Monday, February 19, 2024

Living the Social Gospel in Early Twentieth-Century America

Beginning with the presidency of George Gates (1851-1912), Grinnell College became identified with the "social gospel," an activist view of Christianity that rejected economic, social, and racial inequality. Students of the "social gospel" have made much of its emphasis upon economic and social inequality, but Grinnell proponents like George D. Herron (1862-1925) and Edward A. Steiner (1866-1956) did not neglect to attack the racism that post-Reconstruction America imposed upon Black men and women. Herron, for example, excoriated a world which "a race turned into freedom almost worse than slavery because of the shameful irresponsibility of the nation enslaving it." 

1890s Portrait of George D. Herron

After leaving Grinnell, Herron aligned himself with the Social Democratic Party of Eugene Debs whose platform called wage earners to organize "without distinction of color, race, or sex" (Ralph E. Luker, The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885-1912 [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991], 83, 201). Steiner, who succeeded Herron in the Chair of Applied Christianity at Grinnell, also rejected racial distinctions. "I teach one religious doctrine," Steiner said, "...that underneath all the differences in races and classes, humanity is essentially one" (ibid., 253).

1920s Portrait of Edward Steiner

But what impact did these activists have upon students at Grinnell College where an all-white faculty and administration welcomed almost no Black students to campus? The College graduated in these years numerous well-known activists like Harry Hopkins (1912), Hallie Flanagan Davis (1911), Chester Davis (1911), and Forence Stewart Kerr (1912), all influenced by Grinnell's commitment to the Social Gospel.

None of these alums, as accomplished as they might have been, devoted their careers to undoing American racial injustice. Bessie K. Meacham (1883-1975), however, having integrated the lessons of the Social Gospel into her Christianity, devoted her life to Black men and women across the U.S. South. Beginning immediately after her 1911 commencement at Grinnell, Meacham accepted appointment to "Negro" schools supported and staffed by the American Missionary Association (hereafter AMA). If it was sometimes hard on her and her health—in addition to occasional spells of sickness, she spent the academic year 1914-15 in Grinnell, trying to recover her health (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican 9/8/1914)—Meacham nevertheless committed herself to the education of poor Blacks who had to live with Jim Crow and the often violent consequences of racial hatred in the American South. Today's post reports on how Bessie Meacham used her life to contribute to the education of Black youth in the US South.


Dudley A. Meacham (1855-1914) was a Washington County farmer who, with his wife Harriett (1860-1948), raised three children: Bessie Katherine, the subject of today's post; Frank (1890-1960), who pursued a theological education and eventually served many years as a missionary in what was then Rhodesia; and Floy (1895-1989). After having farmed for several decades, sometime around 1905 Dudley Meacham brought his family to Grinnell, purchasing a home at 1006 Chatterton. In Grinnell Dudley abandoned farming, perhaps because of the illness that brought him an early death: Meacham told the 1910 census-taker that he was then a janitor in a public building. Whatever the move meant for Dudley Meacham's health, the move to Grinnell certainly proved important to his children, since both Bessie and Frank attended and graduated from Grinnell College where they came under the influence of the Social Gospel.

2023 Photo of 1006 Chatterton, Grinnell, IA

Bessie Meacham, the couple's oldest child, was the first to follow this path. Having previously attended Washington Academy (Washington Evening Journal 3/17/1904), Bessie enrolled at the Iowa College Academy shortly after the Meacham family moved to Grinnell. She graduated from the Academy in 1907 (GH 6/4/1907) and immediately thereafter matriculated at the college. 

Considerably older than most of her classmates, Bessie Meacham brought to Grinnell College a deep commitment to Christianity and long experience with Christian Endeavor (C. E.), a late-nineteenth-century ministry that attempted to engage Christian youth with an evangelizing mission. Like others in the organization, Meacham will have recited C.E.'s pledge that obliged members to practice daily devotions and encouraged them to pursue a career that Christ would have them follow. Like her fellow C. E. enthusiasts, Meacham promised "throughout my whole lead a Christian life." At the 1915 convention of the district C. E. organization convened in Grinnell, Meacham was one of two youth to offer ten-minute talks on the pledge. Esther Bliss spoke to how the pledge "helps our inner life" while Meacham, leaning on her Grinnell College education and its commitment to the Social Gospel, explained how the pledge "helps our society" (GH 5/14/1915).

Exactly how did Meacham think that her C.E. pledge would help society? Meacham's college yearbook portrait indicates that she foresaw a career in missions that would fulfill her Christian ambitions. Alongside the graduate's photograph is a pencil drawing of a shield, with a bold "CE" occupying the very center, confirming Meacham's membership in the organization. It was not, however, the only organization to which she belonged. Also inscribed on the shield is the name Student Volunteer Band, "an organization of those who have formed the purpose of spending their future in Foreign Missions and are now engaged in furthering missionary interest among students" (1911 Cyclone). 

Grinnell College Student Volunteer Band; Meacham, 2nd row, far right
(1911 Cyclone)

More than personal redemption, however, Meacham's Christianity importantly embraced racial justice. During Meacham's four years at Grinnell there was on campus only one Black student, James Owen Redmon GC 1913, who had been brought to the college through the personal intervention of Edward Steiner. Despite the rarity of Blacks on the Grinnell campus, Meacham developed a vision for young Black men and women, and Redmon had a part in developing that vision. 
1910 (?) Photograph of Colonial Theater

