May 30, 2019 — At every campaign stop in Iowa, Sen. Cory Booker opens his remarks with a story about Buxton, a now virtually vanished mining company town in Monroe County.
“I am here because of this community. My family, in poverty, moved up here from Alabama to a town called Buxton, Iowa, where they were coal miners. Many of you know Buxton,” Booker said.
The city was established and thrived at the turn of the last century as a Utopia where blacks and whites lived together with no caste system or segregation, with equal wages and integrated schools, hospitals and markets. Blacks from the South, brought in as replacement workers for the Consolidation Coal Company, worked side by side with mainly Eastern and Central Europeans, extracting coal for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway. For a political campaign built on the ideas of harmony and equality, Buxton is a potent symbol.
“It was a place where black folks and white folks, where European immigrants and descendants of slaves joined together in an integrated town, well ahead of its time, where people went down together in coal mines to scrape from the earth their American dream, together. There were quilting bees where people came together, bringing their stitches of cloth, different races, different backgrounds, but they stitched it together into one American cloth. It was a time when people had each other’s backs. When a miner died, they wouldn’t go to the funeral. They would go into the mines and that day’s work they would give to the family,” Booker said.
Ahead of its time
It sounds almost too Booker-perfect. Hyperbolic. Stump speech exaggeration. But author Rachelle Chase, originally of San Francisco, now of Ottumwa, Iowa, has written two books about Buxton and said it really did exist.
“It was very ahead of its time,” she said of the seemingly fantasy town. “That’s why I couldn’t get it out of my mind because I was like, ‘how could this exist at that time in a state that was like 99.7 percent either white or foreign-born?’ I could not believe that in the middle of farmland that this existed, so it’s a fascinating story.”
At its peak almost 5,000 black residents, miners and schoolteachers, sheriffs, doctors, lawyers and company executives lived in Buxton. It was the largest town in the country with a majority-black population and the largest coal town west of the Mississippi River. A majority-black city, living in prosperity. It’s a microcosm of a dream that could be and it has relevance today, said Chase.
“It existed at a time when things were much worse than they are today,” Chase said, “but I think what made Buxton succeed at that time was because you had leadership, it was a company town, and they pretty much said, you know, ‘we are not going to accept if you cannot accept that your neighbors might be black. You might have a teacher that’s teaching your kids that’s of a different race. If you can’t accept that you’re going to be living next to a black person or a white person then you should move on, it’s not going to be acceptable here.’ So, you had that, and you had people getting equal rights, equal pay, so there was no need for people to fight for things. It was conducive to people getting along, and so I think those rules are very appropriate today,” she said.
But Utopias never last, and by the late teens, coal production had decreased and several fires devastated Buxton. By the mid-1920s, the final mine closed and Buxton was vacated. Little remains of the city today. Chase said only a few old building foundations and some cemetery headstones remain, but enough to spur an effort she’s leading to restore some of Buxton. In a country where the fabric of unity is so frayed it’s hard to imagine it ever being repaired, Buxton’s idea of racial harmony, prosperity and unity is something the country could really use.
For more on the history of Buxton, Iowa check out Searching for Buxton, produced by Iowa Public Television and William Penn University.