The history and activism behind Martin Hall’s namesakes

Ryan Pattee

Many different residence halls have a story behind the people they are named for, and Martin Hall, located on the west side of campus, is no exception. 

Archie and Nancy Martin, an African-American couple who, with their six children, moved from Georgia up to Ames in 1913. They were one of the first African-American families to live in Ames. Nancy Martin was a cook for a fraternity house on campus as well as for the Ghrists family, who had convinced the pair to move to Ames when they visited them in the south. Archie Martin got a job with Chicago and Northwest Railroad as an assistant to the yard manager.

Upon living in Ames for some time and getting to know the university, the Martin couple discovered that African-American students were having significant struggles when it came to on-campus housing. 

“Iowa State was always open to people of all races, but it wasn’t easy,” said Alex Fejfar from the Ames Historical Society. “The policy at the time was that a boarding house had to be filled, and if there wasn’t enough people of color to take up the living space they weren’t given one.”

Due to the struggle of finding somewhere to live on campus, many students of color could not attend the university simply because they had nowhere to live.

Archie Martin decided to do something. According to Martin family accounts, Archie Martin met at least twice with then president of Iowa State, Raymond A. Pearson about the policy from 1912 all the way to 1926.

The president agreed black students would be housed on campus on equal terms of white students. However, black students came to Archie Martin telling him problems still persisted despite President Pearson’s agreement.

When Archie Martin returned to Pearson’s office one again, colored students began to find it easier to live on campus. However, according to Fejfar, it is still very difficult to get official documentation on what happened,

“All we have are family stories which has been passed down through the Martin family for generations,” she said. 

The Martin house, now a historical landmark, was constructed on 218 Lincoln Way in 1919 by Archie Martin and his three sons. Black students were welcomed to live at the Martin house during their time at Iowa State.

“Back then, students primarily lived in boarding houses which was run by a family,” Fejfar said. “They would charge people rent, providing them food for lunch and dinner.”

While there is no historical record of how many people the Martin family took in over the years — or no exact number of students that the Martins housed — a document provided by the Ames Historical Society lists that at least 10 students had stayed in the Martin house, and later went on to make significant contributions to society. 

The students include James Bowman, who joined the Tuskegee Airmen and became a Des Moines school administrator, and Samuel Massie, who was the first African American professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. 

Among the house’s frequent guests was Jack Trice, who enjoyed visiting the students who lived at the house. Archie and Nancy Martin were two of the 4,000 mourners at his funeral. 

Today, the Martin house still stands among the businesses and complexes going up on Lincoln Way, and is regarded as a historical landmark. 

“It is currently being fixed and is on the historical national registry,” Fejfar said. “As far as my knowledge goes the house is still being rented out to this day providing a place to live for anyone who needs it.”