Skip to main content

The Martin Family

Published onSep 29, 2020
The Martin Family

Archie Addison Martin (1857–February 29, 1960) and Nancy Angeline Chandler Martin (1856–May 17, 1947) were formerly enslaved African Americans who migrated to Ames, Iowa in 1913. They housed African American students who were not allowed to live on Iowa State College’s campus from 1919 until the mid-1940s. Their home, located at 218 Lincoln Way, is a local historic landmark.

Early Life and Background

Archie Martin

Nancy Martin

Archie Addison Martin was born enslaved in Wilmington, NC in 1857. His father was a Methodist minister named George Martin. Nancy Angeline Chandler Martin was born enslaved in Newman, GA in 1856. Her parents were Jake [Candler] and Angeline Chandler. There is a discrepancy around the spelling of their last names. What is known is that Candler is the name of the owner of the plantation she was born on. According to Nancy’s granddaughter, Archie Greene, Nancy changed her last name from Candler to Chandler to distance herself from her former owner who she described as “wretched and evil”.[1] Nancy had four children from a previous marriage—Hattie, Richard, Luther, and Ernest—and six children with Archie—Julia Mary, Archie Jr., Nellie Elmira, Paul E., Robert W. and Alphonso Martin. The couple lived in Austell, Georgia where Nancy was a well-known cook at a local restaurant. There was where a chance encounter happened with Drs. David and Jennie Ghrists from Ames. The Ghrists were so impressed with Nancy’s cooking that they convinced the Martins to move to Ames for more lucrative opportunities.

Life in Ames

In 1913, The Martins moved to Ames where Archie found work as an assistant to the yardmaster with the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad and Nancy worked as a cook for the Ghrists and at a fraternity house on campus.

Nancy was described as mostly “all business.” Serving on the plantation had caused a nervousness and unease within her. Her granddaughter, Archie, said she was always moving—always answering a need. She seldom smiled or laughed—that too a remnant of her days on the plantation. “[She] was the tough one of the pair, a strong-willed person [that]… held things together”.[2] Archie, on the other hand, was described as “a gentle little soul, more easy-going”.[2] He was often sought out when someone needed him to “cool” Nancy’s temper or soften any “tight” situations.[1] His grandchildren recounted that he often told them stories about getting freedom from slavery and meeting Abraham Lincoln when he was about 7 years old.[2]

Around 1919, Archie and his sons built their home near Kellogg Avenue at 218 Lincoln Way. The second floor had three bedrooms and a bathroom—suitable for boarding. At the new house, Nancy Martin grew two peach trees that grew to the size of tennis balls—remnants of her days in Georgia. She also grew mint plan and beautiful orange poppies in her garden. One granddaughter, Barbara Martin Crawford, remembers Nancy giving her parents two cherry trees in 1939 when they bought their original family home at 304 Washington Avenue in Ames.[3] Even through her elderly years, Nancy continued to tend a garden and raise a few chickens.[4]

Iowa State University and Black student housing

Until the late 1940s, it was the unofficial policy of Iowa State College to restrict the housing of students of color. In 1910, President Albert B. Storms replied to an inquiry from Atlanta University President, 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. 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, as is the case with Phillippinoes [sic] and other nationalities.” This statement showed that Black students could register for classes at Iowa State but could not live on campus. The condition that they could only live on campus if they roomed with another student of the same ethnic background was a huge barrier considering that the first black student graduated from Iowa State in 1894, the second graduated in 1904, and the third graduated in 1914.[5]

Though black students appeared sparsely in the earliest part of the 1900s, groups of black students began showing up in Ames to attend Iowa State College post-World War I. They signed up for school, arrived in Ames to register, only to be turned away by the campus housing office. In a 2002 interview, Herbert DeCosta recalls arriving in Ames from South Carolina in September 1940, at age seventeen. He spent his first night in a hotel because he was told the dormitories were full. He was directed by the housing office to contact the YMCA for housing alternatives. A staff person at the YMCA gave him a list of places to rent and told him someone would take him to visit those options. This staff person suggested that he would be happier at a house downtown but DeCosta decided against it due to the distance. During the several unsatisfactory visits, DeCosta realized that he was only taking him to places where other black students lived. He confronted the guide and he admitted that only certain places would “accept a Negro student”. He went back to the YMCA and asked why he could not just stay on campus. That is when they told him that black students were not allowed to stay on campus (Southers, 2006). He was so frustrated with these events and was ready to return home but, before throwing in the towel, decided to visit the home downtown that was suggested to him earlier. That was the Martin’s home. Despite the distance from campus, it proved to be the right move for him.[6]

