Edna Griffin of Des Moines Took on Discrimination in the 1940s and won

Photos: University of Iowa Libraries Iowa Women’s Archives

The Edna Griffin Building in downtown Des Moines commemorates the Black woman who took a discrimination case to the Iowa Supreme Court and secured a significant victory under the then-hard-to-enforce 1884 Iowa Civil Rights Act.

It all started in July 1948 when Griffin, John Bibbs, and Leonard Hudson stopped at the Katz Drug Store in downtown Des Moines. The group ordered refreshments at the counter and was ultimately refused service because of their race.

In response, Griffin organized.

She and other members of the Progressive Party of Iowa picketed in front of the store every Saturday for two months. Griffin, along with Bibbs and Hudson, also filed charges against the store owner. They cited the 1884 Iowa Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination in a public place.

To this point, the drug store had racked up nearly 20 complaints–nine civil actions and 10 criminal. Criminal actions in 1943, 1944, and 1947 had all ended in acquittal or the charges being dropped.

But this time, the jury ruled in Griffin’s favor. Drug store owner Maurice Katz was fined $50. It didn’t end there, though, because Katz appealed the decision.

Griffin also filed a civil suit in the Polk County District Court for $10,000 in damages. Again, she won and the all-white jury awarded her $1.

The criminal case went all the way up to the Iowa Supreme Court, where the justices unanimously upheld the lower court’s decision in Griffin’s favor.

Before this, convictions under the 1884 Iowa Civil Rights Act were rare because of ineffective enforcement mechanisms.

As the case worked through the court system, the protests at the Katz store continued into late 1949. Eventually, they also staged “sit-downs,” where protestors sat at the counter and waited, however long it took, to get service. Griffin and others were refused service again in November 1949, and they brought more civil suits against Katz to force his hand.

This pressure campaign finally worked. On Dec. 2, 1949, just before the Supreme Court decision on Dec. 13, 1949, Katz gave in. Just like that, eight civil suits and six criminal charges were dismissed and a $1,000 settlement was distributed.

Historians say it was possible because the sustained effort drew enough attention to the case that it was unable to be ignored.

The former Katz building now houses a Kum & Go store, a physical therapy clinic, a photographer, and apartments. It is also called the Edna Griffin Building and is on the National Register of Historic Places.


by Nikoel Hytrek

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