Grinnell Stories: African Americans of Early Grinnell

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The early history of the city of Grinnell is well documented, starting with J.B. Grinnell himself. The narratives about an ideal town on the Iowa prairie patterned after a New England village are well known.
But those stories don’t give the full picture of the history of early Grinnell.

In almost every account of Grinnell’s early years, the town’s African-Americans are overlooked. Even though J.B. Grinnell was a staunch abolitionist and the community was a stop on the Underground Railroad, African-Americans are not mentioned or pictured.

A new book written by a retired Grinnell College professor and published by the Grinnell Historical Museum aims to fill the gap in the historical record. The book, Grinnell Stories: African-Americans of Early Grinnell, tells some of the stories of men and women of color in Grinnell between about 1860 and 1950.

Much of the book is based on Kaiser’s history blog (“Grinnell Stories”) written over the last few years about Grinnell people, places and events. Kaiser taught Russian and European history at the college, but when he retired in 2008 after 30 years of teaching, he turned his historical curiosity and research skills to matters close to home.

Kaiser says that while African-Americans made up only a fraction of the town’s population in early Grinnell, they were an integral part of the community, despite having to endure prejudice and discrimination.

The book’s 12 chapters include the story of Emma Morgan, a former slave who as a child was brought to Grinnell after the Civil War. Other chapters tell the stories of the Renfrow family, whose six children grew up in Grinnell. The “wind-blown archive” of the Tibbs family informs several other chapters, and an appendix identifies the more than 200 African-Americans who lived in Grinnell between 1860 and 1950.

Kaiser notes in the preface to the book that the neglect of African- Americans in the written histories of Grinnell was a reflection of historians’ limitations.

“For better or worse, [historians] are the products of their own times. They care about things their age values; they ask the questions

prominent in their own age; and often they absorb the assumptions of their age,” Kaiser writes in the preface to the book.

He continues: “It is time for Grinnell to recognize a more comprehensive, fairer view of the city’s past.”

The 210-page paperbound book will be available after February 3rd, and can be acquired from the Grinnell Historical Museum, 1125 Broad St., PO Box 254, Grinnell, IA 50112 (641-236-7827) (grinnellhistoricalmuseum@gmail.com) (https://www.grinnellhistoricalmuseum.org/index.html); and from the Pioneer Bookshop in Grinnell, 933 Main St., Grinnell, Iowa 50112 (641- 269-3424) (https://bookstore.grinnell.edu/). The cost is $24.99; postage and handling charges apply to all mail orders. Proceeds benefit the Grinnell Historical Museum.

Daniel H. Kaiser, Grinnell Stories: African Americans of Early Grinnell (Grinnell, IA: Grinnell Historical Museum, 2020). ISBN: 978-1-5136- 5918-3 LCCN: 2020901229

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