Centerville, IA: Meeting Point of Diversity & Conflict

Let me bring a few thoughts together:

  • Midwestern diversity
  • KKK
  • civic organizations
  • organized crime

I’ll make the connections by focusing on the example of a city in Iowa, as described in Centerville: A Mid-American Saga by Enfys McMurry.

Founded in 1846, Centerville is a small town, once at around 8,000 population and now down to around 5,000. It is located in Appanoose County along the southern border of Iowa. This is a few counties southwest of Johnson County where I live in Iowa City, the home of the Hawkeyes. And this is a few counties southeast of Madison County which is famous for covered bridges and famous for it including the hometown of John Wayne and the temporary home of George Washington Carver. This location leads to a couple of central factors.

First, it was on the edge of slavery. Some of the early residents were abolitionists. And it became part of the Underground Railroad. However, being so close to slave state, escaped slaves and free blacks weren’t very safe living there for they could be easily kidnapped.

Second, it is an agricultural area, but it is also a mining area. This meant it attracted a wide variety of people. Despite it being a small town, its early population included immigrants from more than forty countries and sixty Jewish families. The Midwest (along with the Mid-Atlantic states) has always been where most immigrants have settled. This is why this is the median center and mean center of the United States.

Between location and population diversity, this made Centerville a site of conflict, a contest between political forces and social orders. This was magnified by the vast social change that happened after the Civil War. Blacks were moving North and one of the biggest immigration waves began. Society became very destabilized. It was also a time of increasing social freedom.

There were those who took advantage of these conditions and there were those who sought to enforce new order. There were many Italians in Centerville and with them came the Black Hand which was an early mafia. There was a peak of violence at the turn of the century and then another increase during the 1920s that peaked in the 1930s — see here:

Comparison by year of USA homicide rates

The Black Hand was organized crime, but it also played a role of civic organization in the Italian community. The mafia was a central part of the social order in the region of Italy where many of these immigrants came from. It was based on kinship and shared religion. This is hard for us to understand today. Civic organizations have become tamed and mostly impotent. They are now primarily social gatherings.

The KKK also had this dual role. They held typically conservative values. They sought to defend what they saw as good about society. Like the Black Hand, they would use criminal means at times to enforce their ideal social order. During the early twentieth century, the state and federal governments were far weaker than they are today. This was still the era of the Pinkertons being hired to infiltrate and fight the labor unions. Most power was private at that time. Vigilante and mob justice was common.

It was the early 1920s when the KKK seized political power in Centerville. They used force, threats, intimidation, coercion and about any means necessary. Having gained control of both political parties, their opponents covertly created a third party and ousted the KKK from power after only a few brief years. The KKK wasn’t able to get a permanent toehold and the former members became pariah. Iowa has a mixed history in relation to blacks, at times one of the most progressive and at other times not so much. However, it appears that Centerville was never a sundown town, unlike some other southern Iowa coal mining towns. Winterset, the hometown of John Wayne, was a sundown town.

It should be noted that the KKK wasn’t exclusively focused on blacks, especially not in a town like Centerville that had no large population of blacks. They had other more important agendas such as prohibition and enforcing family values and Christian morality. The prohibition aspect probably was central in an immigrant town like Centerville that included many ethnic groups that loved their drink. Prohibition was an extension of nativism. There is a long history in America of outlawing or trying to outlaw any substance or activity that becomes associated with non-WASP groups, be they a racial or ethnic minority.

I don’t know that the KKK was involved in violence and murder in Centerville. They certainly weren’t pacifists nor did they care much about democratic process. What can be said is that they thrived during violent times of social upheaval.

The following peaceful era of the mid-twentieth century was a rare moment during a century of great violence. We are only now getting back down to those low violent rates. There is an interesting difference, though. The middle of last century was a time of extremely low immigration, but these past couple of decades have had extremely high immigration. So, the violence rates don’t correspond to the immigration rates.

The KKK, of course, associated the violent social disorder to immigrants and blacks. On the other hand, immigrants and blacks might have associated violent social disorder with groups like the KKK.

After the boom era of coal towns like Winterset, I imagine much of this history of diversity and conflict has been forgotten. The patriotism of war and the Cold War era oppression led to some combination of chosen assimilation and forced assimilation. It is just another majority white rural small town, although it does have almost 4% minorities which in a town of 5,000 is a couple hundred people.

I find it interesting that those original immigrant families from so many different countries are now simply considered white. I’m not sure the KKK would be entirely happy about that, but then again neither would the Black Hand. Both the WASP Americans and the ethnic Americans lost the battle for the soul of America. The winner is some new weird amorphous white American, a mutt that is a little bit of many things and nothing in particular.

