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'Buxton' documentary details outlier town during segregation

Stephon Johnson | 4/12/2011, 4:47 p.m.

Public television's tribute to Black History Month will continue on Monday, Feb. 21 (10:30 p.m.) with "Searching for Buxton," a forgotten tale about a forgotten town in Iowa during the 1920s that displays racial harmony in an America where the term "racial harmony" didn't exist.

The 30-minute documentary, narrated by African-American opera singer Simon Estes, details a town where Black miners from the American South and recently emigrated European miners came together and were both paid equally for the same amount of work.

The documentary follows Jason Madison, who produced the film and whose great-grandfather was a miner in Buxton, as he searches for traces of the vanished town's history.

"A gentlemen I was talking to said, 'In Buxton, we had our own lawyers. We had our own doctors and dentists and teachers. And then we moved to Des Moines and stepped back a hundred years," said Dr. David Gradwohl, professor emeritus of anthropology at Iowa State University. Gradwohl said he was surprised that so much of Buxton history was wiped out when they started excavating the former town in the 1970s.

For Madison, he was lucky enough to have two living relatives who remembered Buxton's history, including his 95-year-old Aunt Katherine, who now resides in Sacramento. She spoke of meeting her father at the railroad when he came back from the coal mines. Her father was one of hundreds of African-American miners who made the trek from places like Charlottesville, Va., in search of economic opportunity.

According to old census statistics, you had blocks in Buxton that were predominantly Black, but the next block might be split down the middle between whites and Blacks. Most of the white workers were immigrants from Slovakia, Sweden or the British Isles.

Madison's grandmother spoke of being rocked to sleep by the German woman who lived next door. There were integrated neighborhoods and schools on top of integrated classrooms with Black teachers working with white children, which was unheard of in those days.

Buxton's end came abruptly when the coal mines started to dry up and folks had to move once again to find work. Without mining, Buxton couldn't exist and was abandoned. It was then that Black Buxton residents were subjected to the law of the land in the rest of America with racial slights, lower pay and menial jobs. From Madison to his Aunt Katherine to her nephew Jerry, they all related experiences of being slighted by whites and constantly having to prove themselves and their worth. It's a historical display of the overpowering effects of racism on each generation.

All of this makes Buxton's story even more surprising. With first-hand accounts and historical knowledge, "Searching for Buxton" is a remarkable outlier of American early 20th century life

"It was a place you wouldn't believe because it sounded like a fairyland," said Marjorie Brown, a former Buxton resident, back in 1980. Here's to hoping that the fairyland depicted in "Searching for Buxton" comes to fruition all over America. It's a must-watch for anyone, regardless of ethnic background, who wants to experience yet another piece of rich American history.