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As he turns 88, a Black barber from Davenport remembers his history, and fears for Black history in Iowa classrooms

<i>Quad-City Times</i><br/>As he turns 88
Quad-City Times
Quad-City Times
As he turns 88

By Tom Loewy

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    DAVENPORT, Iowa (Quad-City Times) — LySanias Broyles was 14 years old when he first made the journey from Kentucky to Iowa.

“I’ll never forget it,” Broyles said one day before his 88th birthday. “I came across Centennial Bridge with my cousin. We started to come down into Davenport off that bridge and I thought I finally found the land of the free and the home of the brave.

“It looked like a beautiful place. But I was going to learn some things.”

As his birthday drew near, Broyles looked back on his history. And he talked about Black History in a time when lawmakers across Iowa and throughout the country seek to remove uncomfortable subject matter from classrooms.

Born Feb. 24, 1934, in a place called Hickman, Ky., Broyles has a unique perspective. He experienced sharecropping, served in a still-segregated United States Navy during the Korean War, migrated north with the post-World War II economic boom and raised a family in a city that had unwritten — but strict — rules about where people of color could live and work.

Broyles moved to Davenport in the late 1950s and went on to serve the NAACP and the Davenport Civil Rights Commission. He worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help mitigate racial discrimination in workplaces all over the Quad-Cities.

Broyles made friends. And he willingly played the role of middle man — or, maybe, fixer — if it meant Black men and women got a fair shake at jobs and homes and raising families.

“You make it to 88 with the help of the man upstairs,” Broyles said. “I think you have to have some form of faith to make it very long. You need faith and your family and a few good friends.”

Broyles’ family lived in in Hickman, Ky., until he was 9. Some of the memories of that time are as clear as yesterday.

“My dad’s name was Gip and my mom was Dora and my sister, I called her Mags, but her full name was Magdalena,” Broyles explained. “My dad was a kind of sharecropper, and Mags and I picked cotton with him. It’s a hard memory. Mags was just 6 years old out there working.

“There were still big plantations. Maybe not as big as the ones in Alabama or Mississippi, but they were the old plantations with plantation owners. And the owners figured out that if they had housing and a store, they could keep their workers forever working for them. They’d pay people just enough to extend the worker’s credit for housing and credit at the store.”

Broyles said his father saw the futility of a life indebted to a landowner. He moved his family to Paducah, Ky., and worked with the railroad. He also found work as a handyman to supplement his income.

Broyles started visiting relatives in Davenport at the age of 14 because his father wanted him to see more of the world. What Broyles saw in 1948 shocked him.

“I told you Davenport looked beautiful to a kid like me,” Broyles said. “This must be the America of the anthem. I got my eyes opened.

“My aunt was living in a six-room apartment with five other families. My aunt and my cousin lived in one room. She ran a line across the room and had a big curtain between her and us. That’s how they lived.”

Broyles explained that there was little, if any, housing for Black people in Davenport.

“It was crazy,” Broyles said. “Black people were making good money in this town. There were good jobs. But there weren’t any homes for Black people to buy. And there weren’t many landlords who would rent to Black families.

“I remember, the guys with money, they bought big cars. That was something you could buy, a big car.”

Broyles wanted to quit school in Paducah and work at the Rock Island Arsenal when he turned 18. Gip had other plans. He made his son finish high school, citing the importance of formal, structured education.

Drafted in 1952, Broyles made two decisions before he formally joined the Navy. He attended barber school from 1953 to 1954, and he married his high school sweetheart, Connie.

By 1958 the couple had a daughter, Sandra Johnson, and a son, Dawayne.

“You got a year between being drafted and starting your service,” Broyles explained. “You had to get some kind of education or training. So in 1953 until 1954, I went for my barber’s license because it was the cheapest — $10.”

Broyles went on to maintain a barbershop in Davenport until 2004.

“It really — especially in the beginning — never could be a full-thing,” Broyles said. “There just weren’t enough Black people in Davenport back in the 1960s. You had to have another job.”

Broyles worked at the Arsenal for decades — but almost wasn’t hired.

“There was a lot of what I call ‘quiet racism’ back then — at the Arsenal, too,” Broyles said. “But I kept going back and finally, I wrote a letter. I’ll never forget his name — Col. C.J. Williams. Col. Williams stood up for me and hired me.”

Broyles dedicated himself to learning and advancing. There were foremen who refused to work with him. But the man who started as a mechanic rose through the ranks to work with Army Management Material Readiness Command.

Perhaps Williams showed Broyles the need for underrepresented people to have at least one voice speaking for them. Maybe Broyles always looked for ways to help others.

“When I was 12 I started helping people get their birth certificates. Honestly. People may not realize this, but a lot of Black people — especially those in the rural south — were never issued birth certificates,” Broyles said.

“I started helping people with that. I’ve done that my entire life. I did it out of my barbershop. People need help. You can’t even start without proof that you were born.”

Broyles passed on his determination to help others. His children drew upon his strength and willingness to speak out. Sandra Johnson said she learned a no-fear ethos from her dad.

“I was an afro-wearing activist with my fist in the air,” she said. “I didn’t apologize for it then, and I don’t today.”

Dawayne Broyles grew up quieter. He said his father showed him the importance of telling the truth.

“Truth puts you in the majority,” he said. “That’s what I carry with me today. My dad showed me that it doesn’t matter how many people are lined up against you, if you have the truth you are the majority.”

Broyles said it’s important for his children — and all the children of the Civil Rights era — to remember history. Increasingly, he said, they are the ones who will have to pass it on.

“We ask ourselves if things are better today,” Broyles said. “And then you look at Iowa and what they are doing in the school systems — the Critical Race Theory stuff.

“What some people are doing is trying to do away with history. They are taking out all the parts of history that make them uncomfortable. Can I be blunt? Don’t tell me white men didn’t do the things to Black men like slavery and sharecropping and chain gangs and redlining.

“And let’s be honest — a lot of people got generational wealth off the backs of Black people. That’s history. That’s the truth. So I’m concerned about our classrooms. Education was everything to me. Because my father never had any, and he knew his son had to be educated. Are we not going to teach the parts of Black history that people don’t care to remember?”

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