Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Born Black in Grinnell: Overlooked No More

A recent study of childbirth in California revealed that Black mothers—even "rich" Black mothers—and their babies fare much worse in childbirth than do white mothers—even worse than poor white mothers. In this study 350 babies out of 100,000 children born to poor white mothers died before their first birthday, whereas 437 babies per 100,000 born to the richest Black mothers perished before their first birthday. The numbers are even worse for the poorest Black mothers, confirming that, although income powerfully affects the outcome of childbirth in the United States, race has an even more potent effect.

New York Times, February 12, 2023

Grinnell's small population and its even smaller population of African Americans make it difficult to see how this dynamic of childbirth played out in central Iowa. Of course, African American babies had been born in Grinnell almost from the very founding of the town. The great majority of all local births, however, had happened at home and had not automatically entered the record books. After the establishment of hospitals in Grinnell early in the twentieth century and the gradual transition of delivery to hospitals, record-keeping became more regular. But few Black children have been born here since then, making it difficult to know if in Grinnell there was any significant difference between African American births and all other births.

Grinnell Herald-Register, December 29, 1955

I was thinking about this problem recently while skimming the December 29, 1955 issue of the Grinnell Herald-Register where I found a surprise: a photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Thomas—both African Americans—holding their newborn twins, Anthony and Andrea, born December 26, 1955 at Grinnell's St. Francis hospital.

As I came to learn, both Anthony and Andrea (1955-2016) survived their first year, distinguishing themselves from the large numbers of Black babies in the California study who died before reaching their first birthday. But who were the Thomases? I had studied Grinnell's African Americans but I had never heard of Carl or Anna Mae Thomas. Today's post aims to recover the slimly-documented history of this Black American family that spent a half-dozen years in Grinnell in the 1950s.


Our story begins not in Grinnell, but rather in Monroe County, some sixty miles south of Grinnell. It was there in 1923 that Pearl Thomas (1882-1960), a 40-year-old African American man, took as his second wife 19-year-old Hazel Hollingsworth (1904-1973) (Albia Union-Republican, March 29, 1923). This union generated twelve children, one of whom, Carl Eugene, became father to the twins whose photo I discovered in the 1955 newspaper.

Albia Union Republican, March 29, 1923

Although Blacks were not uncommon in the early twentieth century in this part of Monroe County where coal-mining had given rise to communities like Buxton where Blacks were numerous, in Albia Pearl's family lived on the margins. Their home in the 500 block of B Avenue West quite literally placed them at Albia's geographic edge, a metaphor for their economic vulnerability. The precariousness of the family economy appears in Pearl's work history that shows him to have moved through a series of low-paying jobs. When Pearl first married in 1912, he worked as a "fireman" for a local firm ("Iowa,  County Marriages, 1838-1934," FamilySearch); the 1920 US census remembers him as a "porter" in a bakery, and 1930 census described him as a "laborer" in an auto shop, a position that may explain how later that year Pearl advertised his business of washing and cleaning cars (Albia Union Republican, June 5, 1930). 

Albia Union Republican, June 5, 1930

After the Depression settled onto Monroe County, Pearl cast about for work; by 1940 he was employed by the Works Progress Administration in road construction. The 1950 US census left blank the space where Pearl's work might have been listed, but evidently he organized a new business, hauling trash and garbage (see, for example, Albia Union Republican, December 29, 1955). 

Carl Eugene Thomas (1928-1995), who with his own family is the focus of our story, was the fourth child born to Hazel and Pearl. In 1940 Carl was still too young to be working, but when he registered for the military draft in 1946, Carl told the registrar that he was employed at a "malleable foundry" in Fairfield, Iowa. The 1950 US census has both Carl and his brother, Kenneth (1932-2014), "trucking fertilizer" for a feed store. Although the census does not identify Carl's employer, he likely worked for Goode Feed & Seed Co., an Albia business that sold fertilizer along with seed.

Lovilia Press, April 6, 1950

Soon after the census-takers left Albia, Carl married Anna Mae Brooks (1933- ) in nearby Pershing. Anna Mae was the child of Leonard Brooks (1903-1933) and Mary Tessel Washington (1910-1981). Leonard and Mary both had been born in Buxton, the mainly Black coal-mining town near Albia. Leonard's father had been a blacksmith (and minister), but from an early age Leonard had worked in the coal mines, an occupation that may have contributed to his early death (at age 30) from lobar pneumonia (Standard Certificate of Death, Monroe County, Rexfield Village, Registered No. 68-6). When Leonard married in Buxton in December 1928, he was 26 and his bride not yet 19 (Iowa State Board of Health, Return of Marriage to Clerk of District Court, 77-13647). At least one brother, William (1929- ) had preceded her into the family, but Anna Mae followed in May 1933, just a few months before Leonard's death in September. Consequently, Anna Mae grew up without knowing her father. Her mother remarried in December 1935, taking the Thomas's recently-widowed neighbor on Albia's B Avenue West, Lewis Dudley (1897-1961), as her second husband ("Iowa, County Marriages, 1838-1934," Family Search). The 1940 US Census shows Anna and her brother, William, living with their mom in the newly-blended Dudley family in Pershing, Iowa.

Carl was 22 in June 1950 when he married Brooks, who was then just 17. How the two met I do not know; Pershing is about 25 miles north of Albia, and in 1940 Anna would have attended elementary school there, and probably attended high school later in Knoxville. It seems likely, therefore, that the couple did not meet at school. However they got together, the match resulted in the birth of eight children. Their first child, Shelia Ann (1950-2013), was born September 1950 in the Albia home of Anna Mae's grandmother, Sallie (Harrelson) Brooks (1878-1952). In a telephone conversation with me (February 20, 2023), Anna remembered that at birth Shelia weighed more than 8 pounds and arrived in good health. 

Undated Photograph of Anna Mae (Brooks) Thomas Juarez
(Facebook account of Anna Juarez)

Until the birth of Shelia Ann, the lives of Carl and his bride had centered on Monroe County, especially on Albia where the 1950 US census found about 4800 people. But at just this moment Carl and Anna Mae decided to take their little girl and move, first briefly to Des Moines, and then to Grinnell whose population the 1950 census counted at 6800. Because of this move, Carl and Anna were already resident in Grinnell when on February 3, 1952 Anna gave birth at Grinnell's St. Francis Hospital to her second child, Gregory Eugene (1952-1995), who weighed a healthy 8 pounds and 1/2 ounce (Grinnell Herald-Register, February 4, 1952). Anna's doctor for this and subsequent deliveries in Grinnell was Thomas Brobyn (1908-1966), who in post-war Grinnell practiced with Dr. Edwin Korfmacher (1904-1960); both physicians were on staff at St. Francis hospital. But it is Sister Pauline (1897-1991), who helped welcome generations of babies into the world at St. Francis hospital, whom Anna remembers now. 

