Will Iowans fight against racism and discrimination?

February 7, 2022 8:00 am

State Rep. Ross Wilburn looks at the battle flag under which his great-great-grandfather fought in the U.S. Civil War. The flag is on display at the Iowa Historical Museum. (Photo by Erin Moynihan)

State Rep. Ross Wilburn’s great-great-grandfather fought for the Union Army in the Civil War. He’s justifiably proud of that fact, as he told fellow lawmakers during some brief remarks last week to celebrate Black History Month.

Harrison Tilford Gash, who fought in the U.S. Civil War for an Iowa regiment, is pictured here with his wife, Anna Maria. (Photo courtesy of Rep. Ross Wilburn)

Wilburn’s relative, Harrison Tilford Gash, escaped enslavement in Missouri and enlisted on Sept. 23, 1863 in Illinois. He was sent to Keokuk, Iowa, to join the 1st Iowa Colored Infantry during the U.S. Civil War. “You see, when Iowa formed a Black regiment, there weren’t enough Blacks in Iowa at the time, so they recruited from nearby states,” Wilburn told lawmakers in the Iowa House on Wednesday.

At the Battle of Wallace’s Ferry, the Iowa Regiment (which had become the 60th U.S. Regiment), was greatly outnumbered, Wilburn said. But when the battle was over, there were 150 Confederate casualties and only 20 on the Union side. The outcome, Wilburn said, “ended a question asked about Black Union soldiers at the time: Will they fight?”

The battle flag of the Iowa Black regiment, hand-stitched by Black women in Keokuk and Muscatine, is currently on display at the Iowa Historical Museum.

It’s a wonderful story. I wish all the stories I heard last week were like that one.

I also heard from Pastor Jacqueline Thompson of Des Moines Burns United Methodist Church. She told about Sunday, Jan. 9, the day she was awakened by a phone call from Des Moines police. A bomb threat had been made against the church.

“As the officer shared with me the specifics of the threat, including the hatred of Black people made by the anonymous caller — and they’re wanting to express this hatred against the oldest historically Black church in Des Moines — I first gave thought to the immediate safety of our congregants as well as our neighbors,” Thompson said.

No bomb was found and no suspects have been arrested, Thompson said, noting that tracking down cyberthreats is not as easy for real-life police as it looks on television.

These aren’t just Iowa stories. Just last week, our sister newsroom the Florida Phoenix reported that more than 20 FBI offices around the nation are investigating a series of bomb threats against Historically Black Colleges and Universities and unspecified houses of worship.

Thompson was among Iowans who spoke at an online event sponsored by the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa aimed at speaking out against extremism in Iowa, particularly as it relates to public policy. The alliance delivered a statement signed by 550 Iowans that cited the bomb threat; a racist cyberattack against the Iowa Democrats’ Black Caucus; public school boards and educators being harassed and threatened when addressing issues of diversity, equity and inclusion; demands to ban books that tell stories of Black, Brown, Native and LGBTQ communities, and more.

A similar event is coming up Feb. 16; details are at the end of this column.

Wilburn, an Ames Democrat and chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, has been targeted with threatening, racist phone messages. Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, until recently a candidate for Iowa governor, has also experienced this, as have other Black legislators.

Smith said these events aren’t uncommon and he warned against becoming inured to them. “And every time we see extreme attacks, we have to speak out. Every time, we have to speak out with as much vigor as we did the first time,” Smith said.

Wilburn told fellow lawmakers he looks to his family’s history when he’s confronted with racism: “So, when someone leaves threatening phone messages for me saying that I need to go back to Africa, I can say I’m proud of my African heritage, among others, and that my family fought to preserve this country. What about yours?”

It’s a good question. Black history has been in the crosshairs in Iowa and around the country because some lawmakers think the truth about racism will make white kids feel bad. Last year, Republican lawmakers joined the rush to ban “critical race theory” and they restricted teaching about certain concepts dealing with racial justice.

This year, some lawmakers are still trying to whitewash history and marginalize students of color and LGBTQ kids by banning books and criminalizing teachers, controlling discussion in Iowa’s classrooms and specifying who can “enter” school bathrooms. (What about the janitors? What about tornado drills?)

Although we’re only hearing from liberals and Democrats in these events, ultimately it will have to be Republicans who decide whether to keep fanning the flames of this sort of legislation. The challenge for these progressive groups is to expand their message to a broader audience.

The question about Iowans who believe in racial justice and equality is the same one that was asked about the Black soldiers in the Civil War: Will they fight?

Will we fight against attacks and threats against people and institutions of color? Will we stand up to those who deny the existence of systemic racism in our institutions to preserve the status quo? Will we speak out against efforts to ban books that present perspectives of non-white and LGBTQ+ people? Will we fight?

Event to address discrimination in legislation

One Human Family of the QCA, along with the American Association of University Women (AAUW) of Iowa, the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa & Action Fund and Progress Iowa, is sponsoring a free statewide “Iowa is Better Than This” event at 5 p.m. Feb. 16.

The hybrid event will include live and online participation from people at different sites around the state who will “highlight how the discriminatory actions of the Iowa Legislature, many of which were signed into law by the governor, will negatively impact state residents,” according to a news release.

Among issues to be addressed during the event:  LGBTQ+ issues, voting rights, gun accessibility, housing discrimination, educational curriculum, the right to peaceful protest and treatment of immigrants

To take part in the free event, register at

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.