Although Redmon was two years behind her at Grinnell, Meacham surely knew him, since Redmon was one of the 1911 organizers of Quill and Gavel, a small public speaking group on campus to which Meacham's brother, Frank (class of 1913), also belonged. Moreover, Redmon gained the attention of the entire campus with his skilled orations, including his spring 1911 competition for the Spaulding Prize. Just weeks before Meacham's graduation, Redmon took the stage of the Colonial Theater to address "The African in America." According to the newspaper,
Redmon...took up the always present, the ever perplexing theme of race prejudice, as it applied to his own race. After the first few sentences, he had the entire sympathy of his audience as he told of the wrongs and injustice, the barriers against advancement in all lines, which the Afro-American had to face. It was a seething indictment against prevailing ideas in the United States, and, what was worse, it was hard to find a flaw in the propositions which he advanced (GR 5/8/1911).
Meacham could not have missed this talk, and not only because of her brother's closeness to Redmon; the Spaulding competition was always spirited and, convened in the spacious downtown auditorium of the Colonial, attracted a large audience. Moreover, as the immediate future indicated, Meacham proved herself increasingly attentive to questions of race. Two months after her graduation from Grinnell Meacham was one of three speakers at the Woman's Home Missionary Union meeting at the Grinnell Congregational Church where the theme was "The Negro" (GH 8/22/1911). No report of her speech survives, but it bears emphasizing that by this time Meacham had already accepted appointment to teach at Beach Institute, an all-Black school in Savannah, Georgia, deep in the heart of the old Confederacy (GR 8/28/1911; Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican 9/25/1911; GR 9/28/1911).


Beach Institute, founded in 1865was one of many schools in the US South intended to educate African Americans who were prevented from public education by Jim Crow and southern racism. Several crises, including two serious fires, plagued the school which in 1914 had seven teachers for 168 students, the great majority of whom pursued "industrial" education (W. T. B. Williams, "Duplication of Schools for Negro Youth," Occasional Papers of John F. Slater Fund, no.15[1914],15).

AMA Staff at Beach Institute 1911-12
(List of Missionaries Under the Auspices of American Missionary Association 1911-1912 [NY: American Missionary Association, 1911], 10)

Meacham was not the first Grinnellian to serve at Beach: her fellow Grinnell alumna, Helen R. Field, had joined the staff at Beach immediately after her 1910 graduation (Grinnell Review 10/1910, p. 14), and no doubt provided helpful advice for the newcomer. Unfortunately, soon after Meacham arrived in Georgia, Field fell ill with "breakbone fever"—dengue fever—which probably limited the help she could provide the new recruit (GR 10/30/1912; GH 10/15/1912). As a slim diary for 1913 confirms, Meacham found teaching Beach high schoolers a challenge, but she worked hard, in the process having become a much-valued staff member. In her third year at Beach Meacham herself fell seriously ill and was obliged to return to Grinnell to recuperate. Instead of teaching at an AMA school the next year, Meacham taught at a Grinnell area rural school while she recovered her health (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican 6/10/1915; Clarinda Journal 6/8/1916).

With World War I as background, Meacham took up her second AMA post in 1916, this time at Brewer Normal School in Greenwood, South Carolina (Clarinda Journal 6/8/1916). Founded as a Negro boarding school in 1870 by the AMA, Brewer Institute, as it was originally known, "furnished the majority of the best educated of the colored race" (Greenwood Daily Journal 5/13/1897).

Brewer Normal Institute, College Building
(Greenwood Daily Journal 5/13/1897)

At Brewer as at Beach, most of the staff were women. Bessie Meacham was one of three who taught high school students; two taught elementary students, two taught "industrial" subjects, one taught music, and a Connecticut man was in charge of agriculture. Another unspecified illness interrupted Meacham's work in South Carolina, sending her back to Iowa in March 1918 to recuperate (Clarinda Journal 3/21/1918; Grinnell Review 4-5/1918, p. 332).

That autumn Meacham followed a somewhat different course in her work, perhaps because of the illness she had endured in South Carolina. Instead of heading south, she went west to Albuquerque, New Mexico where she spent a year at the Rio Grande Industrial School (Grinnell Review 12/1918, p. 34). 
ca. 1909 Photograph of Heald Hall, Rio Grande Industrial School
(Rev. J. H. Heald, The Rio Grande Industrial School [Boston: Congregational Education Society, 1909]

Another AMA-sponsored institution, the Rio Grande school had a very different student body. Here, instead of African Americans, Meacham taught Mexicans in a school organized around practical education. Founded in 1908 on 160 acres that included stock and farm implements, the Rio Grande school began with twenty pupils and a curriculum dominated by agriculture. Most of the instruction took place in English, as part of the ambition of the school was to teach Mexicans English. However, since moral and religious ideas "are best imparted in one's native tongue," religious instruction came in Spanish (Heald, Rio Grande Industrial School, 5-7). As before at Beach Institute, Bessie Meacham was not the only Grinnellian on the Rio Grande faculty. In 1917 Mary Frisbie, a 1915 graduate of Grinnell, began teaching in Albuquerque and was still on the faculty when Meacham, returning to her earlier commitment to Black schools in the US South, left to take up a new appointment in Marion, Alabama (Grinnell Review 10/1917, p. 211; GH 8/23/1918; GH 8/26/1919). 

Begun in 1867, Lincoln Normal prospered until the end of Reconstruction when local antipathy encouraged an arsonist to burn it down. Opposition within the state legislature resulted in a measure that prohibited the return of the institution to Marion, leading the AMA to abandon the project temporarily. Marion Blacks, however, had a different idea and, on the basis of their own subscriptions, raised money to reopen the school. This initiative persuaded the AMA to reconsider, sending teachers to Marion and purchasing a home for the principal. Although enthusiasm was high, resources remained skimpy, persuading the AMA in 1897 once again to withdraw from Marion. As before, however, Black families resisted, supplying funds to acquire some necessities and promising teachers that, if they remained at the school, parents of the school's students would feed them. Impressed by the commitment of Black parents in Marion, the AMA relented and resumed support. A burst of growth followed: by 1904 Lincoln Normal had 400 students (Robert G. Sherer, Black Education in Alabama, 1865-1901 [Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997], 131-33).