Sister Pauline with Dorothy Tarleton Palmer and Baby Cynthia (1949)

One may imagine that it was the attraction of a job that brought Carl to Grinnell. Several of his siblings left Albia for Moline, Illinois and jobs at the John Deere Harvester Works, but Grinnell had no factory so large as that. If Carl continued the kind of work he had done in Albia, he might have driven a truck for one of Grinnell's two seed companies, DeKalb or Sumner Brothers. DeKalb was the bigger operation, and in Grinnell was headquartered in the former home of Grinnell Washing Machine Company at 733 Main (where today the Elks' Lodge stands). Sumner Brothers Seed Company's home at 4th and Spring was closer to the Thomas's first Grinnell home on Prairie Street (Polk's Grinnell City Directory 1940, p. 182).

Polk's Grinnell City Directory 1940 (Omaha: R. L. Polk & Co., 1940), p. 14

In fact, however, Carl worked at neither of these firms. Anna remembered that instead Carl worked for a Grinnell automobile dealer's service department. All these years later she could not recall the name of the dealership, but did remember that Carl often washed and polished newly-delivered automobiles, following in the footsteps of his father who had done similar work in Albia in the 1930s.

1932-1943 Sanborn Map of Western Grinnell

When Gregory, the family's second child, was born the Grinnell newspaper reported that the Thomases were living at 1003 Prairie Street, at the intersection of Prairie and Fifth Avenue, which at the time constituted the western-most edge of Grinnell (Grinnell Herald-Register, February 4, 1952). Although today a solid ranch house stands on that lot, nothing survives to describe the building in which the Thomases settled in 1952. When I spoke with Anna by telephone, she remembered the house as having had only one bedroom, and, like the Pearl Thomas home in Albia, the Thomas's first residence in Grinnell stood on what was then the outskirts of town.

Almost exactly one year after having delivered Gregory, Anna gave birth to the couple's third child, Leonard Macey; he, too, was born at St. Francis Hospital, weighing 7 pounds, 6 1/4 ounces (Grinnell Herald-Register, February 23, 1953). Telephone directories indicate (if the initial in the listing ["Thomas Carl W"] is an error) that by the time Leonard came home with his mother, the Thomases and their three children were living at 1031 Elm, a two-story house with three bedrooms, apparently a significant upgrade over the Prairie Street address.

1031 Elm Street (2013 photo)

The 1954 telephone directory found the Thomases at 714 Center Street, an address that brought them close to other African Americans. Carrie Redrick (1886-1969) was then living at 729 Center, just across the street a ways, and Eva Renfrow (1875-1962) was about two blocks away in the family home at 411 First Avenue. One may imagine, given the few Blacks then resident in Grinnell, that the proximity of African Americans brought Carl and Anna Thomas some satisfaction. However, Carrie and Eva, both widows and considerably older than Carl and Anna (Carrie was almost 70 and Eva was in her late 70s), may not have provided as much support as the Thomases hoped for. Moreover, the house on Center Street seems to have been much smaller than their Elm Street residence; a one-story structure, 714 Center could boast only two bedrooms and total living area of less than 1000 square feet.

An Unidentified Newborn at St. Francis Hospital (1949)

It was Anna's next delivery, again at St. Francis hospital, that brought into the world their twins, Anthony and Andrea. The newborns did not weigh quite as much as their older sister and brothers—Anthony weighed 7 pounds, 2 ounces and Andrea weighed 5 pounds 10 1/2 ounces (Grinnell Herald-Register, December 26, 1955)—but they were not seriously underweight, and both survived well beyond their first year. When Anna left the hospital, she brought the twins to their next Grinnell home at 723 Summer Street. At this point Carl and Anna had five children under the age of six, but their home had only two bedrooms and a living space of 636 square feet, less than either of their two previous homes. 

723 Summer Street (2013 photo)

As with the house on Center Street, the Summer Street address brought the Thomases close to African Americans: another widow, Mamie Tibbs (1892-1973), at that time resided at 712 Elm which was just across the back yard from the Thomas home, and Mamie's second son, Albert Tibbs (1922-1997), and his family lived down the block from the Thomases at 707 Summer (since razed and replaced). Mamie, who would have been in her early 60s when the Thomases moved to Summer Street, was not in a position to help much, either financially or physically, as she had plenty of challenges to keep her own household operating ("The Hard Life of Widow Tibbs," in Daniel H. Kaiser, Grinnell Stories: African Americans of Early Grinnell [Grinnell: Grinnell Historical Museum, 2020], 157-166). Albert and Virginia Tibbs (1924-2014), on the other hand, although about ten years older than Carl and Anna, were closer in age and also had young children: If Albert, Jr. (1943- ), Larry (1944-2014), and Robert (Danny) Tibbs were older than the Thomas children, Barbara Tibbs (1948- ) was almost the same age as Shelia Thomas and a neighborhood playmate.

Albert S. Tibbs (1922-1997)
(Grinnell Herald-Register, March 3, 1955)

Like the Renfrow children of an earlier time, Shelia began school in Grinnell, the only African American in her class. I could not find a record to confirm my guess, but I assume that Shelia began school at Davis, entering kindergarten probably the same year her mother gave birth to the twins. If the Thomases left Grinnell in 1957, Shelia would then have also done first grade at Davis Elementary, which at that time served most of south Grinnell. She probably made her way to school in the company of her slightly older neighbor, Barbara Tibbs, who was almost certainly the only Black in her class, a grade or two ahead of Shelia. Before the Thomases moved to Wisconsin, Greg might  have started school too, but I found no record to confirm that possibility.

Shelia, Greg, and Leonard Thomas, Grinnell Herald-Register, September 3, 1955
(Thanks to Monique Shore for taking this photograph from the library's bound copy of the newspaper)

On the telephone and again in a subsequent email, Anna made a point of the fact that her family had encountered no racial discrimination in Grinnell. Some support for that reading comes from a surprising source—a series of advertisements for the local dairy. Every ten days or two weeks Lang's Dairy published a photograph of young children, accompanied by an image of a Lang's milk carton and a ditty affirming the quality of the milk. Of the 100 or so Lang's ads I found in the pages of the Grinnell Herald-Register in the mid-1950s, only one advertisement included a photograph of Black children: Shelia, Greg, and Lennie Thomas (September 3, 1955). Of course, there were few non-white children in 1950s Grinnell so we can hardly be surprised that the children of only one Black family gained a place in the ads.

