On his first day as a teacher in the Cedar Rapids School District, Nelson Evans stood with his back turned to the doorway writing his name on the chalkboard. As children started filing in, he heard whispering. “He’s black! He’s black,” jumped from child to child and on down the line as they filed into the room and to their desks.
“And I turned around to all these beautiful faces just a-beaming at me,” said Evans.
Evans, a 1964 graduate of Upper Iowa University, was the first African-American teacher hired in the Cedar Rapids district to teach in the district’s minority school. He was inducted into the Iowa African-American Hall of Fame in 1997.
To cap off the University’s month-long celebration of Black History Month, Evans spoke at a recent Emerging Leader at UIU event. Evans, a former UIU Peacock football player, is a native of Chicago, Ill., and chose Upper Iowa sight-unseen ̶ and did he experience a shock when he arrived on the bus to downtown Fayette!
“I stepped off the bus right there on Main Street, and I looked around,” he recalled. “Now, it was the 1960s and being from Chicago and being indoctrinated to white people the way I was, folks would pass me on the street and they would say, ‘May I help you?’ I would say right back, ‘No, you may not.’”
Before long, a station wagon pulled up, and from inside a woman called out to him, “Are you Nelson?”
It turned out she was assistant coach George Richards’ wife and she was sent to pick Evans up at the bus stop. She invited him to toss his suitcase in the back and said she would take him to campus. A mere block-and-a-half later, outside the former Maltbie-McCosh building, she announced, “We’re on campus.”
Evans was stunned. Before they parted, Mrs. Richards asked Evans what he was waiting for on Main Street. He replied sheepishly, “A cab.” That line became the running joke his first year at Upper Iowa. “The guys would say, ‘Hey Nelson, you waiting for a cab?’” laughed Evans.
After a light-hearted rendition of what brought him to UIU and his early days on campus, Evans got down to the heart of his speech: Black History Month. When he arrived on campus in 1960, he was one of only 10 African-Americans on campus. He said he continues to be proud of his alma mater for its commitment to great diversity.
Evans invited audience members to, at some point, view the documentary starring Bill Cosby called “Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed,” as it provides little-known facts regarding the history of African-Americans and their contributions to the history and prosperity of America. As inventors and contributors, African-Americans have led to developments such as refining sugar; as well as, inventions like the cotton gin, stop light, light bulb filament and automatic coupling of railcars, to name just a few.
“(African-Americans) have fought in every war this nation has been involved in for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” he said. “There is so much discrepancy between the perceptions of African-Americans and reality. I feel that we are living in both the best of times and the worst of times.
“You young people need to speak up. You need to support one another and build back our sense of community.”