1922 Photo of Teachers at Lincoln Normal School; Meacham: first row, 3rd from left
(, Plate 35 )

Autumn 1919 Bessie Meacham left Grinnell for Marion, Alabama where for the next fifteen years she taught English and History at Lincoln Normal (GH 10/3/1919; Putnam Patriot 5/31/1934). 
Undated Photograph of Students at Lincoln Normal School
(American Missionary Association Photographs, 1887-1952, Tulane University Digital Library:

During her last several years at Lincoln Normal Meacham prepared herself to move from the classroom to the library. Every summer, beginning in 1930, she attended Chautauqua Library School in New York. 
May 8, 1934 Letter of Bessie K. Meacham to LeMoyne College President Frank Sweeney (1929-40)
(Archives, Hollis F. Price Library, LeMoyne-Owen College; thanks to Jameka Townsend for sharing this document with me)

Consequently, when in 1934 she accepted a position in the library of all-Black LeMoyne (now LeMoyne-Owen) College in Memphis, Tennessee, Meacham had the equivalent of a master's degree in library science. Beginning as an assistant librarian, Meacham became head of the library in 1944 and remained in that position until she retired in 1952, having spent almost forty years working in Black schools in the U.S. South (Richland Clarion 7/31/1952). 
Photograph of Bessie K. Meacham, Head Librarian, LeMoyne College
(1950 LeMoyne College Yearbook; thanks to Jameka Townsend for sharing this photo with me)

Although the places where Bessie Meacham worked in the years after her 1911 graduation from Grinnell demonstrate powerfully her commitment to changing the racist social order of twentieth-century America, it would be helpful to have her own words to help us understand what she felt about this work. Thanks to a 1912 Christmas gift from her sister, Floy, Bessie Meacham kept a diary for the calendar year 1913 and here she resolved to use the small booklet "to put down not only the facts and events, but [also] my thots [sic] on the same." Nevertheless, terse reports on the quotidian dominate the diary entries, only occasionally interrupted with insights into Meacham's life at Beach Institute. 

Title Page of Bessie Meacham's 1913 Diary
(David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University, "Townsend Family Papers," Box 4)

As the diary confirms, Meacham saw all around her the hatred of white Americans toward Blacks. For example, the diary reports that in late January she visited a Black woman who had been enslaved to a white woman in whose household she now served as a free laborer. Her white mistress had not managed to accept the transition in the maid's situation, telling "her [that she would] kill her if [she were] not such a good worker." The white mistress went on to say that heaven did not appeal to her "if a nigger or Yankee goes" there too (January 30). Dr. Reid, a local white physician to whom Meacham went several times in 1913 for relief from illness, maintained that "the black man is only rarely capable of being a leader" (April 9). Not even the staff at Beach was immune to racism. According to Meacham's diary, the wife of the school's principal acknowledged that she "would rather have the white friend than a hundred colored" (March 17).

In addition to these real life experiences of racism, Meacham continued to be influenced by her reading, the choices of which seem to stem from her experience with the Social Gospel at Grinnell.  Early in the 1913 diary, for example, she reported (January 2) that she was reading the latest issue of W. E. B. Du Bois's The Crisis. The December 1912 issue that Meacham read in early January in Georgia included a report on efforts of the Alabama legislature to "oppose any bill that would compel Negroes to educate their children... " (The Crisis, Dec. 1912, p. 61). A speech from Georgia's Senator Hoke Smith (1855-1931) quoted on the pages of The Crisis (ibid., p. 70) asserted that "The uneducated Negro is a good Negro; he is contented to occupy the natural status of his race, the position of inferiority...." A few pages earlier The Crisis informed readers about the arrest of a Black Georgia man who had "accidentally or intentionally touched a white woman with one of his hands." A hurried trial had found him guilty, the judge sentencing the defendant to twenty years in the penitentiary. After an appeals court granted the man a new trial, the same judge repeated the sentence, obliging the appeals court to reverse him again (p. 64). The journal also cataloged a series of the most recent lynchings and other murders of Black men (p. 65). With this literature in mind Meacham asked her diary (January 2), "Will nobody ever solve this 'eternal problem' of the black man's position in America?"
Undated Photo of Rev. Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918)

I suppose that Meacham learned of The Crisis from her Grinnell education, although I was unable to learn whether the college library had begun its subscription before Meacham's 1911 graduation. Other titles in her reading indicate Meacham's continued association with Grinnell College. Her diary several times reports that she was reading issues of the Scarlet and Black that her brother had sent from Grinnell. And when she returned to Grinnell in late May 1913 for summer vacation, she immersed herself in college happenings. May 30th, for instance, she attended Friday chapel to hear Dr. Steiner's brother speak, and the following day she and her brother, Frank, were present for the Hyde Prize orations. 

On June 11th she took in her brother's college graduation ceremony at which Rev. Walter Rauschenbusch, a prominent advocate of the Social Gospel, addressed "The Call of Social Problems to the College Man and Woman." So far as the newspaper account can confirm (Grinnell Register 6/12/1913), Rauschenbusch did not mention race in his address. Nevertheless, elsewhere Rauschenbusch had argued that man shares his life with God, whose religion does not flow out, naturally and without effort, into all relations of his life and reconstructs everything that it touches. Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus. Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and institutions of men, to that extent denies the faith of the Master (Christianity and the Social Crisis [New York: The Macmillan Co., 1907], 48-49).

Despite the absence of a direct reference to racial injustice, Bessie Meacham could hardly have wished for a more full-throated commendation of the career path she had chosen, helping reconstruct education and social relations for Black Americans in the U.S. South. 


