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We the People Mural in Waterloo, Iowa

The 10th Worst City for African-Americans in the U.S. has a Story — This is How the Dream Derailed

Recently, an article in 24/7 Wall Street and Huffington Post, identified the Waterloo-Cedar Falls, Iowa metropolitan area as the 10th worst city to live in for African Americans in the United States. The black people of Waterloo would likely agree with and be dismayed by this ranking. It wasn’t always on track to be a place with such unequal gaps in opportunity for blacks and whites. Its history includes an African American “proud, defiant struggle” seen as distinct in Iowa.

Waterloo residents are eager to tell you the city is experiencing a Renaissance right now, and with a 4.5% unemployment rate in the city, and infrastructure improvements they can point to, it is hard to argue with them. The city has gotten the money to tear down all of those old boarded-up, school buildings. A lot of abandoned businesses are being purchased and repurposed. There have been multiple 100-year floods in the past 20 years, but ironically, this has only served to improve the city by forcing them to tear down and clean up some of the worst eyesores.

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This house has obviously not been renovated in decades. But this a before picture. (Photo: The Fleuette-deGuzman Alliance©)
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The house has finally been fixed up in this after picture. (Photo: Ugly Water Lew©)

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for African-Americans in the city is 24%. Black median income is 67.7% of what white households have. Aside from the 24% unemployment rate, only 6.2% of Waterloo’s businesses are black-owned (the city is over 15% African American). In 2003, when the city was issuing major construction contracts, minority contractors protested the fact none of them were hired.

The poverty rate for black children is 31% compared to 11% for white children. The Child and Family Policy Center found 32 census tracts with more than 30% poverty in Iowa. Six of them were in Waterloo. The rates of incarceration of blacks are sky high relative to whites. Waterloo’s unarmed-black-man-killed-by-a-white- police-officer-who-was-later-exonerated, is Derrick Ambrose, Jr., who died in 2012. Waterloo is also the most segregated large city in Iowa.

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Communities with long-term unemployment eventually succumb to disproportionate struggles with social ills including crime, substance abuse, and homelessness. Waterloo, Iowa saw its crime rate spike by 1997and remained steadily high to the point where the city of 68,400 people now has a murder rate above the national average. Other cities saw their crime rates drop since 2000. It did not do that here. It only ranks as “safer” than 12% of U.S. cities due to its high levels of burglary, assault, rape, and forced entry. Last year was described as deadly by their local paper. This crime is in Iowa. Placid, pastoral Iowa.

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Homes on the East side reflect the lack of socioeconomic resources of residents

In the 25 years since the achievement gap stopped improving, what has happened in Waterloo? What went so wrong in a city where the second largest employer’s union had black and white people teamed up to boycott local restaurants and taverns in the 1950s — well before the national civil rights movement? What happened to the city where a group of high school students protested and brought about the desegregation of the schools with their fortitude? What is going on there?

The History of African Americans in Waterloo

The first significant groups of African American migrants to arrive in Waterloo came from Mississippi. They were recruited by railroad companies as strikebreakers in 1910. The strikers met them at their trains with pitchforks. Eventually, the white workers allowed the black workers off the train, but they segregated them into 20 square blocks of Waterloo right next to the train yards. This section remains the low-income African-American community to this day.

A strike conflict happened again in the late 1940s with the meatpackers’ strikes. Black strikebreakers were enticed to work in hog plants only to end up raising the ire of union workers, some of whom were black, who were earning $1.10. It was estimated that a living wage for a family of four was $1.65 an hour at that time.

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Iowa National Guard Troops confront UPWA Local 46 union members (Credit: Acme Telephoto)

In 1948, a black strikebreaker killed a white union member and wounded one other. Many thought a race riot would ensue. The black man had been in his car as union members shook it from side to side. He no doubt felt his life was in jeopardy. Instead, there was a riot against Rath Company. The National Guard was called in. Shortly after that, the 73-day strike ended with the company winning all their demands.

As academic Bruce Fehn writes of the possible race riot,

According to Local 46 member Charles Pearson, himself an African American, strikers did not see the shooting in racial terms. Rather, Local 46’s much heralded interracial unionism, forged during the previous decade, prevailed over this potentially divisive tragedy.

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Following a 1948 shooting of a white union member by a black strikebreaker tensions rose but not the racial tension people expected (Credit: Acme Telephoto)

These employment conflicts weren’t the best way to get people of two races to become fast friends: white people mostly steeped in racism confronted with an economic threat. However, the United Packinghouse Workers of America became the powerful union of Rath Packing Company, the massive hog processing plant in the city. This union would end up creating space for African Americans to fight for their economic rights in the workplace and beyond.

