IOWA CITY, IOWA—Bruce Teague and Mazahir Salih are two unique representations of Iowa’s political power: a Chicago-born black man who moved here in 1993 and ended up being his adoptive city’s top elected official some 27 years later. And Salih, an immigrant from Sudan who moved to the U.S. to support family back home, but ended up being her city’s Mayor Pro Tem.
Politics wasn’t in either person’s life plans, but on the first day of Black History Month, both celebrated their newfound positions of power in a downtown community center Teague owns. The town is 75 percent white, but you wouldn’t know it going off the diverse crowd gathered around Teague and Salih. Many were from the growing Sudanese community of 3,000 residents and others were black residents from the city and other neighboring communities with sizable black populations.
The white people sprinkled amongst the majority black and Latinx faces were the minority for this occasion.
When Salih took the mic to thank everyone for supporting the council that elected them both to power, she acknowledged that they should feel proud that their town that is composed of more than 90 percent of white residents have two black leaders. Then, a white person in the room interjected.
“You both black and that’s amazing,” he said. “You’re both smart, kind, fair and you’re both leaders who have gained respect for all of those qualities. So thank you for doing the work.”
Everyone in the room cheered. Then Salih continued her speech about the importance of diversity in city leadership.
“We need the school teachers to reflect the community,” she said. “We need the city hall to look like the community. We need every place to reflect the community. If I go someplace and find people who look like me, I will feel more happy and safe and feel like I am part of this community.”
For much of the talk around Iowa being one of the whitest states in the Union, there are at least ten cities in this state with black communities of at least 6 percent, with Waterloo topping the list at 16 percent. And, in a few of those communities, black people are creating space for themselves. Silah first moved to Virginia in 1997 and lived there for 14 years before moving to Iowa for an associate’s degree in 2011. While working at the University of Iowa Hospital system, she started befriending other Sudanese residents and learned of the wage theft they were experiencing as well as discrimination from police officers. So she helped cofound a center that supported them. She attended city council meetings and made her voice heard. Silah made news for her push to raise the county’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour and her advocacy for the city’s growing African community, of which there are 3,000 Sudanese, she told me. Eventually, she was encouraged to run for city council and won in 2016. In less than eight years in Iowa City, Silah has become one of its most powerful residents.
Both endorsed U.S. Sen. Cory Booker for president before he dropped out, but Teague just endorsed South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg Sunday and Salih threw her support behind U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren the same day.
An irony in Teague and Silah’s political ascent is that each comes from places Donald Trump has targeted with either his travel bans or, in the case of Chicago, insults of its public officials and residents. Just last week, Trump added six more countries to his travel ban list, including Sudan. I asked Silah how she felt about her native country being added to the list.
“Trump, I don’t know. I don’t know exactly why he just started hating those people but it seems like they targeted the Muslim people in the beginning,” she said. “They had the Muslim ban a long time ago, and now he adds some African countries, just a few days ago. I really don’t know what the goal is for that, but I think this is really ridiculous. I think this is really bad.”
Teague came here his senior year, in 1993, because he was failing chemistry and his sister who was already living here called their parents to say he could graduate on time in Iowa City and not have to take that class. He didn’t move back, continuing his education at Kirkwood Community College and graduating from the University of Iowa with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a certificate of aging studies.
I asked him about the growing immigrant community he presides over and how he deals with complaints of racism. He made a point to say that many of the immigrants in Iowa City can vote and that one of his priorities is to simply let black people know the government is there to actually work for them, not against them.
“Black communities have had a distrust in the political process for a while,” he said. “I think a lot of it stems from the lack of action. You know how politicians come in, they want your vote, they tell you what they know you want to hear and then they get in the office and either they don’t communicate the strides that they’re making or they don’t come back and communicate to their community once they’re in the office. We see that a lot.”
Over the past 20 years, more than 45 of his family members from Chicago moved to different parts of Iowa for job opportunities and mostly for a better quality of life. Teague says more than 30 of his family members are still in Iowa.
Two of his cousins, both of whom followed him from Chicago and live in nearby Marion, were on hand to celebrate his new job. Alicia Wright, 50, first moved here in 2009 to raise her daughter. After her daughter finished high school, Wright followed her back to Chicago so that she could complete college. They both moved back to Iowa after Wright’s daughter had kids.
“I love my neighbors,” she said. “They help me with my grandkids. If I am not at home when [they come] home, they take them in for me. Living here has been a culture change, but other than that, it’s pretty good.”
A chef, Jacqueline Woods, says she came to Iowa to find work. Two years ago, she applied to more than 180 jobs, but only got one interview after eight or nine months of waiting. But after one day of applying for more than 30 jobs in Iowa, she got five callbacks the same day.
“My odds were looking much better here,” she said. “I have been continuously employed since being here. The cost of living is lower here, too. Culture wise, it has not been a major shock. Yes, it’s a lot more Caucasian people here but it’s not what most blacks would think. I don’t experience the amount of racism here that we did in Chicago. We don’t deal with that at all.”
Of course, Iowa isn’t immune to racism. Royceanne Porter, the first black supervisor of Johnston County in which Iowa City sits, moved from Saginaw, Mich., to Iowa City in 1989 for work. She and some of her black friends back home learned of a meatpacking plant here that paid more than $6 an hour, a nice piece of change back then, as she recalls. “A bunch of us black people packed up like the Beverly Hillbillies and moved to Iowa. We wanted that six dollars,” she said.
It didn’t take long before she started a family and her children began facing racism in the school system. “In our junior high school, (the teachers) were calling the police on the kids,” she said. “If the girls get in a fight or an argument, they called the police and [we] thought that was a problem because that was the pipeline to the prison system. When we call the police on these kids, the police take a report and next thing we know, we have a meeting with the juvenile court. Our kids are in the system.”
So, she started a black parent’s association to push back against it and became a juvenile court liaison for parents who could not take their kids to court and made sure they completed their community service.
Like Silah, her political rise came from fighting injustice in their adoptive city.
Across the state, black people are facing harsh realities. In the city of Dubuque, black residents have endured cross burnings over the decades and, in 2013, the federal government said the city violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act by restricting African Americans from obtaining vouchers and relocating to Dubuque. Iowa State University is dealing with anti-Semitic and racist incidents. In December, a woman in Des Moines was charged with attempted murder for purposely driving over a teenage girl because she thought she was Mexican. If you type “racism in Iowa” into a search engine, you will find plenty of local stories unrelated to the Iowa Caucus of racism against people of color. Iowa also has one of the highest incarceration rates of blacks in the nation and, as it stands, it is the only state with a ban in place for people convicted of a felony.
Iowa is a haven for some, but still is very much a structurally oppressive place for black people.
Salih doesn’t shy away from discussing racism either, telling me the genesis of her activism stemmed from local police officers’ racially profiling African immigrants and speaking up for low-wage immigrants who don’t know their rights. Still, when I asked her about being a black woman and immigrant who presides over a very white city, she has faith that her constituents are better than the white supremacy that negatively impacts so many people in her city who look like her.
“They are caring about social justice,” she said. “When the people at Iowa City who elect somebody like me, who have an accent, Muslim, coming from Africa, not even being born in Iowa City at all, that’s telling me a lot about how this city is welcoming people. I came here to study and leave but I decided to stay. People elect me as the first Sudanese-American ever, in the whole country, to be in office. I’m the first. At least we are breaking the barrier. But who gave me this chance? Those people in a very white community.”