This is how multiculturalism slowly becomes monoculturalism. I suspect the same fate will happen to the new generation of ethnic outsiders in America. In many regions of the US, regional identities dominate. But in the Midwest, to become assimilated simply means becoming American. That is the role of the Midwest, the Heartland of America. It is where multiculturalism is embraced and where it comes to die. No amount of diversity can defeat this process. There is a faith in this American assimilation here in the Midwest. Bring us your huddled masses and we’ll make Americans out of them. There may be some violence in the process, but unless you want to become Amish the process is near inevitable.

America is where the world comes together. What new thing will be born from this?

15 thoughts on “Centerville, IA: Meeting Point of Diversity & Conflict

  1. Can there be a shift? Will the Midwest continue to embrace multiculturalism.

    My personal opinion is I doubt it will. Most recent emigrants don’t settle in the Midwest. We are always getting new ones here in the Northeast. More so The bottom 3 states of New England and southward like New York and New Jersey. Pretty much the area of the Northeast megalopolis.
    Interesting data here.

    • I doubt Centerville will be embracing multiculturalism again or at least not anytime soon. However, the Midwest in general is more demographically complex. So, predictions are hard to make.

      On different immigrant measures, some Midwestern states showed up near the top of the rankings, according to your link. Indiana is among 13 states that have twice the national immigrant growth. Minnesota and Illinois were mentioned as among the top immigrant-receiving states. But I’m not sure what those rankings mean or if any trend can be seen.

      Iowa doesn’t have a large immigrant population, but it more than doubled in recent decades. For a small population state like Iowa, this could have significant impact.

      We are at a time of major change. Plus, highways and mass transit making moving so easy. There has been an ongoing population shift back South, but it is hard to know what is temporary or not. Like the coal mining collapse with Centerville, it can’t be denied that deindustrialization and the 2008 Recession have had major impact on some of the Midwestern states. Still, many seeming trends could stop or reverse when the economy changes again, as the economy inevitably will in the coming decade(s).

      The only certainty is that major changes are happening and probably even more major changes are on their way.

  2. I was looking at some maps out of curiosity. It is easier to think about demographics with maps.

    One map shows that the highest hispanic growth is in the Midwest and Southeast.

    Here is a set of population distribution maps from 1870 to the present.

    It is interesting that the population distribution has hanged very little. The only major change I noticed is Florida went from low population to high population. The main thing that has stayed the same is that the core of population density has remained within a strip along the coast from the Northeast to the Mid-Atlantic States and another strip from the coast across the Midwest. Despite significant migration of the population back South again, this pattern apparently has remained stable.

    Here are some maps and rankings by population density.

    The Mid-Atlantic States (New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania are on or near the top of the list. Pennsylvania is the origins of the Midwestern Midlands culture by way of immigration patterns. Ohio is number 10 on the list, Illinois is 12, Indiana is 16, and Michigan is 17.

    One thing that map doesn’t show is urban concentration and diversity. For example, Minneapolis is one of the most diverse big cities in the country while Minnesota overall only ranks as 31 in population density. So, a large part of the US population lives in Minnesota, despite it being surrounded by low population.

    This next one is an interactive map.

    If you zoom in, you can see the diversity in cities like Minneapolis and other big cities and urbanized dense areas of the Midwest.

    Another way to detect diversity is by looking at languages spoken at home.

    The Northeast and the Midwest, especially the Upper Midwest, show this history of diversity that continues to survive to this day. You can particularly see the German-speaking populations spotting the Midwest, some of which would be the Amish.

    The rest of these are just different ways people have mapped population density. Each of them gives you a different sense of the distribution.

    • The link you offered along with the above mapped data gets me thinking. Most of the density and diversity is found in very specific locations. The regions with the most density and diversity are those with states with the most density and diversity, and such states are those with cities with the most density and diversity.

      During the industrialization era, even smaller cities like Centerville could be relatively dense and as diverse as the biggest cities around at that time. Coal was big business and it attracted large numbers of immigrants from all over.

      It is interesting how much density patterns today match up with early settlement patterns which in turn matches up with rivers and lakes. Even coastlines don’t show a clear pattern as the Southern coasts are actually quite lacking in density. The reason the Midwest was so attractive to immigrants was because of all the water. One could travel across most of the Midwest by way of the Ohio River which connects to the Mississipi River and so travel made its way to the Upper Midwest.