Photograph of 1966 Grinnell College Alumni Award Winners; Bessie Meacham front row, middle
(Alumni Scarlet and Black July-August 1966)

When contacted in spring 1966 by the college alumni office with news that she had been nominated for an alumni award, Bessie Meacham responded humbly: "I shall try to tell you of my life's work, although it may not sound very glamorous," she wrote. Summarizing her forty years at Black schools in the South, Meacham declined to characterize her "contribution to the education of the present generation of Negro youth," as the alumni office had evidently requested. "I have not been the kind of person who turns the world upside down," she concluded modestly (April 6, 1966 letter from Bessie K. Meacham to Mrs. Mullins, Alumni Award records, Grinnell College Office of Development and Alumni Relations). 

The citation that accompanied her award at reunion in 1966, however, was more assertive, recognizing that Meacham had gone south "to help give negroes opportunity for education." "The benefits from her years of teaching," the citation continued, "are spread through many communities," including those at LeMoyne College with which Grinnell was then exchanging students ("Bessie K. Meacham, 1911," 1966 alumni citation, ibid.).

Neither George Herron nor Edward Steiner were around in 1966 to congratulate Meacham. But if they had been, these two giants of the Social Gospel would surely have praised her for taking her Christian faith deep into the heart of some of America's worst social ills. Her Christianity, although deeply pious, was also socially committed and intended to overturn the bias built into American racism.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Photography in Early Grinnell: A. L. Child's Studio and Art Rooms

Although early Grinnell, like much of the rest of the country, welcomed the industries that were remaking twentieth-century America, the local economy depended upon a handful of professionals and the small shops of salesmen and artisans. Among the most important of these were the photographers who, riding the wave of photographic innovation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, introduced Grinnell residents to the expanding world of photographic representation. If today every owner of a smart phone can make a record of experience and image, in an earlier time a small cohort of photographers controlled and merchandised photography and its associated products, especially in America's small towns. Today's post examines the local history of photography in early Grinnell, concentrating upon the most successful and long-lived of those enterprises, the Child Studio and Art Rooms.

Art Glass Window From Child Art Studio, 909 Broad Street
(Rescued when the building was razed in 1974)


When the small settlement of Grinnell was founded in the 1850s, commercial photographers were unusual in Iowa, only recently established as a state in the union. But with the quickening expansion of photography, especially on the heels of the Civil War, numbers rose across the Iowa prairie. According to one recent study, Iowa could claim 185 photographers in 1865, 223 in 1880, and more than 580 by 1900 (Mary Bennett, An Iowa Album: A photographic history, 1860-1920 [Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1990], 312).

Advertisement in Grinnell Herald, October 18, 1871

Grinnell gained its first photographer when Charles L. Walker (1835-1900) came to town. Born and raised in rural New Hampshire, Walker abandoned his home turf for New York and later Connecticut where he took up photography, doing some of his work during the Civil War. After a brief spell in Wisconsin, Walker arrived in Grinnell no later than August 1870 when he appeared in that year's census, describing himself as a "Photo Artist."  Very soon Walker opened on Broad Street what seems to have been the town's first photography studio and "art gallery" (GH 2/1/1871).

1890s photo of Hatch Building, SW corner of Main and 4th Ave.

If Walker was Grinnell's first photographer, he soon had company and commercial competition. No later that 1887 W. F. Stallings (1854-1940) had set up shop in the Hatch Building at 4th and Main. By 1895 Stallings had disappeared, relocating to Des Moines, but J. W. Kester (1868-1953) established his photography studio at Park and 3rd, opposite Chapin House. At about the same time J. M. Stonestreet (1862-1942) was running his photography business from 802 4th Avenue, announcing himself as the successor to Stallings. 

Advertisement taken from an undated (1890s?) Stonestreet Photograph

Evidently Grinnell business was not sufficient to keep Stonestreet in Grinnell, so that sometime before 1900 he transferred his business to Marshalltown (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, March 20, 1900). For a time W. B. Brooks took over the Stonestreet Studio but the 1905 city directory has John Kester working from this address, so Brooks must have moved on.

1895 Photograph of J. M. Stonestreet (1862-1942)
(Bennett, An Iowa Album, p. 313)

All these photographers played a part in memorializing the people and places of early Grinnell. But none was so influential or long-lasting as Arthur Child and his studio on Broad Street.


Arthur Child began his apprenticeship in photography by fulfilling minor errands for Walker, but by the time he acquired his uncle's business (probably sometime in early 1880 as Child advertisements begin to appear in the Grinnell Herald then; L. F. Parker contends that Child bought the business in 1881 [History of Poweshiek County Iowa, 2 vols. (Chicago, 1911), 2:696) he had developed an expansive appreciation for the enterprise. Not long after having taken over Walker's studio, Child made plans to erect a new building to replace Walker's premises. Constructed of brick with a stone front, the new block—on which Child's name was carved near the peak—rose three stories and measured twenty-two feet wide and seventy feet deep. Complimenting Child on his plans, the Herald anticipated "the finest gallery in the county" (8/1/1884).

Detail of 1974 William Oelke Photograph of 909 Broad, Taken Just Before the Child Building Was Razed

From the start Child, like his uncle before him, viewed his enterprise as more than a photography studio, as the words "Art Rooms" decorating the building's second-story face implied. Initially occupying the second and third floors, Child established a richly-appointed gallery on the 2nd floor. The room facing the street was "finished in hard wood—cherry, red oak, and ash, with an open fireplace, cherry mantel, and a mantel top mirror." Changing rooms stood adjacent, just west, separated by colored and ground glass. Behind them lay a skylight room, sixteen by thirty-two, "nicely fitted up"; it was here that Child did most of his studio photography (GH 11/11/1884). Later newspaper reports indicated that Child periodically acquired thematic scenes against which to position the subjects of his camera.

