Buxton: Iowa’s Lost Black Utopia
In 1900, something special began to grow in southeastern Iowa and became a haven for black Americans.
For 27 years, Buxton, Iowa served as a racial utopia where segregation was not officially or socially enforced. Black citizens had the same opportunities and status as white residents, and a real community developed.
Black doctors treated black and white patients. Black businesses were plentiful, schools were integrated, and interracial marriage was accepted.
The story began, as many did in the late 1800s, with miners, strikes and organizing efforts.
Miners across the country demanded better wages and benefits, which also affected mines in Iowa. Consolidation Coal Co. and Chicago & North Western Transportation Co. handled the situation as many companies have: recruiters traveled to Virginia and recruited black miners to break strikes.
But unlike other places, the strikebreakers’ presence in Muchakinock – Buxton’s smaller forerunner – did not incite violence, nor inspire more strikes. In fact, the company continued to recruit black miners for work. To the point that finally the majority of the population of the city—66%— was black.
Like most mining towns, Muchakinock closed because the mines were producing less. Benjamin Buxton was given the reins to establish another town when he was appointed Superintendent of Consolidation Coal Co. Buxton was determined to make it different from any other mining town.
He was involved in development, invested significant resources in the community and actively encouraged integration. Like many men in his position, Buxton subscribed to a philosophy known as social capitalism, in which the company provided all the necessities and comforts of life to keep the workforce happy and prevent the strikes.
Buxton had schools, housing the business maintained, several shops—not just the company store—several churches, a YMCA, and town favorites such as the Buxton Cornet Band and the Buxton Wonders baseball team, both all-black. The latter two even had company support in the form of sometimes having their uniforms paid for.
For celebrations, fairs and events such as Emancipation Day, mines and most businesses were closed for people to attend. The Buxton family were so supportive that they provided food and refreshments for these celebrations.
Black residents of Buxton had various professional and authority roles, including lawyers, doctors, teachers, barbers, a tailor, landlords, and contractors, among others. Some of the businesses included hotels, grocery stores, restaurants, bakery, pharmacies, and newspapers, among others.
Any segregation that occurred was by choice. For example, Swedish immigrants largely lived in suburbs populated primarily by other Swedes, and some churches were attended by only one race.
But non-segregation was not a tenet of social capitalism, so why did Buxton have and enforce policies that promoted equality? It made economic sense to be tolerant because of the predominantly black workforce, but the level of equal opportunity support was unique to Buxton.
In “Creating the Black Utopia of Buxton, Iowa,” author Rachelle Chase—also a former start line reporter—says it probably depends on the men in charge. However, there is no way to confirm this as no documents have been found to explain why they ran Buxton the way they did.
For the Buxtons, there was a family background tied to the Union Army during the Civil War. The McNeills, who founded Buxton’s antecedent, Muchakinock, came from an anti-slavery family.
With these bones in place, each new architect, from the McNeills to Ben Buxton, built on their previous successes.
However, Buxton’s fate followed the same path as Muchakinock. Mines were closed as they dried up, so workers left to seek work elsewhere. The mining company moved to other cities as it had done before. Ben Buxton returned to his Vermont home and family farm in 1915.
Some residents moved to the new settlements – Consul, Bucknell and Haydock – but fewer social opportunities and the dwindling original population meant the energy had faded. In 1919, around 400 people lived in Buxton. It was essentially a ghost town in 1922.
Haydock was created similarly to Buxton with integration, but by 1924 Consolidation Coal Co. was no more. Additionally, demand for coal from Iowa was down. In 1927 a national strike took place and even the Haydock miners took part.
Nothing ever quite recovered after that, and Haydock’s fate was also sealed.
Now all that is physically left of Buxton are ruins in an open field.
But it lives on in articles and books, including Chase’s “Creating the Black Utopia of Buxton, Iowa” and his first book, “Lost Buxton.” Also through stories told by former residents.
The townsite of Buxton is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Monroe County Historical Society and the Iowa State Historical Society, as well as museums such as the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids, have also kept Buxton alive by preserving artifacts and the remains of the city.
The original site is on private land, but owner Jim Keegel took it out of agriculture and placed it in the conservation reserve program. Visitors can arrange tours through the Monroe County Historical Society.
The interviews with the original residents of Buxton were digitized by the State Historical Society of Iowa—at Chase’s request—and the historical society owns them, along with transcripts and photographs.
Further information on Buxton, as well as efforts to honor his memory, can be found at www.LostBuxton.com
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