Thu, 03/03/2022 - Author: lbousson

Rhys Walker's Blog


Tracing Race at ISU Student Assistant, Rhys Walker, reflects on resources they discovered in Special Collections and University Archives while researching Black students’ experiences at Iowa State College.



Students in the Botany Summer School, 1925.
Students in the Botany Summer School, 1925.

The Tracing Race at Iowa State University Project drew me to it for the chance to have hands-on research opportunities for the stories oft not told. It is compelling to include everyone in the historical narrative, no matter the scale. Iowa State University historically allowed students of color to attend university here but did not allow them to reside in the residence halls due to racist unspoken policies.  I specifically worked on the Housing Project for Tracing Race. This part of the project that researched residences of black students around Ames and at Iowa State University’s campus. The goal of the project is to create a Story Map to tell the history of black student residences in Ames and at ISU. As a student, I worked on part of the research for CRP 511 with Professor Ted Grevstad-Nordbrock. This class worked on the physical built environment. For the final project, we took photos of the extant buildings and put together data for the structures. Another aspect of my research for this project was Census Records and Archival Materials. I dug through these records to find evidence of their early lives, residences in Ames or Des Moines, and their lives post-ISU.

While researching for this project, I discovered many interesting stories and lives of students who attended Iowa State University. A student that was prominent in the research was Willa Juanita Ewing- who said that there were many black students who came from the South to attend ISU in a Department of Horticulture 1937 newsletter:

Department of Horticulture Newsletter, 1937.
Department of Horticulture Newsletter, 1937.

“At Ames what few colored people live there are apt to think thirty or forty colored students coming there to school are an awfully lot of people. Those forty or even fifty that come there during the summer represent just a pitifully lucky few compared to the thousands and thousands here at their own schools. Quite a number are going to the other northern schools, preferably Michigan and Columbia.”

This was one of the most interesting aspects of the research, in my opinion. It provides a historical context to the experience of these students and of the university at large. Another prominent student was Dr. Nathaniel Calloway, who was in contact with Dr. Henry Gilman for quite some time after his graduation from his Ph.D. Calloway’s letters with Gilman are stored in the Iowa State University Special Collections and Archives.


It is relatively easy to forget about the historical context of institutions and people. The remarks that Ewing provided indicated that there was a perception of Iowa State University as a place that would be able to provide something that black students from the South were seeking.  Despite the university holding its own unwritten, but racist, policies it attracted students of color from the South. It compels me to wonder more about the aspects of Iowa State University, and of Ames, that could draw someone to it.

I also noticed a trend of students from Prairie View University in Texas. The name of Prairie View University kept popping up in the Bomb yearbook entries and on the biographies of these individuals. Prairie View University (now known as Prairie View A&M University) is located in Prairie View, Texas. It is a historically black university. Similar to Iowa State University, it is also a land grant university. While I have not pinpointed any historical relationship between Iowa State University and Prairie View, there were quite a few students who attended both universities, often one for undergraduate studies and the other for graduate studies. It is something that I want to delve into more in order to widen and broaden the scope of Iowa State University’s place in black history. 

Overall, I found that this project was compelling and important. Ensuring that the historical narrative is inclusive of the entire realm of lived experiences is incredibly important. As a historian, it is something that I strive to do. This project has taught me the importance of looking at the details left by those who were marginalized and not included in the predominant narrative. In particular, the most important aspect I found in my work was the photographs of these people. It is easy to remove our modern-day selves from history when there are no faces to put names too. However, as we gathered the photographs of these individuals, I found the history more and more compelling. For example, being able to see the face of Willa Juanita Ewing after reading about her life made more of her experiences stand out and speak to me.  It is important that projects like this are able to bring these narratives to our historical record, to ensure that all lived experiences are accounted for in our historical narrative.



“Students in the  Botany Summer School, 1925”, photograph, Ames, Iowa State University Special Collections and Archives, University Photographs.