Iowa History Daily: Edna Griffin Takes a Stand

Iowa History Daily: On July 7, 1948, at roughly 3:45 p.m., Edna Griffin entered the Katz Drug Store in downtown Des Moines. The manager of the popular lunch counter said: “It is the policy of our store that we don’t serve colored people.” In response, sit-ins and pickets popped up at several local lunch counters with discriminatory policies, and the state ultimately upheld the conviction of the manager for violating a statute prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky, during 1909, Griffin moved around as a child first to New Hampshire and Massachusetts, before attending Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Granted a degree in English in 1933, Griffin moved to Des Moines with her husband Stanley in the 1940s. A teacher by trade and a member of the Women’s Army Corps at Fort Des Moines during World War II, Griffin also cared for three children while Stanley attended the Still College of Osteopathy and Surgery.

An active participant in the Des Moines community, Griffin joined the Iowa Progressive Party and supported Iowan Henry Wallace in his 1948 bid for President of the United States. Also during 1948, the fateful day at Katz Drug occurred. Entering the store with her infant daughter, as well as two other men, a waitress initially took the group’s order for ice cream before returning to inform the group her manager had instructed not to serve the group.

After the manger further explained the discriminatory policy, Griffin launched a campaign against the store. Leading sit-ins, hosting boycotts, and vocalizing at pickets weren’t the only tools used by Griffin against Katz. Working with the NAACP she successfully petitioned the Polk County Attorney’s Office to prosecute manager Maurice Katz under the 1884 Iowa Civil Rights Act which prohibits discrimination in public accommodations.

An all-white jury found Katz guilty, and a fine of $50 led the manager to appeal. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in “State of Iowa v. Katz” in 1949 to uphold the conviction. In the aftermath, another all-white jury awarded Griffin $1 in damages. Setting the standard, “State of Iowa v. Katz” built on the 1884 Civil Rights Act to ensure no one in Iowa can deny services based on race.

Following the legal battle, Griffin continued to work tirelessly on issues like discrimination in employment and housing, racial profiling of African-American men, and founded a chapter of the Congress for Racial Equality. An accomplished writer with many bylines in the nation’s longest running African-American newspaper the “Iowa Bystander,” Griffin is often portrayed at the “Rosa Parks of Iowa.”#IowaHistoryDaily #IowaOTD #IowaHistoryCalendar


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