The details of the Thomas family's subsequent days in Grinnell remain unknown. Sometime before June 3, 1957, when Anna gave birth to Jeffrey C. Thomas—the couple's sixth child—, the Thomases left Grinnell for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to live close to Anna's relatives. In addition to Jeffrey, in Milwaukee Anna delivered another two sons to the family—Steven in December 1959 and Ricardo Brooks Thomas (1962-2000) in 1962. All eight of the Thomas children, including the four born in Grinnell, successfully lived into adulthood, although four (including Andrea, the twin) died relatively early. Ricardo, the last-born, was only 37 when he died in 2000; Gregory, the first child born to the Thomases in Grinnell, was 43 when he died in 1995; Andrea, who struggled with both diabetes and asthma (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, August 7, 2005), was 61 at the time of her 2016 death; and Shelia, Anna's first-born, was just 62 when she died in 2013 (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 8, 2013).

Milwaukee Journal, January 28, 1995
(Thanks to Melissa Shriver of the Milwaukee Public Library who found and scanned this notice for me)

Carl, the focus of our story and father of the Thomas family, also died early; in January 1995 when still only 66 years of age, Carl died in Milwaukee and was buried in Graceland Cemetery there. At the time all eight of his children were still alive, but he and Anna had evidently parted ways: Carl's death notice makes no mention of Anna, but does remember his long-time companion, Evelyn Jean Davis. Anna remarried, taking as her second husband Roberto Juarez. A series of notes she posted in 2014 on the Findagrave websites of her deceased children indicates that she has retained a strong bond with her original family, including those children born to her in Grinnell, two of whom remain alive.


The New York Times periodically publishes biographies of people long gone but unnoticed at the time of their deaths. Entitled "Overlooked No More," the series tries to restore to the record obituaries of "remarkable people whose deaths...went unreported in the New York Times." With the little information presently available it is hard to argue that Carl Thomas or anyone else in that family was "remarkable," even for a small town in central Iowa. But plenty of Grinnell people had their ordinary lives regularly documented in the newspaper and in other records—from their church, their business, their club, their sports team, etc. The newspaper even found space to report on visitors or dinner guests. Not the Thomases, however; I could find no one who remembered them and the slim published record that survives does little more than confirm the presence in Grinnell of Carl and Anna Mae Thomas and their children. Born Black in Grinnell, these babies survived their infancy, like most other children born in Grinnell's hospitals in those years. All the rest disappears in the mist.

Friday, January 27, 2023

When Grinnell College Collaborated With A Black College...

Perhaps nothing was so evil in America's ugly history of racial hatred as the 1955 murder of Emmett Till and the long history of lynching, but the 1960s witnessed its own explosive series of high-profile crimes based on race. Among the most well-known moments of this grim history are the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth-Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama; the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers, an NAACP field worker in Jackson, Mississippi; and the 1968 Memphis murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, including the bloody confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, along with riots in Watts that same year and the 1967 Detroit riot, highlighted the violent divide between America's Black and white communities.

1966 Participants of Grinnell-LeMoyne College Student Exchange
(Grinnell College Libraries Special Collections, RG-R, Ser. 6, Box 25; printed in Des Moines Tribune, March 9, 1966).

Written into this history in a small font was a Grinnell College plan which, like its predecessor with Hampton Institute, aimed to collaborate with a Black college. The scale and aims of the program were modest, particularly when seen against the persistent racism of Jim Crow and the growing public demands among African Americans for Black Power. Indeed, so far as the documents can prove, Grinnell's interest in the program did not concentrate upon improving inter-racial relations; initially, at least, the college seems to have conceived of the arrangement as a means to attract Black students to Grinnell and perhaps increase the attraction of the college to Black faculty. However, for the Grinnell students who took part in the exchange that was a part of the collaboration, concerns about racism—their own and their country's—were primary. Today's post examines the Grinnell arrangement with LeMoyne (later, LeMoyne-Owen) College and how the plan played out in a tumultuous era of American history.


In October 1963, Howard Bowen (1908-1989), then approaching the end of his Grinnell College presidency (1955-1964), circulated to college trustees some comments headlined in trustee minutes as being devoted to "Negro education." In order to "give greater attention to the place of Negroes in our student body," Bowen proposed that Grinnell consider two strategies: 

(1) to establish a relationship with a Negro college involving various exchanges and mutual assistance; and (2) to join with several liberal arts colleges...in a joint program involving Negro student recruitment, financial aid, and special educational assistance (Minutes of Executive Committee, Grinnell College Board of Trustees, October 16, 1963, Grinnell College Libraries, Special Collections, US US-IaGG Archives/RG-TR).

Undated Photograph of Howard R. Bowen

When the full board of trustees gathered two weeks later Bowen rehearsed the options, again entered in trustee minutes beneath the heading "Negro Education." But now Bowen proved to be more specific about a Negro college with which Grinnell might work: "Among the possibilities the President mentioned," trustee minutes report, "would be an arrangement between Grinnell and LeMoyne College, a Negro liberal arts institution located in Memphis, Tennessee" (ibid., October 30, 1963).

Postcard Photograph of LeMoyne College (before 1968)
Exactly how LeMoyne had emerged so quickly as the focus of Grinnell's attention the surviving records do not say. It seems likely, however, that Bowen, who assumed the presidency of the University of Iowa in 1965, was central to the decision, because soon after Bowen arrived in Iowa City the University of Iowa also established a formal connection with LeMoyne (and nearby Rust College). Moreover, Bowen's published resume identifies (without specifying dates) LeMoyne College among the organizations for which Bowen served either as a director or trustee (Howard Bowen, Academic Recollections [Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education and American Council on Education, 1988], pp. 97, 152). These coincidences suggest that Bowen himself was behind the original Grinnell plan to partner with LeMoyne. Bowen had trained as an economist, and economics was also the specialty of Hollis F. Price (1904-1982), the first African American president of LeMoyne (1943-1970) who headed LeMoyne when Bowen proposed collaboration. It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that Bowen approached Price with the idea, and the two men together worked out the plan between their respective institutions.

Undated Photograph of Hollis F. Price (1904-1982)

LeMoyne-Owen College, as it is known today, grew out of the ashes of America's Civil War. Founded as LeMoyne Normal and Commercial School by the American Missionary Association when Federal troops occupied Memphis in 1862, the new institution suffered several tragedies, including being burned to the ground by whites immediately after the Civil War. The 1870 cash gift of the Pennsylvania abolitionist Francis Julius LeMoyne gave the school a name, and, like other Historically Black Colleges and Universities, for many years white men ran the institution. Having occupied several sites around Memphis in its early history, in 1914 LeMoyne moved to its present location on Walker Avenue in south Memphis. Ten years later it became a junior college, and in 1930 a four-year college which, without dormitories, served mostly local Memphis Blacks. In 1968 LeMoyne merged with Owen Junior College (founded by Baptists in 1947) to create LeMoyne-Owen College on the Walker Street site on which LeMoyne had stood since 1914.