Darkrooms featured "a complete system of water works, and everything is conveniently arranged," the newspaper hummed. Child devoted the third floor—later to be converted to apartments—to printing (ibid.). Reports describe the gallery as "cheery," not least because Child kept the fire burning constantly in the fireplace. A selection of Child's photographs decorated the walls, showing off "the skill of the artist" (GH 12/19/1884). As soon as Grinnell embarked upon a system of city water and sewer, Child added "an elaborate marble lavatory in the ladies' dressing room," giving the business a "decidedly metropolitan" flavor (GH 10/23/94). Probably the most noticed addition to the building came from the photographer's father who in December 1898 anticipated Christmas by giving his son a "beveled plate-glass front door for his new art rooms with his trade mark autograph ground on the glass" (GH 12/13/98; see illustration at head of this post).

The impressively outfitted studio attracted attention well beyond Broad Street, Grinnell. An 1899 issue of Wilson's Photography Magazine, for instance, offered detailed congratulations to the Grinnell photographer. 
The exhibition room is 22 x 35 feet, and has a large plate-glass window for outside display. The walls are hung with Egyptian burlap, surmounted by a deep cornice in Flemish oak, giving the room a sombre but rich appearance. The reception room, 25 x 16 feet, is separated from the foregoing by continuing the cornice across the ceiling, supported by four Ionic columns, pedestals at each side of the entrance displaying statues of the Winged Victory and Venus di Milo. The reception room walls are furnished with trophies of ancient armor...,The dressing rooms are draped with red and white stuffs...The operating room is 22 x 35 feet, giving a good range for all classes of work. The skylight is a single slant light of unusual size, glazed with ground glass. The walls are hung with striped olive and cream draperies, and the woodwork is of mahogany. The dark rooms, printing and finishing departments are conveniently arranged with full equipments for good work. The place is lighted by electric light, and all the departments are united by speaking tubes and bells (v. 36[1899]:46).
Child Art Rooms Before 1907 Fire
(Grinnell Herald, April 26, 1907)

Reading this description of Victorian overkill today gives rise to fears of fire, and fire did indeed break out on April 25th, 1907
. According to next day's newspaper, the late-night fire turned the once elegant, richly-appointed studio into a "smoke-begrimed and water soaked ruin." Although some of the oldest photographic plates stored on the third floor survived, "cameras and all the fine stock of art goods were practically ruined, the plate glass windows cracked and the entire interior blackened and damaged so as to require rebuilding" (GH 4/26/1907). It is easy to believe, as reportage in the Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican claimed, that the highly flammable materials on the walls—burlap, photographic backgrounds, pictures—contributed to the rapid spread of the flames (4/26/1907).

In attempts to calm fears of long-time customers, Child reported that, although there were losses among his photographic negatives, he still had some 35,000 negatives that were spared by the fire and therefore he would be able to make prints for most of his clients (GH 5/28/1907). Even while rebuilding after the fire, Child worked ever more energetically at succeeding in business. As before, he enthusiastically urged sales of Kodak and Brownie cameras (GH 3/31/1916), extending to amateurs the possibility of producing their own photographs. To draw the public into his studio, Child occasionally invited guest artists for special exhibitions, as when he had John Newton Parks (1848-1925) exhibit portraits of a half-dozen Grinnell worthies (including J. B. Grinnell, Grinnell College presidents Magoun, Bradley, and Main, and Rev. T. O. Douglass) (GH 2/1/1918). Another window exhibit featured photographs of "Grinnell soldiers in many styles and sizes," a display that the newspaper judged "worth going some distance to see" (GH 10/4/1918). In a 1921 report Child told of having discovered among his archive of negatives a photograph of some thirty-two Grinnell pioneers which he displayed in the windows of the first floor where he now headquartered his business (GH 8/12/1921). A couple of years later the Grinnell Herald told of Child's recovery of negatives depicting the consequences of the 1882 cyclone (9/7/1923). In short, the Child Studio had become the photographic archive of early Grinnell.

Advertisement in Grinnell Herald, December 21, 1897

Despite the lettering upon the face of his building and the array of art supplies, picture frames, cameras and other goods (including, bizarrely, "golf goods" [GH 4/16/1915]), in the years before 1900 advertisements for the business routinely described it as "The Child Studio." At about the same time, Child began advertising in the college newspaper (S&B 10/16/1897). More than that, he seems to have cornered the market on all photographs placed in the college yearbook, the beginning of that collection of negatives that came to encompass almost everyone who attended the college before 1935. A notice in the April 21, 1900 issue of the Scarlet and Black asked all seniors to "call at once at the Child Studio for sittings in order that orders for albums may be filled." Brief notes in the campus newspaper in 1905 asked members of the Chrestomathian Society (2/18) and the basketball team (3/1) to convene at Child's studio for photographs. Similar notes appeared periodically later, but only in 1922 did the campus newspaper announce that "a contract has been made with the Child studios for all the pictures for the Cyclone," asking that the entire Junior class appear at the studio (in alphabetic order as organized by the Cyclone editors [10/11/1922]). Schedules arranging sittings for all campus groups also appeared in the Scarlet and Black.

Notice in Scarlet and Black, December 9, 1922

No later than 1890 Child also managed to acquire at least some of the photographic business at Grinnell High School. A notice from June 3rd of that year told newspaper readers that Child had taken the picture of the high school graduates (GH 6/3/1890). Over and above all this, of course, Child Studio hosted photography sittings for the distinguished men and women of town.

