Couple Honored for Housing Black Iowa State Students in the Mid-1900s
If Archie and Nancy Martin were alive to see the expansive new residence hall named in their honor, there’s little doubt they would be awestruck.
Last month, the board of regents, State of Iowa, approved the renaming of one of the university’s dormitories to “Archie and Nancy Martin Hall.” Iowa State’s newest residence hall, which opened in August, features two-bedroom suites with double sinks and private baths. The first floor houses an Honors Program learning community. On the fourth floor, there are spacious, four- and six-person loft rooms. Laundry facilities are available on every floor. And a kitchen and three meeting spaces are located in each of seven “houses” in the building.
When Archie and Nancy arrived in Ames from Georgia in 1913, they discovered that it was difficult for Black students at then-Iowa State College to find housing. Nearly 20 years had passed since Dr. George Washington Carver, Iowa State’s first African American student, had finished his bachelor’s degree, started graduate school and had been appointed to the faculty. Black students could attend Iowa State, unlike other institutions that wouldn’t even allow them to register. But they couldn’t live on campus, and they struggled to find places to live in town.
Part of that had to do with an unofficial policy that students of color had to room with other students of color — a difficult rule, considering it wasn’t until 1904 that a second Black student graduated from Iowa State. And it would be 1914 before the third Black student would graduate, according to noted historian Farwell T. Brown’s book, Ames, the Early Years in Word and Picture: From Marsh to Modern City.
In a 1910 letter, Iowa State President Albert Storms wrote in response to a colleague, “Negro students are entirely welcome at this institution; they have no discourtesy whatever shown them by fellow students or others. It is not always easy for a Negro student to find rooming and boarding accommodations except where there are enough to room and board together, as is the case with Filipinos and other nationalities.”
The Martins saw the problem and in short order, did something about it.
Around 1919, Archie Martin and some of his sons built a house at 218 Lincoln Way. They opened the second floor, which had three bedrooms and a bath, as a rooming house for Black students. History is unclear as to how many young men the Martins took in over the years. Some accounts indicate approximately 20 students total stayed with the Martins, although one student resident, Herbert DeCosta Jr., recalled at least 10 fellow Black students at the Martin home during the 1940-1941 academic year alone.
One thing is certain: The Martins housed and mentored students who went on to do great things.
Many received advanced degrees. Some became professors and engineers. One, James Bowman, went on to serve with the Tuskegee Airmen and became a Des Moines school administrator. Another, Dr. Samuel Massie, worked on the Manhattan Project during his stay at the Martins and earned his doctorate in organic chemistry from Iowa State in 1946. Massie became the first Black professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, and was awarded the NAACP Freedom Fund Award and a White House Initiative Lifetime Achievement Award. And when Chemical and Engineering News compiled a list of the world’s 75 most distinguished chemists, Massie was included.
Archie retired from the Chicago and Northwestern Railway Co. in 1932, and died in 1960 at the age of 102. Nancy, who had been a homemaker, a hired cook and mother to 13 children, was just days from her 92nd birthday when she died in 1947.
Archie and Nancy Martin Hall will be officially dedicated in November.
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