An anonymous Grinnell memo dated October 30, 1963, the same day that college trustees embraced Bowen's plan, reported that LeMoyne and Grinnell "have agreed to associate in various activities for the mutual benefit of the two institutions." "Our purpose," the memo continued,

is to extend educational opportunity, to strengthen both institutions, to broaden the experiences and horizons of our students and faculty, and to achieve better understanding between two sections of the country and two racial groups ("Proposed Association of LeMoyne College and Grinnell College," Grinnell College Libraries, Special Collections, US-IaGG Archives/RG-D-2-2, Box 1963-1973).

This list of goals barely mentions inter-racial understanding, emphasizing instead vague expressions of regional understanding along with institutional and personal betterment. Even the May 29, 1964 letter that Bowen distributed to students to announce the program could offer nothing more encouraging than to applaud the "significant educational opportunity" which would "enable a student to express his concern for racial integration and equality" [emphasis mine—DK] (Grinnell College Libraries, Special Collections and Archives, RG-A2-RG-A Misc-3-7. Box 1955-1972). LeMoyne's own description of the arrangement's attractions to students is equally general, making no mention at all of race.

The LeMoynite (May 1967)

As later parts of Grinnell's October 30 memo confirm, however, Grinnell's ambitions for the program definitely included recruitment of Black students, a point made clear in Bowen's presentation to college trustees. Articulating programs for which it sought funding—an exchange of students; exchange of faculty members; joint conferences; joint research, etc.—the memo solicited support for the  "preparation and recruitment [emphasis mine—DK] of gifted Negro high school students." Allotting about one-third of the proposed budget to this goal, the document imagined a series of special Saturday classes at LeMoyne for gifted Black high school sophomores in Memphis.

Those who showed promise in their Saturday work...would be chosen to attend without cost a special summer academy of 6 weeks to be offered on the LeMoyne campus and to be staffed by LeMoyne and Grinnell faculty members...Those who succeeded in this summer program would be selected for a second special summer academy of 6 weeks at Grinnell to be given in the summer following their junior year...Those students who completed the second summer with a satisfactory record would be assisted in gaining entrance to the colleges of their choice...Those who were admitted to college would then attend a third summer academy of 6 weeks at Grinnell at the end of the senior year. After this, they would enter college...well-prepared and highly-motivated (ibid.).

Although the memo specified that "Those completing the program would not be limited to LeMoyne or Grinnell [in their choice of college]," the repeated experience on the two campuses—including two summers at Grinnell—clearly intended to influence the academy students to choose one of the host institutions.

The multi-year project of special education for Memphis teenagers laid out in the 1963 memo seems not to have materialized. Whether this failure was the result of unsuccessful fundraising or derived from some other issue I do not know. Nevertheless, in the summer of 1964 Grinnell and LeMoyne established an initial humanities academy on the LeMoyne campus for Memphis high school juniors. Rather than college faculty (as the funding proposal had imagined), two rising Grinnell seniors, Dodi Holcher and Kristi Williams (1944-2013) along with three Yale graduate students spent five weeks at LeMoyne teaching history, speech and philosophy to about eighty Black high school juniors. 

Dodi Holcher '65 and Kristi Williams '65
(Scarlet and Black, October 23, 1964)

Holcher and Williams reported that the students whom they taught worked hard and enthusiastically ("Practice Teacher for Negro Youths," Hennepin County Review: Hopkins Edition [1965?]; thanks to Dorothy Swanberg for providing me with this article); the leadership of LeMoyne's Professor Clifton H. Johnson (1921-2008), who went on to establish the African American archive at the Amistad Research Center, helped the summer academy succeed (The LeMoynite, September 1964). Nevertheless, so far as Grinnell records can confirm, there was never any follow-up summer study at LeMoyne or at Grinnell as the 1963 memo had imagined. As a result, Grinnell's hope that the program might increase Black enrollment evaporated. Similarly, the proposal's plan for faculty exchanges and conferences also foundered. What remained and prospered over the next several years was the exchange of undergraduates between LeMoyne and Grinnell.


Between 1964 and 1972 a total of 26 Grinnell students and 24 LeMoyne students (an undated, typed list from the Grinnell Registrar's office mistakenly identifies only 19 LeMoyne participants) took part in the exchange, each spending one semester at the partner institution. As had been true of the Hampton exchange, women predominated: about two-thirds of the Grinnell students who studied at LeMoyne were women and a similar ratio prevailed among the LeMoyne students at Grinnell.  Most of the LeMoyne participants hailed from Memphis, but a few had grown up elsewhere and had come to Memphis to attend LeMoyne. Myron Lowery, for instance, had grown up in public housing in Columbus, Ohio, but upon graduation from high school had moved to Memphis in order to enroll at LeMoyne. Something similar could be said about Clarence Christian, who was born in Horn Lake, Mississippi, but who moved to Memphis to attend LeMoyne.

Exchange Participants, Spring 1965 (Afro-American, March 27, 1965)
L-R, Front Row: Margaret Bluhm (Grinnell), Dorothy Harris (LeMoyne); 2nd row: Lois McGowan (LeMoyne), Cynthia Brust (Grinnell); standing: Michael Fort (Grinnell), Lou Harvey (LeMoyne), James Stephens (Grinnell), and Frank Patterson III (LeMoyne)

The exchange started with a burst of enthusiasm, with eight LeMoyne students at Grinnell during the first year (1964-65), four in the fall and four in the spring. Subsequently LeMoyne sent four students to Grinnell each spring semester until 1969, when only two students studied at Grinnell. No one from either school took part in 1970, and when the exchange resumed in 1971 only one LeMoyne woman came to Grinnell; again in 1972, the last year of the program, just one LeMoyne student studied at Grinnell.

LeMoyne Students En Route to Grinnell College (January 1966)
(The LeMoynite, April 1966)

Grinnell's participation followed a similar curve. The first Grinnell exchangees—two men and two women—arrived in Memphis in January 1965. The following year saw Grinnell send five students to study at LeMoyne; in addition, that autumn six students took their spring semester play, "Slow Dance on the Killing Ground," to LeMoyne where they put on three performances to large and enthusiastic audiences. 
Photograph from "Slow Dance on the Killing Ground" at LeMoyne College
(Scarlet and Black, November 9, 1966)

In 1967 another five Grinnell students traveled to LeMoyne, but only two took advantage of the opportunity the following year, perhaps a reflection of the growing public rage around race. In 1969 Grinnell sent six students to Memphis, but this seems to have marked the high-water point. With the Vietnam war agitating the country, Grinnell College closed abruptly in 1970 and no Grinnell student studied at LeMoyne that year. In 1971, only three Grinnell women enrolled at LeMoyne, and in 1972 Shirley Johnson became the last Grinnell student to spend a semester at LeMoyne.

Why did Grinnell students apply to the program?

