Thursday, September 23, 2021

Chariton Cemetery Tour 4: Booker T. Richmond

Booker T. Richmond (left), a son of Lucas County who distinguished himself as one of Iowa's pioneering black attorneys, was fourth on the program during Sunday's 17th annual Chariton Cemetery Heritage Tour, entitled "The Lady in the Iron Fence and Her Neighborhood."

Mary Finley (Alicia McGee), reinterred in the cemetery soon after it was established in 1864, was the lady in question. You'll find the script of her presentation here. Deming Jarves Thayer, second on the program, was portrayed by Blake Yocom. His script is here. Mike Miller portrayed adventurer Charley Rose. Those portrayed appeared in the order of their deaths.

As happens occasionally during these tours, the actor scheduled to portray Mr. Richmond was ill on Sunday, so Preservation Commissioner Melody Wilson (below left) changed the tense of his script from first to third person and told his story for him.

Here's the script, shifted back to first person:


My name is Booker T. Richmond, a name that tells you a lot about my parents’ hopes and dreams for me when I was born in Chariton on the 5th of October, 1904. The next year, Booker T. Washington himself came to town to speak on the Chautauqua circuit. I was a babe in arms, but my parents took me along to see him during August of 1905 even though I was too young to remember.

I always tried to live up to my parents’ expectations --- and succeeded. But a weak heart and too much stress claimed my life when I was only 53 so I did not live to see the civil rights progress I’d worked and hoped for. My final resting place is over there near the tree line with my mother and seven of my 10 siblings.


My parents both were born into slavery in Missouri. My mother, Lillie Green, born on the 4th of July 1862, was carried to freedom in southwest Wisconsin as a babe in her grandfather’s arms. My father, Romulus R. Richmond, came north during the 1870s, met my mother and they were married during 1880 in Wisconsin.

He was a preacher and built quite a reputation in southwest Wisconsin by conducting services for congregations both white and black. During 1887, he received a call to serve an African Baptist congregation, Ebenezer, recently organized by coal miners in Cleveland and Chariton, and that was how my family came to be in Lucas County, Iowa.

Preachers couldn’t live out of a collection plate, however, so he also worked in the Chariton foundry and as a machinist, then during the 1890s was named superintendent of this cemetery by its owner, Dr. J.E. Stanton. My father was a brilliant man who held patents on several inventions, but liked to chase dreams, too.

I was the youngest of 10 children and when I was small, he left home to chase one of those dreams and did not return. So I was raised by my mother, who went to work as a cook and became widely known for her skills during the next 40 years, and by my older siblings, some in their 20s when Father left.


There was never any question about education in our modest but comfortable home on South 11th Street. We were all expected at the least to graduate from Chariton High School.

I was a member of the Chariton High School class of 1923 and a talented athlete, participating in football, basketball, track and baseball --- but my older brother, Maceo, had been the star athlete in the family and I was rather small --- just five-seven and 150 pounds at most --- so couldn’t equal his record. I was, however, an academic standout, voted by my classmates at graduation the “most clever” among them, and a talented musician, performing with the glee club and teaching myself banjo. But my first love was debate and I led the Chariton team to several championships.

Determined to go to college, I worked at every job I could find during that first year after high school and in the fall of 1924 enrolled at Grinnell College. The next year, I transferred to Coe College in Cedar Rapids and finally to the University of Iowa where I was a first-year law student in 1929-30.

Through all of these years, I worked full-time in addition to attending classes so there was little time for extracurricular activities. The exception was debate and my teams at both Grinnell and Coe won numerous awards.

I didn’t have enough money to return to Iowa City in the fall of 1930, but the attorneys at Chariton’s Stuart Law Firm had served as mentors during my college years and they invited me to study with them that fall. Even without a degree, we all felt that I was prepared to take the Iowa bar exams --- a three-day series of written and oral examinations --- during early October.

Twenty-two of us took the exams, most with law degrees. Fifteen passed. I had the highest scores in both written and oral exams and was sworn in by justices of the Iowa Supreme Court on Oct. 9 at the Capitol in Des Moines.

My performance on the bar exams was reported upon in newspapers statewide and later on in October, Chariton High School Supt. J.R. Cougill, another of my mentors, invited me to address the students during an Oct. 17 assembly. I told them that negroes in the United States did not have the educational opportunities offered universally to white children and encouraged them to keep racial hatred from poisoning their minds.


So I was a newly minted lawyer and had proven my worth --- but was by no means naïve. I knew there would be no offers from white law firms, nor would white people have much interest in hiring a black attorney, no matter how qualified.

I moved back to Cedar Rapids, where there was a substantial black community and where I knew people, to launch my first practice. I was able to moonlight there, too, playing banjo in Cecil Brewton’s Blue Rhythm Kings dance band.

But before long I moved to Des Moines, with a larger black community and closer to home so that I could do a better job of taking care of my mother and siblings. I began to build a good practice in the black community and a variety of multi-racial unions and progressive organizations also were willing to employ me.

Then World War II broke out. Two of my older brothers were decorated World War I combat veterans, but by 1940 Jim Crow had become fully entrenched in the U.S. military. Blacks really weren’t wanted --- until manpower shortages began to occur. Then Iowa, and other states, implemented what was called the “Negro draft,” separate from the draft for white men, to conscript personnel for support units. I was drafted as were my brothers, Thomas and Henry, and entered the service during September 1942. I was assigned to the 445th Signal Battalion (heavy construction), a “colored” unit based near Fresno, California. The assignment didn’t make sense, but then many things didn’t back in those days.


After the war, I returned to Des Moines and began to rebuild my practice. I had joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People before the war and during the late 1940s used my rhetorical skills to become one of its principal spokesmen in Iowa, traveling widely to promote its work.

I also became associated with and shared the offices of Charles P. Howard, a prominent black Des Moines attorney whose progressive politics were described as “red-tinged” at a time when Communists, real and imagined, were a political issue. He was disbarred in Iowa, primarily because of his politics, in 1951 and relocated to Chicago to practice.

While I was never accused of being a Communist sympathizer during these red-baiting years, the pressure certainly increased my stress levels, already high because of concerns about my family in Chariton.

My mother, Lillie, died during May of 1952, age 89; followed during February of 1954 by brother Maceo at the age of 58. Brother Tom became critically ill at age 55 during the fall of 1957 and died on Sept. 3 at the Veterans Hospital in Des Moines.

We buried Tom here in the Chariton Cemetery on Sept. 6 and I spent the night with our sister, Florence --- known by most as “Petey,” my only living sibling now --- at our family home. The next day, as I was preparing to return to Des Moines, I suffered a stroke and was taken to the Veterans Hospital myself. I died there Sept. 9.

Petey continued to live in the family home until 1979, when she died at age 85 --- the last survivor of a remarkable family. When our cousin, Theopolis Gibson, died in 1990, he was the last survivor in Chariton of a once-vibrant black community.

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