1880s (?) Photograph of Early Grinnell Settlers
Front row: Ed Wright; Caerlis Fisher, R. M. Kellogg, Levi Grinnell; Back row: Henderson Herrick, W. M. Sargent, and Ezra Grinnell


Despite all this success, Child's operation of studio and art rooms did not proceed without interruption. As newspaper reports indicate, Child's health occasionally compromised the attention he could devote to the business. Soon after having purchased his uncle's enterprise, Child fell so ill that he felt obliged to spend time in Colorado, from which he returned in September 1883, "much improved in health" (Signal 9/22/1883). About eighteen months later another newspaper article announced that Child "was able to come out Saturday for the first time in several weeks." Without identifying the illness, the report told readers that the "swelling just beneath his jaw has not yet entirely disappeared, but we are glad to note his improved condition" (GH 3/17/1885). The following winter brought more health concerns; this time the newspaper identified the illness as erysipelas, a skin infection that often affects the lower extremities and face. According to the newspaper, Child had "a serious time of it with this disease" (GH 2/16/1886). Apparently things got so bad that Child withdrew from the business for a year or more, calling his uncle back to duty before resuming work himself (GH 1/24/1890).

The health crises may explain why in spring 1891 Child announced that he had "associated himself" with Mr. E. S. Gardner, who took over most of the photographic work (with the assistance of John Kester) while Child would have "more time to devote to copying, pastel work and crayon drawing for which he is justly famous" (GH 4/17/1891). I could find no record of how long this arrangement lasted, but apparently Child soon reassumed full control.

Undated Photograph of Ella Worsham Child (1859-1928)

As his business prospered, Child also succeeded in his private life. In 1885 he married Ella Worsham (1859-1928) who, having studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, was then working in Child's studio as a retoucher. To this union were born two children: Maude (1887-1974) and Arthur L., Jr. (1899-1979). For this growing family in 1890 Child built a lovely new home. Described as a Victorian cottage, the Child home at 1226 Broad Street earned much local praise, but also gained unsolicited compliments from a visitor who wrote for the Chicago Herald. During a brief Grinnell sojourn in 1891 Samuel T. Clover (1859-1934), who later gained fame as a graphic artist, described the Child Broad Street home as "the most beautiful cottage in Grinnell" (GH 7/10/1891), praise that resonated with the photographer's local reputation.

Undated photo of 1226 Broad Street, Grinnell


As Child approached his eightieth birthday, he decided to give up the business that he had kept alive in Grinnell for almost sixty years. In late spring 1935, local newspapers reported that Child had sold the photography business to O. E. Niffenegger (1905-1992), who for some years had taught business courses at Grinnell High School (1934 Grinnellian, p. 7). 

O. E. Niffeneger
(1934 Grinnellian, p. 7)

Child maintained ownership of the building, but Niffenegger took over the studio, retaining the name and taking possession of the entire stock of photographic negatives, said to number over 100,000 (GH May 28, 1935). Newspaper commentary alleged that Child had "taken pictures of virtually every resident of Grinnell" and "practically every student who graduated from Grinnell College." Since all these negatives would remain at the studio, anyone who wished to have a print of a portrait taken by Arthur Child could do so at the business on Broad Street, despite Child's retirement (ibid.; Drake Community Library Local History Archive [Collection #145] preserves more than 300 of Child's glass negatives ).

Grinnell Herald, May 28, 1935

Unfortunately, Niffenegger was not able to make a smooth transition from schoolyard to photography studio. Ten weeks after he gained possession of Child's business Niffenegger became the object of a restraining order filed by his wife, Virginia, a Grinnell school teacher who charged her husband with cruelty and threats (Cedar Rapids Gazette, August 14, 1935). The following January, the couple divorced, Niffenegger having chosen not to contest the action (Iowa Divorce Records 1906-1937). Six months later Niffenegger remarried, taking as his bride Helen West (1908-1997), a school teacher in Perry, Iowa (Cedar Rapids Gazette, June 7, 1936).

Scarlet and Black, May 8, 1937

The twelve months that followed purchase of the Child business, filled as they were with marital conflict, cannot have helped Niffenegger gain control of his new enterprise, which may explain why in May 1937 he sold the business he had acquired less than two years earlier. As newspapers reported, Roger Lee Preston (1898-1961), a 1918 graduate of Grinnell High School and a 1922 graduate of Grinnell College, acquired title to Child Art Rooms. Unlike Niffenegger, Preston almost immediately changed the name of the business to "Roger Preston Studio (Formerly Child Art Rooms)" (Scarlet and Black, November 3, 1937), although he seems to have conducted the studio very much like his esteemed predecessor. An older brother, James Randall Preston, who himself had briefly operated a photo studio in Grinnell in the early 1920s but by 1937 was headquartered in Hollywood, assisted in organizing the new enterprise (Grinnell Herald-Register, May 6, 1937). By the time that 1950 census officials came to Grinnell, however, Preston had abandoned the studio, having taken a position instead in the "plastics dept" of a washing machine company. Roger Preston died in Grinnell in 1961 at age 62, and is buried in Hazelwood Cemetery.

Undated Photograph of Roger Lee Preston (1898-1961)


Before departing Grinnell for California in late 1935, Arthur Child was the center of an appreciative reception hosted by the new owner of Child Studio and Art Rooms. 
Newspaper photograph of A. L. Child
(GH 10/15/1935)

Using the premises where for so many years Child had practiced his art and operated his business, Ora Niffenegger invited friends to share memories and to bestow upon the 80-year-old gentleman their best wishes. One of his business neighbors, George H. Hamlin (1855-1945), offered the valedictory, lauding Child's history in Grinnell and describing his long-time friend as "An artist by profession...[and] a gentleman by nature." Hamlin then unveiled for the audience an enlargement of a favorite photograph of the photographer, intended to "hang in the Child Art Rooms" long after the subject left Grinnell (GH 10/8/1935).