Letters explaining the applicants' reasons for wanting to study at LeMoyne survive only for about half the Grinnell students who spent a semester in Memphis (Grinnell College Libraries, Special Collections and Archives, Dean's Office Records, Box 1963-1973); additional insight into the exchange experience comes from press reports about participants. Although applicants identified a wide range of motives for applying, almost all of them—coming of age in an America riven by racial antagonism—expressed the hope that their LeMoyne semester would enable them to contribute to a better understanding between Black and white America. In this way, the ambitions of Grinnell student participants deviated from the inflated diction of institutional benefit that had characterized the original proposal. 

Sheena Brown, 1967 Ottumwa High School Yearbook

Sheena Brown '71, for instance, who came to Grinnell from nearby Ottumwa, hoped that by living in a minority community she could improve her understanding of Black and white cultures. "If mutual understanding cannot be reached to a large extent in this experience," she wrote, "can we ever hope to reach an understanding and tolerance among peoples of the world?" Tish Lower '73, who grew up in tiny, all-white Parnell, Iowa, used her application to confess to holding unconscious racism, although "to no greater extent than the average white American." Hoping to exorcise the racist assumptions she acknowledged, Lower argued that "only...if I can understand [Blacks] personally will I be able to understand how they feel...about things that concern all of us." In a similar vein, Terry Poland '69 told the application committee that he had never experienced "severe segregation comparable to that in Memphis," and that he hoped that experiencing that world would "have a pronounced effect on my attitudes and [would] enable me to better combat racism...." 

Mary (Tish) Lower, 1970 Williamsburg High School Yearbook

Mary Gleysteen '69 began her application by emphasizing the virtues of living off campus in a large city in the South, circumstances bound to contrast with her Grinnell experience. Moreover, she continued, instead of the limited connections she had previously had with Blacks, "At LeMoyne I would not only be spending class hours with my contemporaries, but I would also be able to share their experiences, thoughts, ambitions, and burdens" out of class. Carol Moulder '73 (1951-1980), who came from the Chicago suburb of Park Forest, imagined that "living in Memphis and...getting to know people who are not white, middle-class students...will broaden my ability to communicate with different peoples...[and] give me...insight into the theme of race." 

In her 1968 application, Diane Alters '71 remarked upon the transition she had perceived between efforts of the early 1960s aimed at integration and the more strident ambitions of the late 1960s. "White America," she wrote, "must exert itself to...understand the jump from 'integration' to Black Power...." 

Kay Sophar, 1969 Potomoc, Maryland High School Yearbook

Like many other applicants, Kay Sophar '73 admitted to "a White, middle or upper-middle class life and White upper-middle class attitudes." Noting that integration and assimilation had lost their appeal to Black activists who emphasized instead the embrace of Blacks' own culture, Sophar confessed to an "appalling" ignorance of that culture. A semester at LeMoyne, she wrote, was essential to understanding the Black community and to making her a "mature, responsive member of the human race." 

1971 Photograph of Shirley M. Johnson '73 in Grinnell College Mail  Room

Shirley Johnson '73 (1951-2012), the sole Grinnell College Black to participate in the program, offered a different perspective, pointing out how poorly Grinnell served its Black students. "Grinnell [College] does not offer a Black student much of a representation or a reading library of Blacks," Johnson wrote. "I find it almost impossible to attempt research [on Blacks] here in Grinnell...." "If I am accepted to go on the LeMoyne-Owen exchange program," she continued, "I would be able to take courses...[that are] Black oriented [and] geared toward culturing young Blacks."

Application files indicate that most of the Grinnell participants intended to enroll in courses that would focus upon Black history and the Black experience in America. Mary Gleysteen, for instance, told Grinnell administrators that she planned to enroll in "The Negro in American Life," "Race Relations," and "20th-Century English and American Literature." Grant Crandall '68 proposed to take "The Negro in American Life" and "Race Relations" as well as "Social Problems" and "Contemporary History." Terry Poland also planned to enroll in the first two of these courses along with "Introduction to Sociology" and "Social Problems." Mary Brooner thought she would enroll in "Civil War and Reconstruction" along with "Social Problems."

What Did Participants Take Away from the Exchange Experience?

Like many other Grinnell students who went to LeMoyne, James Stephens '67 embarked upon the semester's study in hopes of improving race relations. Stephens told a reporter for the Des Moines Tribune that "I went to LeMoyne...because I wanted to get acquainted with the racial problem, but when I got there and started attending classes the problem seemed to vanish" (Des Moines Tribune, March 9, 1966). Something similar emerged in the recollections of Meg (Bluhm) Carey '67. Having come to Grinnell from New Haven where she had attended independent schools, she looked forward to an opportunity to expand her experience with Blacks. Dancing at LeMoyne to "My Girl" and other Motown hits, she assembled a group of Black friends with whom she would hang out. "At some point I looked down and was shocked to see my white hands among the brown ones...I had lost an awareness of color for the first time" (email communication, January 3, 2023). Cynthia Brust '66 (1944-2017), who grew up in a Trotskyist family in St. Paul, told a reporter that "at LeMoyne we discussed such things as religion, politics and race, and there was a real  desire on the part of both groups to get to know each other" (Des Moines Tribune, March 9, 1966). Amy Rossman '68 told readers on campus, "I'd never been anywhere where Black people lived." After being challenged to define her identity, Rossman admitted that she had not previously given her race much thought. "White doesn't figure in when you're in the majority"(Scarlet and Black, February 22, 2002). At the same time, Rossman, like several other Grinnell women at LeMoyne, had a Black boyfriend, and she "took great pleasure in walking around town hand in hand, trying to shock people" (personal email, January 5, 2023).

Amy Rossman '68
(1964 Portland, OR High School Yearbook)

But white Grinnell students recognized that the differences between them and their LeMoyne parallels were not only racial. Commenting upon the audience she saw at LeMoyne's 1966 commencement, Janet Poland noticed that "a large number of the parents were wearing uniforms...These were not military uniforms. They were maids' uniforms [and] janitors' uniforms," reflecting the occupational and class differences intimately connected to racial difference (Scarlet and Black, February 22, 2002). Another participant wrote, "[At LeMoyne] My eyes were opened to the many differences between being black in the South and white in the Midwest. I learned firsthand that the levels of fear, violence, and opportunity were in stark contrast..." (email communication, January 17, 2023). Students reported being refused service at restaurants when they were in the company of Black friends; mixed-race couples endured the jeers of white passers-by; and students who joined in Black protests found themselves in jail. In 1960s Memphis, like elsewhere in America, race mattered.

Mary Brooner '71
(1967 Summit, New Jersey High School Yearbook)

Indeed, because of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis put a microscope on race. In a 2015 interview Mary Brooner '71 remembered 1969 Memphis as "a town that was raw, having gone through the Garbage Strike and then the assassination of Dr. King." Valerie Budig '70, who was studying at LeMoyne when King was shot, told S&B readers of having heard King speak at Mason Temple the day before his death. In his sermon King had acknowledged that his life had been threatened. "Well, I don't know what will happen now," King said.

