Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Civil rights landmark & Lucas County's Nate Kendall

I've written a number of times in passing, rather than in depth, about Nathan E. Kendall (1868-1936), Lucas County's only native-born governor of Iowa. I need to rectify that lapse one of these days. (Gov. Leo Hoegh, born elsewhere, arrived in Chariton as a young attorney.)

In the meantime, a brief video about civil rights history in Iowa City posted the other day to a Facebook group I belong to --- The Forgotten Iowa Historical Society --- contained a reference to Gov. Kendall that provides insight into the character and outlook of a man who was among our state's leading progressive politicians of the early 20th century.

The video, developed for Iowa City's public access City Channel 4 and available on its YouTube platform, dealt with the Iowa Federation Home, a National Register of Historic Places-listed house at 942 Iowa Avenue that from 1919 until 1950 offered a home to black women students at the University of Iowa at a time when both University-owned and private housing in the city was segregated --- and virtually non-existent.


Born at Greenville, southeast of Russell, on March 17, 1868, Gov. Kendall was the only child of Elijah L. and Lucinda (Stephens) Kendall by their second marriages. Elijah's children by his first marriage died as infants; Lucinda brought two sons from her first marriage to the second.

As a young man, Nathan (known familiarly as you might expect as Nate) moved to Albia to further his education, then entered the law office of T.B. Perry with whom he studied until admitted to the bar during the late 1880s.

The young attorney was a gifted orator and that certainly contributed to his rise in Iowa politics. After serving as a state representative for five consecutive terms commencing in 1899 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives during 1908 and re-elected in 1910.

Although nominated for a third term, he withdrew after suffering a heart attack and returned home to Iowa. He was sufficiently recovered by 1920, however, to accept the Republican nomination as governor, was duly elected and then was re-elected to a second term in 1922. 

It generally was assumed that Kendall, still very popular, eventually would end up in the U.S. Senate, but he was warned by his physician that such service most likely would kill him, so he went back to practicing law, managing his farms and traveling for 12 more years --- until Nov. 4, 1936, when he died of a heart attack while listening to a radio broadcast of election returns in the library of his rather grand home along Grand Avenue in Des Moines.

Kendal, reportedly an early ally of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was known for his progressive stance on many issues, including women's suffrage and civil rights.


Although the University of Iowa has a respectable civil rights record, admitting black students as early as the 1870s, students of color had considerable difficulty finding a place to live once they arrived in Iowa City. The first dormitories were built during the second decade of the 20th century, Currier Hall for women in 1913 and The Quadrangle for men in 1920, but neither welcomed black residents. Further, most white landlords were reluctant or unwilling to rent to black students.

The Iowa Federation of Colored Women's Clubs stepped into the breach in 1919 and after a fund-raising drive was able to purchase for $5,300 --- and over the strong objections of white neighbors --- the large home at 942 Iowa Avenue that then was upgraded and furnished to provide a home for black women students.

During 1923, the first year of Gov. Kendall's second term, and Federation found itself unable to make its mortgage payment, had fallen behind on interest and foreclosure was threatened. Appeals for financial aid from both the University and the state for the project, rejected earlier, were rejected again. At this point, Gov. Kendall stepped in to buy the mortgage with his own resources, cancel the interest surcharge and, in the end, donate approximately a sixth of the principal.

Richard M. Breaux, at the time a University of Iowa doctoral student in the history of education, told that piece of the story in an article about the Federation Home, published in The Journal of African American History during 2002 as follows:

"Because the IFCWC failed to reach their goal of $10,000, Governor Nathan Kendall stepped in to ease the financial burden. The IFCWC made the first payment of $1,000 in September 1919. They agreed to make subsequent payments on January 1 of 1921, 1922, 1923 and 1924 with a six percent annual interest. Although the IFCWC made its 1921 payment in full, $825 in interest and principal went unpaid for 1922, and the $1,000 payment for January 1923 became past due. Additional problems with taxes put the home in jeopardy of being sold, but Governor Kendall, who was a former senator from Albia (near Buxton), stepped in and 'discharged the indebtedness entirely, by canceling the interest and donating about one-sixth of the principal.' In a letter to Walter Jessup, Governor Kendall wrote, 'You will remember my connection with the dormitory for colored girls in Iowa City. The mortgage held by an eastern woman was about to be foreclosed when I purchased it, intending to extend the maturity indefinitely.' "  (Breaux, Richard M. “‘Maintaining a Home for Girls’: The Iowa Federation of Colored Women's Clubs at the University of Iowa, 1919-1950.” The Journal of African American History, vol. 87, 2002, pp. 236–255. JSTOR, Accessed 16 Feb. 2021.)


The practice of segregation in University of Iowa dormitories was ended --- for students who were Iowa residents --- in 1946 when Currier Hall was integrated. Four years later, the University dropped the residency barrier for black students who enrolled from other states.

After that, the Iowa Federation Home was closed and sold, but still stands as an apartment building with an historical marker out front that tells its story.

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