This union support wasn’t just benevolent white, male union members calling for equal pay, seniority rights, favorable job placement, etc. for their fellow black employees out of the goodness of their hearts. White UPWA leaders had witnessed how companies used race and gender conflict to undermine previous union negotiations. As radical trade unionists, it was their principled belief to have interracial alliances. Other unions such as the United Auto Workers represented even more people in Waterloo at Local 838, but they had made no such conclusion about collective bargaining and race. They were much more racist as an organization.

Because of Local 46, if you were black in Waterloo in the 1950s, there is a chance racial justice was starting to happen before Martin Luther King, Jr. even marched on Washington. Everything was tied to working at Rath Packing Company.

Working At Rath

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Rath logo

As wars are prone to be good for business, World War I was no exception for Rath, which saw a massive growth during the war when they were able to secure lucrative government contracts. It also became a time when the company hired a lot of black workers. It was one of the only forms of work black workers could get in Waterloo.

While other companies struggled during the Depression, Rath weathered the storm in good condition. Rath Corporation spent copious amounts of cash in the 1930s once again building. Threats to unionize brought wages up to the highest in the industry by 1941, but it didn’t stave off the forming of a union. In 1942, the workers voted to become Local 46 of the United Packinghouse Workers of America.

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Skyview of the Rath Packing Company complex

By the company’s 50th anniversary in 1941, the complex included 150 buildings and spanned 40 acres. After weathering labor shortages, supply shortages, and uncertain price controls on meat in World War II, Rath was unpleasantly surprised to learn that the workers were demanding considerably more money in what became the aforementioned significant strike of 1948.

Now, with nearly 200 buildings on site by 1950, the plant was the “largest single unit packinghouse in the world.” It was the Titanic of packinghouses in fact. Plant engineer, Robert Batcher, is quoted as saying, “J.W. Rath wanted to make a monument to himself, and he did it.” During this same time period, because of the multiple anti-racism discrimination complaints filed by Local 46 and the UPWA Union throughout the 1950s, they were investigated for being communist. Accusers cited the interracial coalitions within the union as evidence.

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Black union activists like Anna Mae Weems, Ada Treadwell, Charles Pearson and Jimmy Porter (who would start KBBG, Waterloo’s first radio station for African-Americans) had built an influential Anti-Discrimination Department at Rath, which employed a more than an average number of black workers in Waterloo. They used their union power to organize civil rights activities in the community as well. With the union’s backing, a protest against local restaurants who refused services to blacks was held, the union got the newspaper to stop publishing the race of alleged criminals, local grocers were encouraged to hire black people, and numerous other racial justice motivated actions were taken.

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One of the most active civil rights leaders in Waterloo
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United PackingHouse Workers of America Logo

Weems is quoted by Bruce Fehn to say, “the only hope…we had of getting our rights was when we saw that black hand with that white hand [the UPWA logo]…when they started implementing their mandates…that gave us our first feel and experience in equal opportunity, superseding the NAACP or the Urban League.”

Weems went on to be both President of the local NAACP and head of the anti-discrimination committee at Rath. All Local 46 union leaders were required to join the NAACP. More black union members were being recruited by Punchy “CIO” Ackerson and Lowell Hollenbeck, two white radical union members who preached a gospel of interracial solidarity. Fehn quotes Jimmy Porter, “The UPWA “probably had the strongest policy on race that I’ve ever been involved with before or since.

Rath executives invested millions more into building and updating more of the outdated plant in the 1960s, but it was futile. The competition was beating them because their facilities had built-in obsolescence. The new machinery Rath brought in was more mechanized which caused the union workers to become upset. They staged a work slowdown that stalled to a crawl. Meanwhile, demand for pork products declined, and profit margins for meat narrowed. The business was hemorrhaging money now. And this went on year after year with only a sporadic profitable intermission.

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Rath was a huge company that employed a large portion of the city’s African American population

Union members were also very busy in the 1960s marching on the city more than once, forming community organizations to tackle civil rights issues, and organizing protest actions. The UPWA had given a stalwart interracial alliance of civil rights warriors a platform to combat injustice. Teams of black and white union members challenged racist business owners as follows. Black union members went into businesses. A few moments later, a large number of white union members went into the same business. When the black union members were refused services, the whole union would get up as a group, and leave, declaring that the white union members wouldn’t be back either. If this didn’t work, they filed complaints with the city and alerted the media.

Anger over continued residential segregation, school segregation, and employment discrimination led to riots in Waterloo in the summer of 1967. These rioters tended to be youth who were unemployed and angry. A federal government jobs program trained 1,200 unemployed youth, promising them summer jobs. Only two were placed as bricklayers. Rath also was not hiring anymore. It wasn’t that the company didn’t have a long history of discrimination. It did. It’s just that the union had created a mechanism to challenge it.

