As late as the 1960s, traveling across the United States was a dangerous experience for most African-Americans. With most hotels denying black patrons, it was not uncommon for black churches to enlist the support of their congregation and allow travelers to stay in parishioners' homes.
All that changed in part because of an African-American businessman from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, named Cecil Reed. When he was denied lodging by white innkeepers during a trip out west in the 1940s, Reed realized that something had to be done.
“This is our country and we’re going to go see it,” Reed was known to have said. In 1953, that sentiment led him to open the Sepia Motel, in Cedar Rapids, a place welcoming of all races and religions – not just African-Americans. It was one of the first such hotel/motels of its kind in the United States that was owned and operated by a black American. It was in operation until 1964, when Reed’s pioneer spirit led to a growing acceptance of African American lodgers in hotels across the country.
Reed grew up at a time when opportunities for African-Americans were limited. Despite such obstacles, he managed to persevere and succeed in a predominantly white world.
Born in Collinsville, Illinois, in 1912, Reed and his family moved to Cedar Rapids when he was 10 years old. For the first time, Reed saw black entrepreneurs running businesses, which had an indelible impact. As a teenager and a young man, Reed worked a variety of odd jobs from waiter and short-order cook, to tap dancer, singer and carpenter. As an adult, he started several small businesses – including a very lucrative floor maintenance company – eventually gaining acceptance by the local white community through hard work and sheer determination.
As a black businessman living and working among whites, Reed spent the 1950s and 1960s working peacefully, but tirelessly, for equality and it paid off. At a time when black Americans were trying to gain full acceptance, Reed quietly demonstrated that the color of a person's skin has nothing to do with his or her leadership abilities.
He was so well thought of in the community that he became the first African-American and the only black Republican elected to the Iowa House of Representatives. While in the legislator, Reed concerned himself with a number of educational and social agendas. He was responsible for making black history part of the Iowa public school experience, and Reed developed the curriculum for a course called "History of Black America."
In 1968, he became the chairman of the Iowa division of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and he established the Northern Brotherhood Leadership Conference. In 1993, the University of Iowa Press published his autobiography, Fly in the Buttermilk, a touching example of triumph in the face of adversity.
In an act befitting his decades-long involvement in civil rights, Reed received the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award from the local branch of the NAACP, in 2002. That same year, he was named a Freedom Festival Hero. But he will always be remembered for being one of the first to provide a welcome respite for hundreds of thousands of black American travelers.