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State Historical Society of Iowa Press Release

For immediate release March 13, 2009

Contact: Jeff Morgan, Jeff.Morgan@iowa.gov, (515) 281-3858

Landmark Civil Rights cases take center stage at Historical Museum

The Old Creamery Theatre presents “Inalienable Rights” March 27

(DES MOINES) – Three landmark Civil Rights court cases in Iowa will take center stage this month when The Old Creamery Theatre presents “Inalienable Rights” at the State Historical Museum.

“Inalienable Rights” will be at 7 p.m., Friday, March 27, 2009, at the State Historical Museum, 600 E. Locust Street in Des Moines. Tickets are $12 and RSVPs will be accepted through Friday, March 20, 2009, to Maureen Korte at maureen.korte@iowa.gov or 515-281-4132. A cheese and dessert reception will be offered at 6:30 p.m.

“We are very grateful to The Old Creamery Theater for bringing this theatrical production to the State Historical Museum,” said Cyndi Pederson, director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. “This production is the culmination of a three-year partnership between the museum and the legal community of Iowa to bring more attention to these landmark Civil Rights cases.”

Based on a play by Dr. Roxann Ryan and adapted by playwright Cynthia Mercati, “Inalienable Rights” tells the story of three landmark civil rights court cases in Iowa: Clark v. Board of Directors (1868); Coger v. NW Union Packet Co. (1873) and Griffin v. Katz Drug (1949) – and the actions that led to the suits.

In the play, The Old Creamery Theatre Company brings the past to life to teach about the injustice of segregation, Jim Crow laws, and how powerfully-minded women stood up for their rights. With research conducted by U.S. Magistrate Judge Celeste F. Bremer, “Inalienable Rights” revolves around the following three court cases:

Clark v. Board of Directors – 1868c
Almost 90 years before the U.S. Supreme Court declared that “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, the Iowa Supreme Court held that Iowa schools were open to all students in Clark v. Board of Directors. The family of a 12-year-old girl sued in order to gain access to the local public school; her grandfather was the first African American graduate of the University of Iowa College of Law. The Iowa Supreme Court held that: “...the Board cannot deny a youth admission to any particular public school because of nationality, religion, color, clothing or the like.”

Coger v. North West Union Packet Co. – 1873
“Unhand me!” A teacher from Keokuk was arrested when she tried to sit in the dining room on her trip from Keokuk to Illinois on a local steamship. Her ticket for passage did not include the privilege of eating with the other passengers. However, the Iowa Supreme Court held that African Americans could not be denied equal treatment in public accommodations, well before the 1896 U. S. Supreme Court held in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” was constitutional in train travel.

Griffin v. Katz Drug Store – 1949
In 1948, Edna Griffin and others were denied service at the Katz Drug store lunch counter; sit-ins demanded service for all patrons. Katz was convicted of charges of refusing to serve African American customers under Iowa Civil Rights statutes. Griffin filed a civil suit and won a verdict, which was upheld on appeal, as was Katz’s conviction. In 1949, he settled the civil suit and promised to end discriminatory practices. In 1960, America experienced lunch counter sit-ins in many cities. Griffin led a delegation of Iowans to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, DC, in 1963. That year she also helped organize the Des Moines Chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

After the performance, the audience will hear comments from:

  • Polk County District Judge Odell McGhee
  • U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pratt
  • Iowa Department of Public Safety Criminal Intelligence Analyst Roxann Ryan
  • Iowa Civil Rights Executive Director Ralph Rosenberg

“Inalienable Rights” is sponsored by:

  • League of Women Voters
  • Southern District of Iowa United States District Court
  • The Puckerbrush Potluck
  • Hy-Vee
  • UPS
  • Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield of Iowa
  • Iowa Arts Council
  • Metro Arts Education on Location
  • St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School
  • Popeyes (Drew McConnell)
  • Chrysalis Foundation
  • Thomas Phillips
  • Michael J. Wiskirchen
  • Patricia J. Martin, Martin Law Firm
  • Peddicord, Wharton, Spencer, Hook, Barron & Wegman LLP
  • Salvo, Deren, Schenck and Lauterbach, PC
  • Fiedler & Newkirk PLC
  • Witfield & Eddy PLC
  • Hansen, McClintock & Riley Attorneys at Law
  • J. Keith Rigg Attorney at Law
  • Dickinson, Mackaman, Tyler and Hagen PC
  • Iowa Organization of Women Attorneys
  • Polk County Women Attorneys
  • Polk County Attorney’s Office

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The State Historical Society of Iowa is a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, and is a trustee of Iowa's historical legacy and an advocate for understanding Iowa's past. It identifies, records, collects, preserves, manages and provides access to Iowa's historical resources. Its dual mission of preservation and education serves Iowans of all ages, conducts and stimulates research, disseminates information, and encourages and supports historical preservation and education efforts of others throughout the state. Visit www.iowahistory.org or call 515-281-5111 for more information.

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