      Minneapolis is immersed in water: lakes, ponds, wetlands, creeks, streams, rivers. It is on the Mississippi River. So, it was connected by rivers all the way to the Northeast and all the way down to the South. It has been attracting immigrants continuously since it was settled. Similarly, Chicago was situated between the Ohio River, the Mississippi River, the Wabash River and Lake Michigan along with the Illinois river running down the middle of the state connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. The Upper Mississippi and the Great Lakes region were already major population areas in the 1800s. It is amazing how looking at the 1870 map of density is like looking at a 2010 map.

      Early settlements and later industrialization needed lots of water, both for transportation and for other purposes. Water is as important today as it was back then, although we have more control of water now. We can artificially create habitable areas such as Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

      It has only been with deindustrialization that we have seen a shift of the population back South. Many of these people are the same people or the children and grandchildren of those who originally came North because of industrialization. Still, industry is a major part of the American economy. Some of the big industrial cities have declined, but not all of them and some have grown. The industrial towns along the Mississippi River in Eastern Iowa are doing just fine.

      Because of geography, including water, most of Western United States will never have the same kind of population density and so unlikely to attract much diversity besides right along the coasts. Whatever demographic shifts we see will mostly be in the East. Some diversity has increased in the Southeast, but it remains small compared to the North. I wonder if this will change dramatically or not. A diverse South would be a historically unique event that wouldn’t just change that region but the political dynamic of the entire country.

  3. Sorry i took so long to respond had computer troubles. Finally managed to find this blog again.

    All these maps are wonderful. What is very interesting is new ideas also seem to start in the highly populated centers and work there way out. Things like abolishing slavery, LGBT rights, etc. It like we have this political wave thing going on as well.

    It would be interesting to see the south become diverse but, i question that it can do so. Its always a fight to make progress as a nation. That may not be a bad thing if they manage to balance each other out.

    To speak again about the diversity. Nearly all of my ancestors have / did live in the densely populated areas on the northeast. I haven’t found any who haven’t ( yet ). Well multiple were from rural Vermont.

    To speak of the south again. I wonder what the percentage of population moves out of an area south and north included. Say people immigrate to the northeast do they stay there for generations? My guess is yes. People seem to get well established plus we always yearn for home.

    On a side note i don’t live far from Hartford where it has a huge Hispanic population. I adore the Hispanics around here. Just wonderful people. But, i digress.

    The rivers are interesting. We have a bunch here in the northeast. Main one being the Connecticut where some of the big non coastal cities are that is shows around here like Hartford Connecticut, and Springfield Massachusetts. I would argue that they form a sort of combined area themselves.

    I live in a post industrial city. It has multiple late 19th century fabric mills. There is about 12 on one river in a 2 mile area. The mills were big around here until the 60’s. They moved out some burned down, some were abandoned, some are apartments, some are in bad shape with plans on how to use them. But, we mostly run as being a commuter town to the cities in and around Hartford.

    • Glad you found your way back here again.

      What fascinates me is how demographic patterns are persistent and self-perpetuating. The Midwest and Northeast had a lot of natural waterways that attracted large populations that settled in big cities. These big cities required big infrastructure and so roads and highways were built. All this infrastructure made these places even more attractive and so major airports were built.

      Other parts of the country had less water and/or fewer navigable waterways. I noticed the South has way fewer major rivers compared to the North. So, it wasn’t just the good farming soil in the North. It is a combination of factors. Ethnic groups like the Scots-Irish intentionally sought out the South because it was sparsely populated and in doing so perpetuated their own poverty. If not for the political maneuvering that has pumped massive amounts of federal money into the South (by locating there Military bases, NASA facilities, FBI facilities, Pentagon, etc), there would be even less population density in the South.

      All that federal funding has encouraged diversity in the South. I went to high school in Columbia SC which is the site of a major military base. This has helped it to be rather cosmopolitan, but SC was always different from much of the South because it always had a more cosmopolitan aristocracy originally with close ties to the cosmopolitan aristocracy of the British Empire. Charleston and New Orleans are the two old cosmoplitan cities of the South.

      Unlike your family, I don’t know of any family lines that were always in the same area. In particular, my paternal grandmother’s family has been nearly continuously moving every generation since the 1600s. They started in Virginia, headed South and West with my dad’s line ending up in Texas from which they headed North and to the West Coast. I’ve always wondered what causes wanderlust in some families. Is it genetics or is it just a strange family habit?

      You say where you live is post-industrial. If not industry, what is the major sector of employment?

      Iowa’s industry has tended to be stable because it is closely tied to the agricultural industry. Even with all the farm subsidies, Iowa manages to pay more money in federal taxes than it receives in federal funding. The only thing that could destabilize Iowa’s economy would be climate change, such as if the prime farming zone shifts to Canada as some predict. Midwestern states like Iowaare stable enough that the Amish have been farming the same way for centuries and the Amish around here don’t appear to be poor.