Gravestone for Arthur Child Family, Hazelwood Cemetery

Arthur Child did not long outlive this celebratory moment. In his winter residence in California Arthur Leon Child died in early January 1938. The Grinnell newspaper mourned the departure of "one of Grinnell's old guard" who "for a great many years...interpreted the life of Grinnell through the lens of his camera" (Grinnell Herald-Register 1/13/38). A memorial service in North Hollywood brought together "children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, cousins and many old Grinnell friends." As the newspaper remarked, "It was extraordinary that such a reunion was possible in California of a family whose roots had been so deeply sunk in Grinnell" (Grinnell Herald-Register 3/14/1938). Child's body was returned to Grinnell in March for burial in Hazelwood where a remarkable, multi-colored stone now marks the grave of Grinnell's longest-serving photographer whose photographs—beginning with glass plates and then in every new stage of photography—documented the people and places of early Grinnell.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

When Grinnell College Pursued Affirmative Action....

The recent Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action has understandably generated much comment.  An official statement from Grinnell College took issue with the decision, and pledged to continue to value "diversity, equity and inclusion" as the college moves forward.

Source: Unofficial Tally by the Author, using Yearbooks, Herd Books, and Other Records

What may surprise commentators is how far back in the college's history affirmative action goes. No later than immediately after World War I Grinnell College sought funding from the Rosenwald Foundation to enroll and finance Black students, a project that ran out of steam (and money) by 1925. Afterwards only a few Black students enrolled at the College. Then again in 1964, thanks to funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, Grinnell College, along with a handful of other liberal arts institutions, received $275,000 each to help recruit and finance minority students. This initiative, renewed in 1967, led to the first significant increase in Black enrollment at Grinnell College. Today's post examines how this second attempt at affirmative action changed the face of Grinnell College's student population and contributed to a generation of influential Black leaders.


In 1964 the Rockefeller Foundation selected seven liberal arts colleges "to discover talented Negro and other minority group students," providing $275,000 each "to improve the quality of [minority students'] undergraduate education." Grinnell was one of the colleges to receive this funding on a three-year trial. "Enduring gains in equality of opportunity for American Negroes and other minority groups in our society depend on improved education at all grade levels and in all parts of the country," the grant announcement said (Rockefeller Archive Center, RF RG.1.7 Series 200, Box 789). A specific ambition was the "improvement of education for those Negroes and other minority group members who are more likely to be...outstanding leaders among their own groups and in the nation. For this purpose special efforts are required to provide enlarged opportunities and increased encouragement for Negro and other students of high potential to benefit from the best that our system of higher education has to offer" (ibid.).

The Foundation announcement observed that the grantee institutions (Antioch, Carleton, Grinnell, Oberlin, Occidental, Reed, and Swarthmore) 

have been admitting and assisting Negro students over varying periods of time. All have undertaken in recent years more active programs to identify and enroll talented minority group students. All are allocating increased funds from their own budgets to intensify efforts and to provide the extra level of financial assistance which Negro and other minority group students require to a greater extent than the other students in these colleges. Each of the colleges has approached the Foundation for assistance to enable it to enlarge and intensify its efforts to visit Negro high schools in its area, identify talented students and provide such assistance as is required to assure their full and successful participation in the college. Special emphasis in the program would be devoted to Negroes, but other needy minority group students would not be excluded....The aim of the program at each college would be to increase the flow of Negro and other minority group students through these colleges at outstanding levels of performance and to develop the procedures necessary to attain this objective (ibid.).

The bulk of each Rockefeller Foundation grant ($240,000) went toward student financial assistance at an average level of $2000 a year throughout the four undergraduate years for a total of 30 students recruited during the three years of the trial program. The grants awarded another $35,000 toward increased "efforts to locate and recruit qualified Negro and other minority group students" along with whatever additional programming and counseling might be necessary to guarantee success of the recruited students (ibid.).

A 1967 renewal sent another $275,000 to each of the seven liberal arts colleges. The renewal depended upon the Foundation's finding that the select colleges "have widened their contacts with high schools enrolling many minority-group students," resulting in a "significant" increase in applications from and rising enrollment of "Negro and other minority students. At Grinnell this enrollment has increased since 1964 from seven to fifty-three" (ibid.). The Foundation reported that, despite numerous economic and social disadvantages, the minority recruits, "with very few exceptions,...are succeeding in college, some with excellent records," beginning what officials hoped would be a "growing and permanent flow of minority-group graduates from these colleges" (ibid.).


Edward Tocus (1950 Grinnell College Cyclone)

Even before Grinnell accepted the Rockefeller Foundation grant and while the numbers of Black students at Grinnell were trifling, the college enrolled Blacks whose careers made them into models of excellence that the Foundation grant hoped to multiply. Edward C. Tocus '50 (1925- ), for example, began college at Iowa State in 1942, but two years later enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force. After the war, he transferred to Grinnell and later obtained graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and fashioned a distinguished career with the Food and Drug Administration. Andrew Billingsley '51 (1926- ), who transferred into Grinnell from the Hampton Institute, became a prolific and respected sociologist who later served as provost of Howard University and then president of Morgan State College. Robert F. Austin '54 was one of the country's leading experts in pediatric hematology. Donald M. Stewart '59 took degrees in political science and public administration at Yale and Harvard before serving as President of Spelman College for ten years, later heading the College Board for twelve years. Herbie Hancock graduated from Grinnell in 1960 and embarked upon an outstanding career in music performance and composition. Henry "Hank" G. L. McCullough '61 was among the first Blacks to work in nuclear science and engineering for NASA, later serving as nuclear energy advisor to President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George W. Bush. James H. Lowry '61 took a Master's in Public International Affairs and became the first African American recruit for McKinsey Consulting, later founding his own consulting firm.
Randall Morgan, Jr. '65

Randall Morgan, Jr. '65 MD, MBA, is President and CEO of W. Montague Cobb/NMA Health Institute in DC. An orthopedic surgeon for decades in Evanston, Illinois and Gary, Indiana, Morgan is President and Founder of University Park Orthopedics in Sarasota, Florida.  George Moose '66 pursued a career in diplomacy within the U.S. Department of State, serving as U.S. Ambassador to Benin and Senegal, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the European Office of the United Nations in Geneva, and Alternate Representative to the UN Security Council before being named Career Ambassador in 2002. 
Numerous other Grinnell Black alums from the period before the Rockefeller grant fashioned sterling careers, often as the first Blacks in their professions. After receipt of the Rockefeller Foundation grant, Grinnell College not only enrolled more Blacks, but also continued to graduate Blacks who crafted careers that made them "outstanding in their own groups and in the nation," just as the Rockefeller grant had hoped.

