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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Iowa: A slave named Ralph and gay marriage

Read an article in the Chicago Tribune this morning that piqued my curiosity.


Gay marriage: Much-maligned Midwest surprisingly surprising Iowa has a history of progressive politics, some say, especially when it comes to equality

I give Kudos to Iowa for legalizing gay marriage, but realized that I was totally unaware of Iowa’s legal track record.  

The article taught me a history lesson, and smacked me in my East Coast chauvanist face.

The opening salvo:

Once again, a humble Midwestern state is being laughed at by cosmopolitan snoots on the East and West Coasts. The victim this time, of course, is Iowa, which recently had the gall to legalize gay marriage and attempt to mess up decades of perfectly good Midwestern stereotyping.

People on the coasts gasped: “Iowa? Isn’t that where they grow the corn our personal chefs turn into polenta?” Jon Stewart piled on, showing a picture of a lone farm tractor pulling a trailer and claiming it was a shot of Iowa’s most recent gay pride parade. Among gay marriage advocates, the mantra soon became, “If they can do it in Iowa, they can do it anywhere.”

Comments made by an historian, Linda Kerber quoted in the article sent me digging for more.

•The state did away with racial barriers to marriage in 1851-more than 100 years before the U.S. Supreme Court would ban miscegenation statutes nationwide.

•In 1868, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools are a denial of equal protection of the laws. Brown vs. Board of Education, which did away with school segregation nationally, didn’t come down until 1954.

•And in 1873, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled against racial discrimination in public accommodations. It would be almost 100 years before the U.S. Supreme Court would reach the same decision.

The lifting of barriers against inter-racial marriage interested me personally since my own white grandmother had to leave Kansas (another pillar of the midwest) to marry my black grandfather in the early 1900’s.

Wiki had a succinct summary of Iowa’s judicial history of Civil Rights decisions

In the very first decision of the Iowa Supreme Court (my bold)- In Re the Matter of Ralph, decided July 1839 – the Court rejected slavery in a decision that found that a slave named Ralph became free when he stepped on Iowa soil, 26 years before the end of the Civil War.

In 1868, the Iowa Supreme Court decided Clark v. The Board of Directors[49], ruling that racially segregated “separate but equal” schools had no place in Iowa, 85 years before the U.S. Supreme Court reached the same decision.

The Court heard Coger v. The North Western Union Packet Co.[50] in 1873, ruling against racial discrimination in public accommodations 91 years before the U.S. Supreme Court reached the same decision.[48]

In 1869, Iowa became the first state in the union to admit women to the practice of law, with the Court ruling that women may not be denied the right to practice law in Iowa and admitting Arabella A. Mansfield to the practice of law.

On April 3, 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court decided Varnum v. Brien[51], holding in a unanimous decision[52], that the state’s law forbidding same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. This made Iowa the third state in the U.S. to permit same-sex marriage.

So who was this “slave named Ralph”?

A page on Iowa Public television’s website gave me an answer.

Ralph Montgomery

In the early 1830s a man named Ralph Montgomery heard that a fortune could be made at the Dubuque, Iowa lead mines. But Ralph Montgomery was a slave. He was not allowed to leave the slave state of Missouri to travel to free territory unless his owner, Jordan Montgomery, went with him. In the spring of 1834 Jordan wrote an agreement giving Ralph permission to travel to Dubuque. Ralph promised to pay Jordan $550 plus interest in return for his freedom.


Ralph worked in the lead mines for four years but never made enough money to buy his freedom. Two slave-catchers offered to return Ralph to Jordan for $100. They captured and handcuffed Ralph and prepared to send him back to Missouri on a Mississippi riverboat. Fortunately for Ralph, Alexander Butterworth, a concerned eyewitness, saw Ralph’s capture. With the aid of Judge T.S. Wilson and a court order, he rescued Ralph from his captors just in time.

First Supreme Court Case

Ralph’s freedom rested in the hands of the newly established Iowa Supreme Court and Judge Wilson, one of Iowa’s first judges. The court had to decide whether or not Ralph was a fugitive slave. The case, called “In the Matter of Ralph (a colored man),” made history as the first decision of the Iowa Supreme Court. On Independence Day 1839 Ralph was declared a free man.

About a year after the hearing, the same judge saw Ralph again, working in the garden behind the judge’s house. He asked Ralph what he was doing.

“I ain’t paying you for what you done for me. But I want to work for you one day every spring to show you that I never forget,” Ralph replied. Ralph was true to his word.

I have only been to Iowa once; to visit Iowa PBS when I was employed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) back in the 70’s. I have no memories of that visit.  

I did begin to pay attention to the state, years later, when Iowa caucuses selected Barack Obama as the winner:

Barack Obama Iowa Caucus Victory Speech

I will forever more link Iowa in my minds eye now, with a vision, not of corn, but of Ralph, and hopefully of snapshots of gay couples tying the knot under cloudless midwestern skies.

I tip my hat to you Iowa.  

(cross-posted at Daily Kos)



  1. anna shane

    we can’t count on the majority, but we’re supposed to be able to count on law.  Isn’t always the case, in Iowa in these cases it happens to be.

  2. If it isn’t overly stereotyping to put a simple explanation on it, it could have something to do with the pragmatic reason of those who work the lad.  These are all flatly logical conclusions, which the rest of us (finally) take for granted.

  3. sricki

    I’ve not spent much time in the midwest in general, but I spent a fair piece of time in Iowa staying with friends. I’m very fond of Iowa City and have stayed there for weeks on end on several occasions. It always struck me as sort of… charming, somehow. As such, I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for all the info, Denise. Two thumbs up for Iowa.

  4. jonlester

    For all the good it did when I was at RedState, my consistent position has been that I’ll gladly accept gay marriage if we can also have no-fault divorce for everyone. I once served on a jury for a contested divorce trial and, OMFG, I never want to relive that experience again, let alone increase the chances.

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