We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now...I'm not fearing any man (Simon Seabag Montefiore, Speeches that Changed the World [London: Quercus, 2007], p. 155).
A few days later, when Memphis and much of the United States erupted on the heels of King's murder, Budig joined some 42,000 people—the great majority of them Black—in a march to Memphis City Hall, carrying banners that read: "Honor King: End Racism Now!" (Scarlet and Black, April 12, 1968). Budig's experience was powerful and rare, connected to an iconic moment in American history. But other Grinnell students who studied at LeMoyne, both before Budig and afterward, took home the same message, even if they were not in Memphis to march in King's wake. 


Although Howard Bowen had initiated Grinnell's participation in the exchange with LeMoyne College, he was gone by the time students from the two institutions took up residence at their opposite college. Bowen's successor, Glenn Leggett (1918-2003), had the unenviable job of presiding over the campus in the late 1960s when racial tension was most acute. As the title of his academic memoir indicates (Years of Turmoil, Years of Change), he found the duties challenging. Nevertheless, whether because of initiatives all his own or because of other forces that were driving social change, Leggett did see increased numbers both of Black faculty and Black students at Grinnell. 

Photograph of Glenn Leggett, Grinnell College President 1965-1975

These modest gains did not blind Leggett to the fact that much remained to be done, as he admitted in a 1971 report:

We have not...had much success with a faculty or student exchange with black colleges; our admissions and counseling efforts for more black students have not been so successful as we would like; and the energies we have put into the recruitment of more black faculty and staff have not been sufficient to the task... (Glenn Leggett, Years of Turmoil, Years of Change: Selected Papers of a  College President 1965-1975 [Danville, IL: The Interstate Printers and Publishers, 1978], 170-71).

Viewed primarily as an attempt to increase Black enrollment at Grinnell, the arrangement with LeMoyne might be thought a failure, which may explain why the LeMoyne exchange ended soon after Leggett made these remarks. Like Bowen before him, however, Leggett overlooked the reasons that impelled Grinnell students to participate in the program. 

Most Grinnell applicants looked to their time at LeMoyne not as a lever by which to increase Black enrollment at Grinnell, but rather as a means to help them personally understand and improve race relations in America. Most thought that their experience at LeMoyne had been successful in this respect and had deeply altered their views on race in America. More than that, the semester at LeMoyne had cemented their intention to root out their own racism and to work hard to erase it in the communities they inhabited.

And that was no small achievement.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Grinnell's Other Lake: Nyanza

Have you ever wondered why Grinnell's "other lake"—Nyanza—bears such an unusual name? Nyanza Gulf (also known as Winam or Kavirondo Gulf) is a shallow body of water in the northeastern corner of Lake Victoria on the western border of Kenya. How did that name cross the ocean and the equator to reach Grinnell? Unfortunately, no one knows for sure. 

However it gained its name, Grinnell's Lake Nyanza has been part of the Grinnell story for a long time—certainly longer than Arbor Lake. Today's post takes Lake Nyanza as its subject, and examines the numerous ways in which this body of water affected life in the growing town of Grinnell.


I could find no record that established firmly when Nyanza appeared in Grinnell. A look backward in a 1916 Grinnell Herald article proposes that "it was about 1880...that the Iowa Central excavated Lake Nyanza" (January 28, 1916), and Dorothy Pinder accepts that date, reporting that Iowa Central Railroad probably dug the lake in 1880 or 1881 to provide water for the railroad's steam engines (In Old Grinnell, [Grinnell: Herald-Register Publishing, 1995]. p. 34). If we take this evidence for the lake's founding, then Nyanza is about twenty years older than its neighbor, Arbor Lake, which only came into existence in 1903

1911 Sanborn Map of Grinnell, Iowa

From the beginning, Nyanza stood on the southeastern fringe of town, and therefore does not appear in early maps. As the Grinnell Herald pointed out in 1888, even then one could reach Nyanza only by walking down the railroad tracks; there was no road to the lake. As Nyanza became an increasingly popular site for recreation, the newspaper urged the city to open a street that would reach the lake (August 31, 1888), and gradually the town stretched into the lake's neighborhood.

Despite the difficulty of reaching Nyanza in the early years, Grinnell citizens certainly knew the lake as newspapers of the day frequently referenced it. When boasting of the many attractions that Grinnell offered to prospective businesses or residents, the newspaper did not fail to mention Nyanza, along with Iowa College, excellent public schools, and "cultured society" (ibid., June 8, 1888). In fact, Nyanza gave residents of Grinnell numerous avenues by which to enjoy themselves.

No later than 1888 the lake was already home to "a fleet of fine boats," and was fast "becoming quite a popular place of amusement," the Grinnell Herald observed (August 31, 1888; ibid., July 17, 1891). When the Herald's reporter left town on the railroad in 1891, he waxed poetic: 

lovely lake Nyanza with its cool and placid waters..., the sailboat resting upon its bosom, numerous small boats that line the shore tell the pleasure and enjoyment that the lake may give (ibid., September 25, 1891).

In winter Nyanza, like Arbor Lake later, attracted ice-skaters (ibid., November 20, 1888; Scarlet and Black, November 14, 1896). In January 1889 the Grinnell Herald observed that "skating on Lake Nyanza...was excellent...and the lake was continually crowded during the glassy period" when it was frozen (January 25, 1889). The following winter, too, Nyanza proved an ideal skating site: "the surface is smooth, the evenings brilliant, and the air just bracing enough so that furs can be left at home. Every night the lake is covered with gay crowds of skaters" (ibid., January 10, 1890). Apparently a local man also made Nyanza part of his toboggan slide when winter weather accommodated (ibid., December 14, 1888).

A 1972 (?) Roger McMullin photograph of sailboats on Lake Nyanza

In summer Nyanza attracted anglers, some of whom managed to catch sizable fish. I don't know when it began, but no later than 1902 authorities sponsored the addition of fish to the lake. That autumn, for example, the newspaper reported that "200 large mouthed black bass and 200 Mississippi catfish" fingerlings were added to Nyanza (Grinnell Herald, October 17, 1902). With the founding of the town's Outing Club, local fishermen found additional support for stocking Nyanza. In November 1917, for instance, the club sponsored the addition to the lake of "several thousand" pike, pickerel, bass, and croppies (ibid., November 6, 1917). Five years later the Iowa Fish and Game department dumped a half million [sic!] baby pike into Nyanza (ibid., May 15, 1922). In 1925 the state hatchery contributed "twenty cans" [?] of blue gills, bass, and croppies to both Nyanza and Arbor Lake (ibid., October 13, 1925).

