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?