Archie and Nancy Martin Family

Archie and Nancy Martin, progenitors of the earliest African-American family in Ames, were humble, caring people of faith who housed and mentored black students attending Iowa State College during a period of restrictive on-campus housing for blacks in the 1930s and 1940s.  Born into slavery in the South, the couple and their six adult children eventually migrated north beginning in 1913.  Archie and Nancy, both largely uneducated, would be astonished today were they to learn of their substantial legacy in Ames and at Iowa State University: sculptured tiles and painted portrait; named dormitory, foundation, award and scholarship; house registered as a local historic landmark; chapters in local historical publications; website and museum exhibit; and several generations of students and family members with distinguished careers.

Archie Addison Martin (1857-1960), born in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Nancy Angeline Chandler Martin (1856-1947), born in Newman, Georgia had been living in Austell, Georgia by the early 1900s.  Family tradition relates that Nancy’s mouth-watering cooking at a local restaurant was praised by the Ames husband and wife medical duo, Dr. David and Dr. Jennie Ghrist, who were touring the South.  With some urging, the Martins were convinced to re-locate to Ames, Iowa.  Here, Nancy became a cook for the Ghrists and a fraternity house on the college campus, and Archie found work with the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad as an assistant to the yard master.  The couple’s six children included: Julia Mary, Archie Jr., Nellie Elmira, Paul E., Robert W. and Alphonso Martin.  Archie lived to the age of 102, at which time his descendants included, beyond the immediate family, 32 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.  From Nancy’s first marriage to Walter Simmons, children included: Hattie, Richard, Luther and Ernest.

Campus Housing Policy

Since its founding as a land-grant institution in 1858, then-Iowa State College welcomed students of color, unlike other contemporary American colleges where black students were not even allowed to register.  Filipino students attended ISC in the 1890s and the first black student, George Washington Carver, graduated in 1896.  After Carver, it would be eight years before a second African American would graduate from Iowa State, and then ten more years before a third.  Until the late 1940s, unofficial campus residence policy stipulated restrictions for students of color.  ISC President Albert B. Storms, in 1910, replied to an inquiry from the distinguished writer and president of Atlanta University, W.E.B. DuBois, stating, “Negro students are entirely welcome at this institution; they have no discourtesy whatever shown them by fellow students or others.”  He continued, “It is not always easy for a Negro student to find rooming and boarding accommodations except where there are enough to room and board together …”  This effectively meant that black students, being few in number, had to find accommodations off-campus.  This strange dichotomy continued to be the case for many years after President Storms had written his letter to Dr. DuBois.

Archie as Supporter and Mentor

Always supportive of education as a means of getting ahead in life, Archie expressed concern when learning about this restrictive college housing policy.  He became a proponent of equal treatment of black students regarding campus room and board.  Family tradition holds that Archie went several times to discuss the matter with Raymond A. Pearson, president of Iowa State College from 1912-1926.  From these efforts, black students finally began to find it easier to live on the campus.

Martin House

Archie and three of his sons built a house for the family at 218 Lincoln Way around 1919.  The house is an important example of Craftsman Style bungalow residential architecture.  Its broad front porch and large pillars produce an inviting entrance.  The main floor dining room features a built-in oak buffet and colonnade bookcases.  The spacious second floor accommodates three pleasant bedrooms well-lit by natural sunlight.  Lincoln Way was once lined with residential homes interrupted by a few scattered gas stations at intersections.  Now, the Martin house is one of only a few remaining homes along the downtown section of Lincoln Way.  Its location is an essential aspect of its local historic landmark status.

Distinguished Students

For a number of years, the upper floor served as a rooming house for black students.  Perhaps 20-some students lived and dined with the Martins at one time or another.  The couple was committed to education as a means of advancement, and maintained a studious atmosphere in their home.  Quoting granddaughter Pauline Martin, “Nancy wouldn’t put up with any nonsense.”  Many students earned advanced degrees and went on to make major contributions to society.  James Bowman served with the Tuskegee Airmen and became a Des Moines school administrator.  Samuel Massie worked on the Manhattan Project and later became the first black professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.  Massie’s name was included in the list of 75 most distinguished chemists compiled by Chemical and Engineering News.

As a footnote to the Archie and Nancy Martin story it is interesting to recall that a daughter, Nellie Elmira, and her husband John Shipp, housed female black students in their home nearby at 118 Sherman Avenue during this same time period.  John and Nellie’s daughter, Mildred, married a student who stayed at the Martin home, Hubert Crouch, who became the first African American awarded a doctorate in biological sciences at Iowa State.  The couple accrued many honors in their respective careers.