Grinnell Herald, June 25, 1895

Periodically the newspaper told readers of exceptional catches. For example, in July 1917 Ed Dwyer, in Grinnell to work on the college dormitories then under construction, hooked a twenty-one inch pickerel that weighed five pounds (ibid., July 13, 1917).  In 1921 Frank Wells (1895-1982) landed a thirty-eight inch pickerel that weighed ten-and-a-half pounds—a fish so big that it broke Wells's bamboo pole, obliging the man to wade in after the fish and catch it with his hands (ibid., August 19, 1921). In mid-August 1922 Andrew Appleby (1868-1956) took a four-pound walleye at Nyanza (ibid., August 14, 1922).

Advertisement in Grinnell Herald, May 12, 1921

Stories like these encouraged local merchants like Harry Ritter (1872-1952) to sponsor competitions intended to assist sales. A 1921 advertisement, for example, promised a free Winchester Steel fishing rod to the person who caught the largest fish between May 15 and June 15 at either of Grinnell's lakes (ibid., May 12, 1921). 
Photograph of a Horned Grebe

From its earliest days Nyanza attracted birds, a fact we know mainly because the engineer whom the railroad assigned to manage the lake's pumping station was a birder. Mr. Will Berry (1860-1954) not only paid attention to the lake's avian guests, some of which gained mention in the newspaper, but he also made a hobby of preserving those birds he captured, like the horned grebe he found during its migration in spring 1888 (Grinnell Herald, May 1, 1888). Berry collected so many birds that he showed a case full of his taxidermy art at the fairgrounds, the newspaper reporting that "the birds were all captured within gun shot of the lake" (September 18, 1888). 

As would later also be true of Arbor Lake, the water level in Nyanza sometimes fell drastically, endangering the lake's usefulness to the railroad as well as to those looking for fun. In late 1890 workers of the Iowa Central Railroad dug a well, intending to use the water to refresh the lake, which had gone quite dry; 80 feet down there was still no water to share with Nyanza (Grinnell Herald, October 28, 1890; ibid., November 18, 1890; ibid., December 2, 1890). Soon, however, the newspaper was reporting that there was too much water in the lake. The Herald told readers in 1892 that recent heavy rains had pushed the lake north as far as Washington Avenue and east as far as East Street (May 20, 1892). By late June observers declared that "Lake Nyanza has never been so full as now," the water threatening the railroad tracks that ran along the lake's western shore (ibid., June 28, 1892).

City streets were also under threat because of the lake's expansion to the north. A writer for the Herald wondered if the city ought not plan a bridge at Washington Avenue and also at the south end of High Street (ibid., August 12, 1892). Town fathers responded promptly to this suggestion; within a few days the newspaper told readers that grading was already underway on Washington Street, although the railroad expressed no interest in a bridge over the north arm of Nyanza (ibid., August 16, 1892). Whether because of this publicity or because officers of the railroad proved civic-minded, within a month the railroad agreed to construct a bridge over the northern branch of Nyanza (ibid., September 27, 1892), but progress was slow. In late June of the following year the "unsightly appearance of the half-finished bridge across the north end of Nyanza" generated criticism in the local press (ibid., June 27, 1893). Evidently the bridge then was more than half-finished, because by August 1st the Herald reported that "the new bridge...has been brought into good play all ready" (ibid., August 1, 1893).

An absence or superabundance of water was not, however, the most serious offense against the city's good will. Probably because the trains had to stop at Nyanza in order to take on water for the steam engines, hoboes began to use the area around Lake Nyanza as a temporary home. According to a report in the Herald, citizens who lived near Nyanza were "greatly annoyed" by the visiting tramps who, the newspaper maintained,
congregate in the little grove south of Lake Nyanza until the scene resembles a democratic convention. The grove...makes delightful snoozing quarters for these professional tourists (ibid., May 18, 1891).

On this occasion a policeman, aided by railroad workers, raided the "snoozing quarters" and managed to capture thirteen vagrants. From their cell, the newspaper continued, the arrested men 

claimed [that] they had been looking over the town with a view to a permanent location. They had found the moist breezes from Lake Nyanza very beneficial and after becoming more accustomed to water they fully intended to take a bath [!] (ibid). 

Freed on condition that they abandon town, the thirteen were put on a night train leaving Grinnell, thereby temporarily relieving the city of some of its unwanted visitors. However, as Everett Armstrong's recollections confirm, thirty years later when Armstrong was a boy the city was still doing battle with hoboes who set up camp around Nyanza.

Netta C. Anderson and Johan August Udden, A Preliminary List of Fossil Mastodon and Mammoth Remains in Illinois and Iowa (Rock Island, IL: Augustana College, 1905), p. 34.

A different Nyanza visitor surfaced in autumn 1890 when workmen who were excavating a water tank at the lake "unearthed portions of the skeleton of a prehistoric monster imbedded in the sandy clay...." Exposed to the air, most of the bones immediately crumbled, "a knee joint and thigh bone alone remaining whole...." A "large tooth was [also] uncovered, about 8 by 3 inches on the crown, with roots four or five inches in length" (Cedar Rapids Gazette, October 13, 1890). The Nyanza find did not amaze townsfolk who only a few years earlier had learned of the discovery of a mammoth skeleton when workers were excavating for H. C. Spencer's building at the corner of 4th and Main (Grinnell Herald, June 27, 1884). There investigators rescued a seven-foot tusk, along with some teeth and a few other bones, all of which apparently resided for some years in the Iowa College Museum of Natural History (Scarlet and Black, March 20, 1909; ibid., May 27, 1916; ibid., September 30, 1931). Nevertheless, the 1890 discovery at Nyanza of the remains of a second mammoth generated lots of conversation (Erwin H. Barbour, "Remains of the Primitive Elephant Found in Grinnell Iowa," Science 16, no. 4 [November 7, 1890]:263; my thanks to John Whittaker for sharing this article with me).


Winter 1935 Photograph of Water Tower near Lake Nyanza
that Served Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad
(Scarlet and Black, March 12, 1999)

Grinnell seems to have paid little attention to the lake in the years that followed. So long as steam engines continued to stop in town and refuel, the lake served an important function for the railroad—the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad having succeeded the Iowa Central. But with the advent of the so-called "diesel" engines after World War II, Lake Nyanza lost its commercial purpose. From this point onward, the lake served only the aims of recreation.


Headline of Grinnell Herald-Register, September 27, 1954

In 1954 the Grinnell Herald-Register initiated discussions with the railroad to purchase the seventeen acres that included the lake, and also got the city to agree to take possession once the park was developed. That autumn the Grinnell Jaycees enthusiastically adopted the project as their own, and, assisted by a donation and planning advice from local businessman, Claude Ahrens (1912-2000)imagined a project that would stretch over several years. Among the facilities proposed was a playground area and docks to extend out into the lake to encourage fishing (Grinnell Herald-Register, September 27, 1954).