Undated Photo of Judge Henry T. Wingate '69

Sandra Bates '68, for instance, was part of the first class financed by Rockefeller Foundation money. After Grinnell she studied medicine, and became the first Black woman to practice radiology in the state of Tennessee. In that same class, Celeste Durant '68 took a journalism degree at Columbia University, and later became Director of Communications and Media Relations at Loyola University, Los Angeles. Adrienne Lemmons '68 took an MBA from Boston University and held numerous leadership positions in business before deciding to pursue a vocation in the Episcopal Church. Henry T. Wingate '69 enrolled in Yale Law School after Grinnell, then practiced law in Mississippi and in the U.S. Navy, later serving as Assistant District Attorney for the Seventh District Circuit Court of Mississippi and as Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi. In 1985 he was appointed to the bench of the Southern District Court of Mississippi, a position he continues to hold. Hubert Farbes '69 also enrolled at Yale Law School and embarked upon a career in environmental law. He is now a partner in the Denver firm of Garnett Powell Maximom Barlow.

Gregory M. Coggs '70 won a Watson Fellowship after Grinnell, then entered the University of Michigan School of Law, but later changed course, enrolling in Midwestern Theological Seminary. Deborah  Green '70 left Grinnell for the University of Colorado Medical School, the beginning of a long and distinguished career in medicine. Frances Gray '71 had an outstanding career as a pediatrician in Indianapolis, and also had a position on the faculty of the Indiana University School of Medicine. Beverly Oliver '71 who found Grinnell from Pennsylvania went on to become Regional Manager of the Department of Human Services' Bureau of Equal Opportunity for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Undated Photo of Congressman Alan Wheat (U.S. Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Alan Wheat '72 was elected to the Missouri General Assembly in 1975 and remained there until 1982 when he was elected to the U.S. Congress from Missouri. After twelve years in the House, he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, but went on to hold leadership positions in CARE and in the 1996 reelection campaign of President Clinton. In 2021 he helped found Wheat Shroyer Government Relations, a public-service oriented lobbying firm in DC. Allen Hammond '72 was the first African American tenured at New York Law School, and went on to become professor of law at Santa Clara University School of Law. Yvor Stoakley '72 took his JD from Northwestern University School of Law and has long practiced law in Illinois.
Undated Photo of Dr. Irma McClaurin 

Irma McClaurin '73  took graduate degrees in anthropology, a subject she taught and in which she published; she also served as President of Shaw University and as Chief Diversity Officer for Teach for America. She later founded the Black Femininist Archive and the firm she continues to head, Irma McClaurin Solutions. Jon R. Gray '73 is a partner at Shook Hardy and Bacon in Kansas City, but previously served sixteen years as circuit judge in the Sixteenth Judicial Circuit of Missouri. G. Barry Huff '73 was president of Glory Foods, Inc. and held many other executive positions in business. Russ McGregor '73 was the first African American to head Student Government at Grinnell, after which he held senior management positions in several telecommunications firms before founding his own company in 1992.
Undated Photography of Patricia Swansey '74

Patricia Swansey '74 took a master's degree in nonprofit management from Brandeis University, later holding positions in Massachusetts state government, most recently heading the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. Dennis Moss '74 became involved in local government, becoming Miami-Dade County Commissioner. Celestine Bloomfield '74, now retired, received an M.S. in library science from Case Western Reserve University, then held positions in libraries in Cleveland and Indiana, later becoming a consultant to the Indiana Department of Public Instruction and an instructor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.

Constance Tuck '75 earned a law degree from Cleveland State University, then held several positions with the state of Minnesota, including Chief Equity and Development officer before her 2016 retirement.  J. C. Woods '75 is an author and Episcopal priest. Careda Rolland Taylor '76, who received an MA in inner city studies at Northeastern Illinois University, is director of social studies and fine arts at Niles West High School in Skokie. Richard Stokes '76 took a masters in guidance and personnel services from the University of Memphis, then held human resources positions at the University of Tennessee, the Memphis Public Library, and the city of Spring Hill, Tennessee. After a successful career as an executive for BP, Vanessa A. Harris PE '76 became Board Chairman as well as President of Strategy for Access Foundation.

Undated Photo of Vanessa A. Harris '76


It would be easy to enlarge this list, which I compiled on the basis of a very unsystematic series of Google searches. But what this random selection of alumni careers demonstrates powerfully is that the Black men and women who came to Grinnell through the doors opened and financed by the Rockefeller Foundation initiative—clearly "affirmative action" before this term entered general discourse—have made a difference in their communities and in our world. All of us—white, Black, and brown—are the beneficiaries of the talent and labor that these Black Grinnell graduates brought to the world. Of course, had there been no Rockefeller Foundation initiative, talented Black men and women would have continued to enroll and graduate from Grinnell and from the other institutions involved in the Rockefeller Foundation grant. But the intentional commitment to recruit and finance Black students in the 1960s and 1970s greatly enlarged the number of such graduates and correspondingly expanded their impact in society, benefitting us all.