Quentin Hart stood on the Fourth Street Bridge and gazed down at the Cedar River that swirled beneath him and flowed south on its way to the Delta. This is where he lingered the night of Dec. 1 when he got the phone call from his campaign manager telling him that he had won the run-off election to become his hometown’s first African-American mayor. He wanted to be in the middle of the bridge — a deeply symbolic spot in this city, as if suspended between two worlds — when he first heard the election results. He had kept this same vigil on at least three previous election nights. Fifty years after the Voting Rights Act and seven years after President Barack Obama won the White House, it may strike some as overblown to note how a Midwestern city of fewer than 70,000 residents, like many others before it, finally reflects modern demographics in its top job and has shed old prejudice at the ballot box.
But election of its first black mayor bears special meaning in a city that arguably more than any other in Iowa, has been bitterly divided by race. As a proud member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Hart, 44, aims to transcend Waterloo’s historical boundaries and unify his city, which in recent years also has seen a growing number of Latino, Burmese and Bosnian residents. Hart takes over the mayor’s office at a time when our national debate on race has gotten hotter. The last two years of headlines about black Americans killed by police and other racially charged flash points — from the Ferguson, Mo., riots to the University of Missouri student protests — has intensified these issues for all public officials. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, so far has weathered calls for his resignation based on his initial response to the police shooting of a 17-year-old, knife-wielding suspect that was caught on video.
Waterloo is our state’s most concentrated black community: 15.6 percent of the city is black, compared with 3.3 percent of Iowa and 13.2 percent of the nation.
The Cedar River has sliced Waterloo into west and east, white and black, haves and have-nots, ever since the first waves of African-Americans were lured here from the South in the early 20th century. They came as strike-breaking railroad workers and clustered on the northeast side.
The city’s rich diversity today “is something to brag about,” Hart said. “That is something to build on. That is something that offers our young people … a different experience than they can possibly get anywhere else. So that’s something that we need to embrace.”