The Martins lived out their lives in the house they had built in Ames.  Their home was a site for many local gatherings for the small black population of Ames.  Their most famous guest was undoubtedly the distinguished African-American botanist, George Washington Carver.  He was the first black student to graduate from Iowa State College, receiving his B.S. in 1894 and his M.S. in 1896.  After working briefly as a faculty member at Iowa State, Carver left Ames to become a faculty member at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.  Whenever Carver had occasion to revisit Ames, he would stay with the Martins even though he had left Ames long before the Martins had moved here.

Another well-known guest at the Martin home was Jack Trice, the first African-American athlete at then-Iowa State College, and the only black athlete competing at the Big Six Conference level.  Jack enjoyed many hours visiting with the Martin family and students rooming there.  On the night before his second college football game against the University of Minnesota, Jack wrote an inspiring letter in a racially segregated hotel stating his expectations, including upholding the “honor of my race, family and self.”  Jack died two days later as a result of injuries sustained during the game.  The Martins were surely among the throng of 4,000 mourners at the funeral.


Located along Fifth Street in the Ames downtown area is a series of historical piers featuring 28 terra cotta tiles commemorating people, places and events unique to local history.  Noting the absence of a pier for the Martin family, residents Ellen Hadwiger and Joanna Courteau formed the Archie A. and Nancy C. Martin Foundation in 2001 to preserve the memory and legacy of the Martins.  The foundation raised funds from residents and the city for the design and construction of a Martin pier.  In February 2002, the fourteenth pier was dedicated at the corner of Fifth Street and Burnett Avenue.  One tile portrays the couple, while the other depicts the Martin home at 218 Lincoln Way.

In 2004, the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, approved the naming of Martin Hall, a newly constructed $23 million suite-style student residence building on the campus of Iowa State University.  Consisting of seven “houses,” it also has an Honors Program learning community on the first floor.  A piano was placed in the residence for student use as was common in Archie and Nancy’s home.  ISU Vice-President for Student Affairs Tom Hill noted at the dedication of the edifice, “Martin Hall documents the presence of African Americans in the history of the institution.  It recognizes the Martins for doing an outstanding job and meeting a need that wasn’t being met.  They stepped up.  It is very appropriate to recognize them for their contributions to Iowa State.”

A portrait of Archie and Nancy was commissioned by the Martin Foundation in 2006.  ISU art professor, Brenda Jones, painted the portrait as part of the university’s Legacy Series.  It was hung in Martin Hall and dedicated at a celebration held September 16, 2008.

In 2007, the Martin House was registered as an Historic Landmark by the Ames Historic Preservation Commission.  The plaque, commissioned by the Martin Foundation and placed at the front entrance, reads, “The Archie & Nancy Martin House, 218 Lincoln Way, was open to students of color and granted historical landmark status by the City of Ames in 2008.”

The year 2008 witnessed the establishment of two important named funds.  The Ames branch of the NAACP established the Nancy and Archie Martin Woman of the Year Award, and the Martin Foundation established a scholarship to provide support for students of color who demonstrate financial need and exemplify the Martin legacy of kindness and community service.  The first scholarship was awarded in 2010.

Few vintage artifacts survive from the progenitors’ era.  The original “crayon portraits” of Archie, Nancy and other family members, along with family photos and records of the Martin Foundation have been gifted to the Ames Historical Society.  Other family photos and mementos remain in private collections.  The family Bible has been deposited with University Archives in the Department of Special Collections at Iowa State University’s Parks Library.

In summation, the Martin story joins that of George Washington Carver and Jack Trice as the iconic African-American narratives significant to the Iowa State University and Ames communities.  These individuals have major campus structures named in their honor, for enhancing the welfare of black students (Martin Hall), for researching alternative farm crops (Carver Hall), and for upholding athletic excellence (Jack Trice Stadium).  Their accomplishments continue to inspire citizens today.

Archie Martin died in 1960 at the age of 102.  At that time his descendents included five sons and two daughters, thirty-two grandchildren, and twelve great-grandchildren.  In the photo above, Archie's son, Paul is seated next to him.  In the back row from left: Ernest Simmons, Archie Martin Jr., Nellie Martin Shipp, Tom Jackman, Bob Martin, and Esther Jackman Martin (Paul's wife).