Clinton High School soon will enshrine another amazing lineup of academic all-stars into their Hall of Honor.
One person, Charles Toney, was a surname that I recognized. What makes history fun is taking a “Hall of Famer” and recreating the world that gave birth to them. Unlike Bob Ross, there are no happy accidents. To help explain Charles Toney’s role in laying the foundation for the Civil Rights movement, this column will look at a man who died the year Charles was born.
A leading black figure during the lumber boom (1870-1895) was R.D. Smith. Born a slave in Alabama around 1840, he came to Clinton in 1870 searching for fruitful wage labor. His first job in Clinton was as a janitor at City National Bank. R.D. passed away in 1913 on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the A.M.E. Church.
His main job in Clinton was whitewashing kitchens “for generations of housewives.” His early fame came from his amazing singing voice. He sang “old jubilee songs.” Residents throughout town heard his voice as he pulled around his work cart of brushes. At night, R.D. patrolled the streets working to convert sinners. His voice was a main feature of the Salvation Army’s early efforts.
R.D. became an early leader of the Juneteenth Celebration as well. In 1872, he was part of a region-wide celebration on Aug. 1. The celebration, held in DeWitt, hosted African-Americans from Davenport, Clinton, Lyons, Fulton, Moline, Rock Island, Muscatine, DeWitt, Cedar Rapids, and Chicago. Clinton’s black martial band and brass band led the parade.
Regionally, he came to play a role in advocating for black advancement. In 1901, he challenged Senator Tillman of South Carolina to a debate. He routinely challenged black intellectuals and white race thinkers to debates to show the variety in black thought. In 1906, R.D. went to Davenport to help form a branch of the Afro-American League. R.D. was attracted to the moral crusade of the league. Of note, R.D. went to Clinton Business College, to some degree. While being enrolled in college was rare in Iowa, many African-Americans from Clinton took classes through Iowa colleges.
R.D. first caught my attention because in 1905, he was raising money for the Ambidexter Institute of Springfield, Illinois. I’m from Springfield. The Institute was based on the Tuskegee Institute. The quick failure of the Ambidexter created the Lincoln Industrial School for Colored Boys and the Mary Ann Lawrence Industrial School for Colored Girls. The girl school resided in Springfield’s Lincoln Colored Home, the first orphanage for African-Americans.
Of note is that a benefactor to the girl school was Susan Lawrence Dana. Frank Lloyd Wright designed her house in Springfield, known as the Dana Thomas House. The orphanage house Susan helped fund was eventually owned by Lyman Hubbard, a Tuskegee Airmen. Which brings the story full circle as the Ambidexter Institute was based on Booker Washington’s Tuskegee Institute.
To support R.D.’s attempts to fund raise for the Institute in Waterloo, he carried letters of recommendations to stave off claims of being a grafter. The casual mentioning of this fact was the first red flag that opened up a very interesting history around R.D.’s life.
It isn’t always clear what R.D.’s goals were. For example, R.D. in 1883 fought for the word white to be stricken from the Iowa Constitution. However, in 1880, the Constitution was already amended to strike the remaining uses of the word white. It seems local politicians recruited him to create confusion over the black vote and harm the Republican hold on the black block.
In 1893, R.D. filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Lorimer House in Dubuque. Basically, the hotelier picked him up, housed him, etc., but then when it came time to serve him breakfast the next day, the hotel refused. It’s noted he was equally angry at the fact that a black family was being served in the restaurant already.
What’s interesting about R.D. is his rise and fall in racial politics. His esteem was such that in 1875, he represented Clinton County’s black residents at the Centennial. But it’s his appearances in Iowa’s African-American paper The Bystander that showed the debate going on in the black community over how to approach racial equality.
In 1901, A.A. Bush, another long time black resident, wrote a letter to the Bystander editor saying RD Smith’s “greatest pleasure is in strife.” Bush went onto point out that when R.D. comes to our church, he is looking for “news he can to talk about amongst the whites.” His issue was how R.D. positioned himself to others as the leader of the race.
A.A. Bush’s house hosted many of the funerals for the black residents. His father-in-law fought for freedom in the Civil War as captain of the 29th United States Colored Infantry. He was one of 16 to have a G.A.R. headstone installed in Springdale Cemetery. His writings to the Bystander show Clinton’s vibrant black community.
