Advisory Committee, Project Proposal, approved Nov. 22, 1999.

[3] Iowa Advisory Committee, Walk Together Children, May 1971, pp. 12–13.

[4] U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, School Desegregation in Waterloo, Iowa, August 1977, p. 3.