Five Black University of Iowa Alumni Who Broke Racial Barriers

By Katie Linder
These Black University of Iowa graduates became the first to reach important milestones in athletics, arts, and academics—and paved the way for others to follow.

The University of Iowa has a history of being at the forefront of racial and gender equity. It was the first state university to admit men and women on an equal basis, and among the first to award a law degree to a Black student and to play a Black student-athlete at the collegiate level. While Iowa has celebrated many firsts when it comes to campus inclusivity, it continues to work to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts today.

February is Black History Month and an opportunity to spotlight several Black alumni and the impact they made at the University of Iowa and beyond.


Five Black University of Iowa Trailblazers

Alexander Clark Jr. (1879)

Alexander Clark Jr. graduated from the University of Iowa in 1879 and was the first Black student to earn a law degree from Iowa. Clark. is also believed to be one of the first— if not the first— African American in the nation to receive a law degree. His father, Alexander Clark Sr., graduated from Iowa Law in 1884 at 57 years old and later served as U.S. Ambassador to Liberia.

Frank "Kinney" Holbrook (1895)

Frank "Kinney" Holbrook was the University of Iowa's first Black football player and one of the first student-athletes to break the color barrier in the country. In 1895, doing so was nothing short of a daunting and dangerous step, taken with great courage and grace. Efforts are in the works to ensure his memory. Holbrook will be on the UI Athletics Hall of Fame ballot in 2021.

Frank 'Kinney' Holbrook (first row, far right) is the University of Iowa's first Black football student-athlete. Frank "Kinney" Holbrook (first row, far right) is the University of Iowa's first Black football student-athlete.

Frederick W. "Duke" Slater (1928)

Duke Slater was the first Black first-team All-American Iowa football player. Duke Slater was the first Black first-team All-American Iowa football player.

Frederick W. "Duke" Slater was the first Black football player at Iowa to be named a first-team All-American. He was an integral part of one of the best teams in Hawkeye history and received this accolade following an impressive 7-0 season. Slater went on to play professional football and during his offseason studied law at Iowa. He graduated from Iowa with a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1928 and would eventually become the first Black judge to serve on the Superior Court of Chicago in 1960. The UI's Slater Residence Hall was named in his honor in 1972, and a sculpture was installed at Kinnick Stadium in 2019 to further preserve his legacy.

Elizabeth Catlett (1940)

Elizabeth Catlett was the first African American woman to earn an MFA at Iowa. Credit: Iowa Women's Archives, Shirley Briggs Papers Elizabeth Catlett was the first African American woman to earn an MFA at Iowa. Credit: Iowa Women's Archives, Shirley Briggs Papers

Elizabeth Catlett was the first Black woman to earn a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree at the University of Iowa. She worked under world-renowned artist Grant Wood and received an MFA from the UI School of Art and Art History in 1940. She was an accomplished artist, educator, and civil rights activist. Catlett received the UI Distinguished Alumni Award for Achievement in 1996 and was named a UI Alumni Fellow in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2006. Catlett Residence Hall was named in her honor in 2017.

Jewel Limar Prestage (1954)

Dr. Jewel Limar Prestage earned a PhD from the University of Iowa in political science in 1954—and was the first Black woman to do so at an American university. Dr. Prestage had an impressive career as a political science professor, consultant, and published author. She received a UI Distinguished Alumni Award for Achievement in 1986.

A newspaper clipping from the Iowa City Press Citizen features a celebration at the University of Iowa to honor Dr. Prestage. Credit: University of Iowa Libraries A newspaper clipping from the Iowa City Press Citizen features a celebration at the University of Iowa to honor Dr. Prestage. Credit: University of Iowa Libraries
Iowa Magazine
Explore the Winter 2020 edition of the Iowa Magazine.

We use cookies to understand how you use our site and to improve your experience. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies in accordance with our Privacy Statement unless you have disabled them in your browser.