Where self-promotion, survival, and earnest belief starts and ends with anyone in history is always an interesting demarcation. Without R.D.’s written word, his legacy is left to various framers. Perhaps R.D. was an ardent disciple of Booker Washington’s philosophy. Perhaps his suing the Dubuque hotel was him wanting to agitate. Perhaps the suing was more embarrassment. We just don’t know.
But his welcome in the local black community’s intellectual wing seems to have waned by the turn of the century. Clinton was cultivating a circuit of black racial thought and identity as evidenced by The Bystander. Simply, the church circuit brought in thinkers who argued that the path to progress and equality was through a more active racial politics.
The Bystander has a lot to offer into the black life in Clinton. In 1900, Mr. Hancock ran a restaurant, but given the racial separation policy in Iowa, he did not serve his fellow black residents. It disappointed The Bystander, which was a key difference emerging due to the nadir of race relations.
In 1905, the Clinton baseball team hosted the black Chicago teams, Chicago Union Giants and then the Leland’s Chicago Giants. They might be the same team from other sources. Black teams regularly came to Clinton, and my favorite baseball contest was between the Clinton Colored Maroons and the team listed as cracker factory nine.
In 1894, The Bystander endorsed George Curtis for Congress. Curtis was a Republican, and the hope was the Republican Party would keep the ideals of equality going. In 1903, Clinton hosted Bishop Grant, a man who felt using the Sunday School publishing network would create race pride.
In 1915, BF Cooper passed away in Buxton. He started as an errand boy for a Clinton drug store earning 50 cents per day, and went on to open his own pharmacy out of state. He was a very generous man. He graduated medical school in Omaha.
On July 19, 1918, Clinton’s first black troops left for World War I service. The troops were Wm Mann, Frank C Lewis, Fred Judon, WM Hood, Orrin Simmons, Earl Junkins, and Fred Douglass.
The building of a racial consciousness in Clinton helped shape Duke Slater, Charles Toney, and many African-Americans who left Clinton to achieve progress. We first see the Toney name through Charles’s father, Wilbur. In 1909, Wilbur Toney marries Stella Garrett in Clinton at the Bethel church. Wilbur received a mahogany rocker from the Clinton Bridge and Iron Works. They lived at 725 S. Fifth St. in Lyons. In May 1912, Wilbur and Stella lost their prematurely born son. Charles is born in LaCrosse in 1913. So at some point they head north, and then come back to Clinton.
The question of how to best earn equal rights was playing out in Clinton’s black churches and black businesses every day. Charles’s dad was the grand custodian of the Iowa Masons black lodge. The Culbersons were another local black family involved in the state Negro Lodge. It’s one of the few names from the 1880s still found in the white pages.
Charles, while a student at Clinton High School, was an amazing swimmer as was just about anyone into sports. He told a story of an Olympic Scout who walked away when he found out he was black. Toney came to fame with his publication Citizen 2nd Class that detailed the systematic refusal of civil rights, equal service, and pain inflicted by white establishments in Davenport. Of note, he was part of a group that brought MLK to Davenport for a peace award.
R.D. died in the same year as Charles was born. It’s clear that R.D. tried it all: agitation, accommodation, assimilation, moral crusading, church circuit, and sitting in the kitchens with whites. By the time Charles came of age, it was clear political agitation was needed. That moment in 1943 trying to buy ice cream in Davenport showed Charles and Ann, his wife, what many of Charles’s dad’s peers were saying in the black churches in Clinton: race pride and race thought. R.D’s hope in technical training was not enough. But Toney realized that if “black men 100 years ago had tried to do what we do today… there would be no black people now.” Charles credited Clinton and his dad for “turning (him) on to civil rights.”
What’s amazing is we take two people and go from the civil rights to slavery. Newly freed men and women came here to make a living. They had some sort of jobs at leading factories, but never really became industrial workers. Charles challenged himself to be a welder/chemical engineer at a time that black involvement in factories in Iowa was all but zero. The door was being shut, and he knew agitation was needed. And R.D. vs AA Bush show how Clinton’s black businesses, black churches, and black neighborhoods hosted the men and women who challenged accommodation.