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An African American Cemetery That Keeps Its Mysteries

South Jordan Cemetary
James C. Schaap
South Jordan Cemetary

There may come a time when someone's great-grandma discovers a dusty old day book some long-ago ancestor left behind, a broken mess of scribbled-in remnants of a story no one knows, the true story behind South Jordan Cemetery. South Jordan is a tiny graveyard just up the gravel from Moorhead, Iowa. Locals have, for years, claimed South Jordan to be the final resting place for a number of residents who happen to have been African American. That's right--a cemetery of Black folks tucked neatly into the otherwise lily-white Loess Hills of western Iowa.

It's hard to know who or how many good folks were laid to rest here. Most graves are unmarked, some 0f them victims of Siouxland seasons, or the brutal hijinks old things come victim to most anywhere in rural America. For a couple of generations, South Jordan has been a haven for six-packed hooligans, even though the place, nicely well-groomed, sits beneath a massive oak whose huge arms appear to protect what's left of what's still there.

There’s no end to the mysteries. For years, some locals liked to believe the people of color who once lived in the neighborhood were runaway slaves. Local historians long ago laid that story to rest. One of the octogenarians remembers her grandfather, a doctor, who claimed his Black patients were a freed people invited to the hills to work land owned by man named Adam Miers.

Adam Miers was a man of some standing. He signed up for military duty sometime during the Civil War, to be part of a local militia disciplined to quell what they called "Indian problems." Did he fight? Doubtful. What we know is that his name appears on the ledger, and that Black folks were his workers. Those facts no one disputes.

But no one knows exactly where Adam Miers came from to settle here. Could it be he'd moved north and west from beneath the Mason/Dixon and taken his slaves along to work his sizeable spread? Old-timers remembered seeing Black workers in adjacent fields, but in all likelihood, they weren’t slaves. In Iowa, slavery was illegal in 1848, the year of statehood, and, as Marilyn Robinson's Gilead makes clear, Iowa abolitionists played significant roles along the Underground Railroad.

Census data claims one black person lived in the entire county in 1860, but 88 were here in 1880. Something happened. Few records exist to tell those eighty-some stories, save what little can be gleaned from a few weathered stones.

Who were they, and who were their kin? No one knows. And where did they go?

Miers doesn't appear among those buried here, although at least one of his wives is--her stone is one of few still standing.

And we know too that sometime in the 19th century, an entire community of white people petitioned law enforcement to run those Black folks the heck out of the county. No reason is given, although it's not hard to imagine the argument's heft. We may not know much about them—the people in South Jordan, but we know they were Black, and we know that once upon a time they were not particularly welcome or wanted.

We don't know how they got here, or what they did or where they went. But most of whatever story they could tell, we don't know.

South Jordan Cemetery is neat as a pin these days, and on the National Register of Historical Places, but the residents of South Jordan aren't doing much talking.

What we do know is a word we hardly dare use. Those few residents of Monona County, Iowa, were Black, unlike most everyone else in the Loess Hills. No one likes to use the word, and I’d rather not bring it up, but it’s a word you can’t not consider. It’s hard to believe racism doesn’t play some role in the mysteries of South Jordan.

Years ago when I was at work for the Back to God Hour, I interviewed a recently retired African American couple from Albuquerque, long-time broadcast listeners. My regimen of questions began with an investigation of roots: “Tell me about your grandparents.”

The husband looked at me and grunted a chuckle. “I don’t know much,” he said, and then, “You know--slavery.”

No, I didn’t know much. No I didn’t.

No matter what Florida politicians say, February is Black History Month. We can always know more.

Mysteries still abound at South Jordan. But do keep rummaging for great-grandma’s day book because such things sometimes do show up.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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