      I actually do wonder about climate change. That would cause demographic shifts worldwide. In Iowa, we’ve been having drought conditions these past summers. I hope it doesn’t become a permanent weather pattern.

  4. Oh i like the Canada one. I always wonder what it would be like if the New England area was its own country. It would be interesting for sure. Not sure exactly what would happen but, it would be interesting. We would probably join the EU or something.

  5. My GreatX4grandparents were settlers in the Moravia (population 700) area of Appanoose Co. just down the road from Centerville. many of my aunts & uncles still live in the county. In the 50s & 60s, it was an ideal place to live, to grow up. Rathbun was new, and undiscovered by tourists and hunters other than locals. Gramma said we were Heinz57; our ancestors had been in America so long that Norwegians married Swedes, who married French, who married Italian who married Swiss, who married English….we were our own United Nations. 100% American. I liked that. It was like being a “military brat”; if someone said that they were from Seattle, you could answer: “Oh, we were there, I LOVE Pikes Market!” And another might say “I’m from San Francisco “Oh! The weather in the summer is wonderful! I love the Chowder Bowls on Pier 39!” So, if you couldn’t make a connection with a new friend with where they had been, or where they had traveled, you could always talk about who you were related to in town. And with only 700 residents, living great grandparents “on the square”, living Grandparents, out at Rathbun, living Aunts and uncles 12 of them + spouses + children, and living parents and 5 siblings…there was certainly a LOT to talk about!…

    Sometimes, my BFF & I would go out to the cemetery and look at the gravestones and see which of our ancestors had served in the 36th Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Then, because there was no internet at the time, we made it a year long project to find out what had happened to “our men”. (The Disaster Of Mark’s Mills April 25, 1864) History, for us, wasn’t a list of useless dates. It was a mark in time that our grandfathers and their sons and sons in laws and brothers and cousins and neighbors….stood up for what they believed was right. These men suffered greatly due to the almost continuous exposure to the winter elements during the winter of their first campaign. They survived freezing rain, winds so high that their tents were blown down, they suffered cold, flu, fever, typhoid, malaria and rheumatism. Spring brought some relief, but they were forced to forage for anything edible. They fought muck and mud and mosquitos and sickness and constant hunger. And…the constant anxiety of facing enemy troops.

    Unlike today’s soldiers, where when you pull the trigger, the gun shoots a bullet…many of these young men were at first using smoothbore muskets with “sword” bayonets, they later upgraded to .58 caliber Springfield rifled muskets.
    But a musket barely compares to a Glock 9mm does it? These men were fighting in close quarters, not by radio controlled drones!

    How sad it is that our children today aren’t taught how exciting history can be? Why aren’t the children from Mystic and Centerville taken out to the mines to show where their fathers and grandfathers and their Greatgrandfathers mined all night and day for a dollar a week or 50 cents a day? Why aren’t they taken out to the cemetery to look for their last name, to see if one of THEIR ancestors was a member of the 36th Iowa Volunteer Infantry? Why not go out to Rathbun and wonder who It was that planted all those trees after the construction was completed? (Answer: a lot of unpaid local volunteers before President Nixon’s visit)

    There is a lot of history being lost because x-box is more exciting than listening to great gramma and her silly stories…and a sad belief that history is only memorizing dates.

    But, that’s just my old lady opinion….

    • I sometimes call myself an American mutt. My ancestry includes Scottish, English, German/French (Alsace-Lorraine), Dutch, Austrian, and I’m not sure what else. Much of my family has been in North America so long that there is no record of immigration. Some of my ancestors apparently just sprouted up in the backwoods of the frontier. And I’m sure there was all kinds of mixing going on in those backwoods.

      I can’t say that I share your small town experience, though. The closest I’ve come is the place I was born in and spent my early childhood. It was a smallish but not that small at 11,000. Besides, none of my extended family was in or from Ohio. It was just a random town where my dad was employed. So, despite it being my birthplace, it has little significance to me, although I have visited there in the past because my mom still has a close friend living there. The town I live in now, Iowa City, is what I consider home as I spent many fond years here when younger and now have been living here since the mid-1990s. Iowa City had some of that small town feel back in the 1980s, not that it was actually all that small with the then population of 50,000. It’s losing that small town coziness as it has expanded, now with a population of about 75,000 (along with another 75,000 in the immediate surrounding area). Also, Iowa has nothing to do with my ancestry. There are no family graves to visit here, no family church to belong to, no local family history to recount, and certainly no blood relations beyond immediate family.