Aerial View of Nyanza (Grinnell Herald-Register, April 21, 1955)

Fishing docks attracted one of the first donations—$500 from the Herald-Register (ibid., January 6, 1955)—but the docks were not the first evidence of the coming park. Fittingly, the Jaycees chose Arbor Day 1955 (April 22) to initiate park development by planting the first tree (ibid., April 18, 1955), a birch placed near the point that separated the two arms of the lake (ibid., April 25, 1955). At the same time some 1500 shrubs–mostly multiflora roses–went in around the perimeter and another dozen trees found new homes on the grounds. Members of the Chester Royal Grange joined the Jaycees, who also had help from local businessmen, park board members, and other volunteers (ibid., April 21, 1955).

The Almost Completed Nyanza Dock (Grinnell Herald-Register, July 13, 1955)

Work on a "T-shaped" dock began around Memorial Day. Planned to stretch 48 feet out into the lake to give anglers deeper water to fish, the tip of the "T" would be 24 feet across, providing plenty of space for numerous fishermen. In the absence of life guards, those who chose to fish from the dock were advised to do so at their own risk; swimming was forbidden. At the time the park had no entrance as such, and a storm sewer to direct East Street runoff into the lake remained on the "to do" list (ibid., May 26, 1955).

The Jaycees did not abandon their efforts in winter. With the support of the city Youth Council and assistance from the Goodyear Shoe Repair who offered to exchange or repair skates, the Jaycees set up a skating rink at the northern end of Nyanza where the lake was only 18 inches deep; a fence to the south kept skaters from venturing onto ice over greater lake depths. Volunteers flooded the skating surface to make it smooth and DeKalb Agricultural Association provided flood lights to make possible night-time skating—until 9:30 PM weeknights and 10:30 PM on weekends. Jaycees also brought in logs for seating and firewood to help warm skaters (ibid., December 22, 1955).
Frank Lagrange (1911-1979) and Sam Mullins (1939-1969) warm up at Nyanza Skating Rink
(Grinnell Herald-Register, December 22, 1955)

After this burst of activity, the Jaycees turned the park over to the city, and directed their attention to other projects, with the result that progress on the park at Nyanza stalled. Newspaper articles confirmed that the Jaycees regularly committed to numerous worthy projects. Meanwhile, Nyanza and its adjacent territory, now part of the city's park system, languished.

In 1961, thanks largely to the initiative of city councilman James Miller (1918-2012), the city revived the idea of developing the park that the Jaycees had imagined years earlier (ibid., September 4, 1961). An editorial in the local newspaper commended this plan and all those involved in creating a new park that would serve residents of the southern part of Grinnell (ibid., September 7, 1961). With the support of numerous businesses and volunteers, a baseball diamond was laid out as well as picnic facilities that would eventually include a concrete block shelter house fitted with rest rooms. 

1968 Photograph of the Nyanza Park Shelter
(Grinnell Herald-Register, April 22, 1968)
Playground equipment came mainly from local entrepreneur Claude Ahrens (1912-2000), who agreed to donate $1000 worth of equipment if the city purchased an additional $1400 worth of playground products. Local banks, supermarkets and merchants kicked in to permit acquisition of four rocky rodeo ponies, three swing sets, a mustang whirl, a merry flyer, a slide, a teeter-totter and similar diversions (ibid., April 30, 1962; ibid., June 7, 1962). As a consequence of these improvements, in 1986 
the Grinnell City Council voted to name the park at Lake Nyanza the James H. Miller Park (Grinnell Herald-Register, May 2, 1986).
Jim Miller Relatives Pose with Mayor Gordon Canfield With Stone Marking Park Entrance
(Grinnell Herald-Register, November 3, 2014)
Despite the spurts of activity in the 1950s and 1960s, Nyanza and the park that surrounded it suffered from inattention again in the 1970s. Critics began to describe Nyanza as having "more pollutants than any industrial factory could ever hope to produce" (Scarlet and Black, October 1, 1971). A 1975 article in the Des Moines Register described an oil slick on the lake, the result of a leak at a nearby bulk fuel oil storage tank (May 10, 1975). 

Photograph of Fertilizer Factory Near Lake Nyanza
(Grinnell Herald-Register, January 18, 1961)

I did not find an official explanation for the environmental problems at Nyanza, but nearby industries—including a fertilizer factory, a cement mix company and a bulk fuel oil outfit—stood quite close to the lake's western shore, adjacent to the railroad tracks. In an era of minimal environmental regulation, these industries almost certainly contributed to the deterioration of the lake's water quality. A college student writing in the campus newspaper in the 1970s cast doubt upon claims in a new book about good fishing and picnicking at Nyanza; "This must undoubtedly have been taken from Grinnell promotional literature because the sole fish surviving in Lake Nyanza was last seen spitting up mud," the review contended (Scarlet and Black, February 18, 1972).

Local organizations, like the Poweshiek County chapter of the Izaak Walton League, from time to time attempted to improve the lake's water quality and multiply fishing prospects. In early summer 1993, for example, League representatives announced a plan to restock Nyanza and develop a management program to improve fish habitats (Cedar Rapids Gazette, June 18, 1993). In 2010, thanks to the initiative of several citizens, the park gained a "Disc Golf Course," an 18-hole course of more than 5000 feet that stretched all around the park (Grinnell Herald-Register, April 5, 2010). But after an early buzz of activity, the Disc Golf Course, like the fishing dock and baseball diamond before it, fell into disuse. Improvements of the recent past—like the shelter and playground equipment—showed their age and discouraged visitors.

Grinnell Tourism, Grinnell College, and other funders have also contributed to recent efforts to revive and improve Miller Park. In 2014, for instance, the city planted thirty trees in the park, including twenty crabapples to bring springtime color to Nyanza (Grinnell Herald-Register, November 3, 2014). In 2015 the Park Board replaced most of the play equipment, installing a new tire swing, a Jackpack climbing apparatus, and several other items (ibid., October 5, 2015).
The Shelter at Lake Nyanza (2022 Photo)

Despite these efforts the joy that attended the early days of Lake Nyanza has not returned. Although the large rock inscribed with the name of James Miller, after whom the park is named, remains at the entrance, elsewhere the park and lake betray Miller's hopes. The boarded-up restrooms on the shelter house and the sun-bleached play equipment hardly invite visits, and the silted lake has made fishing and all forms of lake recreation unappetizing. No boats ply Nyanza's waters anymore, and no winter ice-skating invites poetic notice in the local newspaper.

A few trains continue to pass Nyanza each day, but they no longer require the lake's water, and no rail passengers rhapsodize over Grinnell's good fortune to possess such a lake. Instead, as I write these words, several hundred Canada geese inhabit the lake. If rare migratory birds pass through, as horned grebes once did, the geese pay them no mind, nor do they wonder at the lake's name, borrowed from a much larger body of water half a world away.