The 1970s were tumultuous as Waterloo implemented its desegregation busing and redistricting plan. The schools should not have been segregated. The Iowa Supreme Court outlawed school segregation in 1868, almost a 100 years before Brown v. Board of Education, but residential segregation kept the schools from having any racial balance:

Iowa Supreme Court ruling: School segregation “ would be to sanction a plain violation of the spirit of our laws [and] tend to perpetuate the national differences of our people and stimulate a constant strife.” Adding “all youths are equal before the law.”

Community activists from Local 46 were there again with other community leaders helping to shape the plan of the desegregation of the schools in the early 1970s. It happened quickly, despite a protest by parents who didn’t want to see the schools integrated. Waterloo Schools remain mostly racially balanced to this day, although the schools on the East Side still under-perform those on the historically and predominantly white West side.

Due to the shortage of affordable housing, small government housing developments with about 30 units each were built in a few communities on the West side in an attempt to move at least a few African American families out of their segregated community. The protests were so great in those communities, the largest petition ever created in the city’s history was signed.

Placating those residents, the housing authority kept the racial composition of the units at less than 25% African American. Residents were still unhappy. They became part of the 12,000 people who made the exodus out of Waterloo and into the nearby counties following the integration of schools and neighborhoods in the 1970s and 1980s.

In1978, Rath hired a team of consultants to study its facilities, labor practices, distribution, processing, etc. The results were grim. The team basically said, ‘your company has 3–5 years to live.’ They were functionally telling the owners to move it into hospice. The company went to the employees for concessions. Although unhappy, the workers agreed to cut wages and give up benefits. It helped the company turn a profit briefly, but it fell quickly into the red again.

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The abandoned Rath administrative building has recently been bought and will be repurposed

The workers were dogged in their efforts to save the company. The union tried to purchase the company and keep it alive. Even three years past bankruptcy, an employee-based Rath Reorganizing Committee was still trying to revive the company in 1985. All efforts failed. As the city of Waterloo, one of the corporation’s principal creditors sold off Rath’s assets, money was used to build a new greyhound dog racing park. Bumper stickers could be seen throughout the city, “Rath Went to the Dogs.”

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The death of Rath meant adding to the lost jobs from massive layoffs at John Deere’s Tractor Works, now John Deere & Company. Altogether, Waterloo was estimated to lose 10,545 jobs directly. This loss of jobs was going to strangle Waterloo right in the middle of the 1980s Farm Crisis. By the time the doors permanently closed at Rath in 1985, the lines to get free commodities such as government cheese, powdered milk, and peanut butter were miles long.

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Suddenly, the city of Waterloo and the state of Iowa were on the hook to take care of the community by pooling resources and trying to absorb the damage to actual lives. Social services needed to be provided to counteract the effects of economic depression. Reagan was elected President after touring the country talking about welfare queens. The federal government wasn’t going to help Waterloo residents. The white community took a hit but eventually recovered.

Through housing, employment, and educational discrimination, a company who heavily employed black people lost to a combination of questionable business management and changing capitalist practices, and a recession, the black community in Waterloo, Iowa was economically decimated in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The middle-class livelihoods many had attained were wiped out. The exodus of the remaining professional and middle-class African Americans from 1980 on has been described as “contagious.”

When outsiders write about Waterloo-Cedar Falls metropolitan area, they miss the opportunity to see what a microcosm the three included counties are of major U.S. cities, even many states or the country as a whole. The U.S. Census counts the area as approximately 170,000 people. It may be seen as a unified entity, but it is really a region alienated by rural and urban differences, divided by race, and fractured by class.

Waterloo and Cedar Falls share the same intertwined identity as Minneapolis and Saint Paul. As connected twin cities, they don’t approach identical. Cedar Falls was a sundown town, a place where black people used to have to be sure to leave before the sun set or their lives were at risk.

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Map of Black Hawk County where Waterloo/Cedar Falls is located

Today, Cedar Falls has the University of Northern Iowa with lots of college students. There are numerous successful businesses, a quaint downtown, and it ‘s hard to find a rundown home or a black permanent resident throughout the entire city. There are no doubt a lot of outstanding white liberals living there.

Currently, the African American community in Waterloo is described as residing in the 10th worst city for people of their race in the country. This isn’t based on how people subjectively feel. This relies on cold, hard data about social inequality, educational attainment, segregation, income disparity, unemployment rate, home ownership rate, the incidence of poverty, and incarceration rate. The days of Local 46 are long gone. In its place are many sorrowful drum drill team-led marches to mourn gun violence.

Where is Today’s Local 46?

In 1970, the unemployment rate for African Americans in Waterloo was 7.2%, and approximately the same as it is today for whites at 3.4%. The 24% of unemployed African Americans in Waterloo today would be enough to spook those who are employed into avoiding making trouble.

