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NOTEBOOK: A look back to 1998: Renaming downtown building after civil rights activist Edna Griffin


For a recent cover story in the Business Record, Kathy Bolten told the story of the Edna Griffin Building named after Edna Mae Griffin, who took a stand against injustice and was widely recognized for civil rights advocacy in Des Moines.

“I was shocked that people weren’t upset by it,” Griffin said of discrimination, according to the nominating document to get the building on the National Register of Historic Places. “The attitude was that nothing could be done. That’s what set me on fire.”

On July 7, 1948, Griffin and her party were denied service due to their race at the Katz Drug Store lunch counter then located on the first floor of the building. The refusal to serve Griffin and her friends occurred even though Iowa had laws banning racial discrimination and segregation.

Subsequently, Katz was picketed and sit-ins occurred around its perimeter. Handbills were distributed urging people to boycott the store. A lawsuit filed against Katz wound up in the Iowa Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Griffin and forced the desegregation of Katz Drug Store.

In July, the Iowa Architectural Foundation in collaboration with Pyramid Theatre, the State Historical Society of Iowa and Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs hosted a virtual event to tell Griffin’s story, give a tour of the building and highlight local artists of color. Additionally, her son Stanley Griffin, and his two sisters, Phyllis and Linda, gave personal recollections. https://bit.ly/2XCbfU1 

While collaborations and celebration of the building’s historical significance have been in the works for some time, they were made more timely with nationwide conversations about racial inequity and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Buildings across the country are being renamed to honor civil rights icons or strip away names of those protesters have deemed racist. Look no further than the names of buildings at Iowa State University where a decades-long debate over the name of Catt Hall is continuing, a plaque on campus for a zoologist who once put a Black man on display in a zoo’s Monkey House is coming under fire and Jack Trice Stadium is receiving national recognition for being the only major college football stadium named after a Black man.

It probably isn’t a surprise then that the Edna Griffin Building was not immediately named after the civil rights icon. Claudia Cackler, the executive director of the Iowa Architectural Foundation, recently shared with me some other interesting stories about the building. Des Moines attorney Roxanne Conlin, the previous owner of the Flynn Building, was responsible for renaming it in honor of Griffin. The dedication was held in August of 1998, the 50th Anniversary of Mrs. Griffin’s desegregation efforts, at a time when her story was not so well known.  

Conlin has long taken on civil rights cases, and is currently representing plaintiffs in a racial discrimination case against Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Cackler said a new video interview with Conlin, produced by RDG, will be up this week on IAF’s Youtube once it’s completed. 

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