      Because of genealogy, I’ve been digging more into my family history. It is fascinating, but I didn’t know it was fascinating when I was younger. My parents never gave me much sense of the past, not that they were all that familiar with their own ancestry. I didn’t grow up with many family stories, although we did visit some ancestral places growing up and by ancestral I mean Southern Indiana, the land of the Hoosiers (once having been a term for ‘white trash’). I might note that I was the first generation (GenX) to grow up with video games, cable, computers, and such. But it wasn’t technology that disconnected me from my family’s past. My parents did that in seeking work far away from their own families. I’ve never lived in the same state as extended family, having lived in four states by the time I graduated from high school (because of my dad’s work). That is the nature of the modern economy.

      As urban concentration increases, often the only other choice for those who stay behind is poverty, unemployment, and welfare (with high rates of healthcare issues, addiction, etc). That could be a fair exchange if it meant keeping family close, but in many cases even family is abandoning family. Also, the heavy emphasis on nuclear family has eroded the once strong value of extended family and multigenerational households. For the ever more isolated people in small towns and rural areas, there is a loss of a sense of belonging to family and community along with sense of pride and purpose that goes with it.

      It’s understandable why many want to escape rural poverty or simply rural isolation and boredom. Many people I know in Iowa City grew up in rural areas and probably don’t plan on moving back. Besides, there has always been a rootlessness about American society, something noted by Tocqueville all the way back in the 1800s. Both sides of my family have been moving from place to place every generation or so and for many of my family lines this goes back to the colonial era. Quite a few of my ancestors were quick to head to the frontier and leave family behind. It was hard to do genealogy research because so much family memory was lost. My dad’s family apparently just didn’t talk about family history. His grandparents came from immigrant stock and yet no one talked about where the family came from. All ethnic culture and ancestral heritage simply disappeared in the American melting pot, apparently an act of intentional forgetting as part of the process of assimilation into American whiteness for there was nothing worse than being a hyphenated American. That is how I became an American mutt with few little sense of family identity and no deep roots. The place I now consider home has little to do with family, just an arbitrary place where my parents temporarily moved us to, a place I moved back to simply because my brothers had moved back before me.

      Part of the problem in many smaller towns is that like my family much of the population has already left and continues to leave, especially the younger generations. The majority of the US population was rural about a century ago (about when my family headed for the industrialized big cities) and so rural America has experienced a fairly quick decline with many towns simply disappearing. It’s because most of the jobs have gone elsewhere — after the mines closed, the farms were bought up by corporations, the factories were moved to industrial centers, etc. My dad grew up a small Midwestern town that was surrounded by farmland but it had a thriving downtown, a local town newspaper, a few churches, and many small factories. But now my dad’s childhood home is slowly dying and the only money left there is that of pensions from retired factory workers. Like most people, he left and raised his own family elsewhere. Even his parents left after divorce, one heading to the West Coast and the other to the East Coast.

      Only my uncle and his family stayed behind, but as a dentist he sacrificed a lot to remain in a declining economy. It’s been a sad experience, as the the family church that my grandfather was minister of recently closed down and he has come to feel like a stranger in his own town. My uncle once was looked up to with respect and some amount of authority as a community leader, but the town has lost hope and he is now seen as a meddler simply for caring about his community. It was a progressive-minded town back in the day that since then has taken on a dour reactionary mood. Though some of his kids are still in the area, only one stayed in that town and that kid isn’t doing economically well. There isn’t much sense of pride left in that small town. All the older generations have left is nostalgia and the remaining younger generations are left with little at all, not even a memory of it once having been a nice place. I suspect a lot of people have purposely forgotten the past because it is either too sad to remember it or too irrelevant to their present concerns. And for most who leave it all behind, the old connection to place is quickly lost and forgotten. What is there to pass on in dying small towns?

      I feel no loyalty to my dad’s childhood hometown or my mom’s childhood hometown for neither of those places were the childhood hometown of their parents. They also were arbitrary places they ended up in because of the family looking for work. It is sad. I’m not sure what to do about it. I was recently reading an article about European history. During the Black Death, some parts of Europe had a third of their villages disappear in a short period of time. The remaining villages continued to disappear as feudalism came to an end over the following centuries because there was a massive shift of the population from rural to urban. That is basically what has happened to the United States over this past century, though industrial centers were slower to replace agricultural communities here than in Europe. It’s amazing that small town America held on for as long as it did. Give it a few more generations and the memory of rural America will be so faded as to be something to read in history books. One small town my great grandfather was born in literally has become a historical village in a state park where people are paid to dress up like historical figures and reenact a traditional lifestyle. Pretty soon, that is what most of rural America will become, a museum of a lost way of life.

Please read Comment Policy before commenting.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s