In referencing the UPWA unionists, Halpren and Holowitz write, “The activities of these black men and women was [sic] informed by a racialized class consciousness and an acute awareness of the differences between themselves and the black professional class within their communities. These differences emerge graphically in conflicts over the direction of local NAACP chapters in the 1950s.”

Is there class consciousness in the struggle for new civil rights? The middle-class African Americans have moved up and out of East Waterloo according to researchers in a process they call “black flight.” Discrimination, prejudice, and racism affect all African Americans. Nevertheless, the violence of poverty and the super-elevated risk of meeting a police officer go up within a particular 20 block triangle of Waterloo.

Black Lives Matter

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Knowing that Anna Mae Weems led a march on city hall in Waterloo in 1966, because a black man died of “suicide” suspiciously in his jail cell, is discouraging. She and her union activist partners got the city to form a Waterloo Human Rights Commission, which was quite busy for a year until its funding was allowed to dry up, just as it became forceful. Two years later, a riot broke out on the East side of Waterloo, because the police conflicted with a black teen outside a high school football game. It will be difficult not to repeat that pattern in 2016 with empty promises for improved police relations.

Going into 2016, there is a reason to be concerned about the relationship between the police and black citizens in Waterloo. All of the measures of inequality mentioned above drive crime, which causes the crime rate in the low-income, African American community to soar. This poverty-driven crime leads the police to go into their still segregated neighborhoods with a suspicious mind backed by an institutionally racist system.

Some black lives don’t matter as much as others by society’s reckoning. That is a part of the reason why black lives that are seen to matter are collateral damage in the hatred of the “thug.” The stereotype is self-reinforcing. The child in poverty becomes the struggling school student who becomes the dropout dealing drugs, all drawing the watchful eye of the police. It all starts with the child in poverty. There are a lot of ways to fix that. The American public just hasn’t shown any will to address it.

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A mural in Waterloo, Iowa

UPDATE 6/24/16: Since publishing the piece I have been approached by the son of one civil rights leader in Waterloo who rightfully mentioned that there are other people whose names are worth acknowledging including “Dr. & Mrs. Nash, the Furgersons, other leaders in the local NAACP, and the work done by the Jesse Cosby Center.”

I have also been reminded by Waterloo residents that they are a plucky bunch who fight hard for their community. For example, they have just elected their first black mayor, Quentin Hart. One of their city planners was a classmate of mine, and I have seen for more myself the upgrades to streets, neighborhoods, and business growth.

Find what you just read interesting? Please hit ‘recommend’ below. Thank you!


Belton, D. (2014, November 6). The 5 worst states for black people,

Conard, R. (2010). Bringin’ home the bacon: The Rath Packing Company in Waterloo, 1891–1985. Iowa City: Tallgrass Historians, L.C.

Fehn, B. (1998, Spring). African-American women and the struggle for equality in the meatpacking industry, 1940–1960, Journal of Women’s History, 10(1), 45–69

Fehn, B. (1997, Fall). Ruin Or renewal: the United Packinghouse
Workers of America and the 1948 meatpacking
strike in Iowa
, Annals of Iowa, 56(4), 349–378.

Fehn, B. (1995, Summer). ‘The only hope we had’: United Packinghouse Workers Local 46 and the struggle for racial equality in Waterloo, Iowa, 1948–1960.” Annals of Iowa, 54, 185–216.

Halpern, R. & Horowitz, R. (1991). Meatpackers: An oral history of black packinghouse workers and their struggle for racial and economic equality. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Jones, H. P. (1997). The shaping of freedom: Industrial urbanism and the modern civil rights movement in Waterloo, Iowa, 1910–1970. Ph.D. dissertation. University of Iowa, IA.

J.W. Rath, Immigrant

McGirr, L. (2001). Suburban warriors: The origins of the New American Right. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ

Munson, K. (2015, July 11). Waterloo rallies to combat violence, racial divides. Des Moines Register

Ogintz, M. (1985, March 29). Two groups try to get Rath Packing again. Chicago Tribune.

Palmer, J. (2004, December 26). Twenty years after its last day, Rath Packing Co. still holds a special place in the heart of Waterloo. Waterloo Daily Courier.

Schumaker, K.A. (2013). The politics of youth: Civil rights reform in the Waterloo Public Schools. Annals of Iowa, 72(4), 353–385.

Serrin, W. (1985, February 15). Worker-owned Rath Packing may be at end of long road, New York Times

Shirey, T. (2014). Common patterns in an uncommon place: The civil rights movement and persistence of racial inequality in Waterloo, Iowa. Thesis. Bowdoin College.

Silag, B., Koch-Bridgford, S., & Chase, H. (Eds.). (2001). Outside in: African-American History in Iowa, 1838–2000, Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press.

Tenant ready to move in to former Rath admin building, KWWL

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Chances are I have a migraine. My spirit guides are Voltaire & Bierce. Considering making SJW into a religion. Genealogist

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