DeCosta’s experience mirrored that of another famous boarder at the Martin house—Dr. Samuel Massie. In a 1998 interview, Massie was given similar directions by the housing office and proceeded to the YMCA for housing. The director of the YMCA denied him housing saying, “it wouldn’t be the Christian thing to do.”[7]

Archie expressed concern when he learned about the policy and went to speak with Raymond Pearson, president of Iowa State College from 1912-1926. After meeting with President Pearson the first time, Pearson agreed to see that black students would be admitted to the residence halls on an equal basis as their white counterparts. The following Fall, the black students complained to Archie that there was still a housing problem. Archie returned to meet with President Pearson again. Only after that second meeting did the problem ease a bit.[8]

Living in the Martin House

The Martin house, located at 218 Lincoln Way, was accessible to Iowa State’s campus by bus or walking. It had a stately porch where many family members and boarders would sit and watch traffic go by. Archie often sat on his porch and told stories of serving in World War I but being barred from entering the veteran hospital’s canteen because of his race.[7] The house sat across the street from a neighborhood root beer stand that Nancy frequented, especially when people stopped by so she could treat them.

The boarders and the townspeople called Archie, “Dad Martin” or “Shorty” because he was a sweet, nurturing soul that only stood five feet tall. James Bowman, former Tuskegee airman and Des Moines school administrator, remembers the Martins as more than landlords—he recalls them more as mentors and disciplinarians. “They tried to be sort of parents to us in a way”. Though Bowman only stayed there for a short time, he said that staying at the Martins was influential in shaping him into what he would ultimately become. Without the household full of other students pursuing advanced degrees, Bowman believed he would not have had the discipline required to pass his classes. “I had older students that were living there, and they immediately jumped on me along with the Martins about doing your homework.”

The granddaughters of Archie and Nancy, Pauline Martin and Mary Martin Carr, recalled the tough love their grandparents gave their tenants in a 2007 article written by Adam Edelman. “They did have strict rules. The students had to study and conduct themselves properly or they couldn’t stay there. They were good mentors to the students.” They also recalled being forbidden from interacting with the students in fears that it would disturb their studies.[9]

Though the Martin’s primarily maintained a serious and studious environment, both the grandchildren and former boarders remember fun centering around music. Herbert DeCosta recalled, “The students used to play the piano and play be-bop, jazz, and all types of music on the piano.”[10] The Martin granddaughters, Pauline and Mary, recall classical music also being played on the piano.


Nancy Martin died on May 17, 1947 at age 91. She died at 5:00am in her home from a heart ailment, though her official cause of death was listed as a cerebral apoplexy. Her body lied in state at Adams Chapel.[11]

Archie Martin died on February 29, 1960 at age 102. He died at 7:40am in his home. It was noted that he had been in poor health since he broke his hip from a fall the previous December. His official cause of death is listed as a cerebral hemorrhage. He was preceded in death by his wife, his daughter (Mrs. I. E. Brown), one great grandchild, and three great great grandchildren. He was survived by four sons, a daughter, 32 grandchildren, and 12 great grandchildren.[12]


The Martins legacy and impact on black students, Ames and on Iowa State can be measured in numerous ways. Mainly, their legacy is traced by the successful stories of many who stayed with them. There are numerous educators—professors, administrators, and presidents of universities, engineers and scientists who have left their home and changed the world. Many of these folks remember their time at the Martin fondly and acknowledge that, if not for the Martins, they would not have had the chance at an education at Iowa State University. Even though George Washington Carver graduated many years before the Martins moved to Ames, every time he came back to Ames, he stayed with them.

Inspired by her parents, when Nellie Elmira grew up, married and moved out into her own house, she opened her doors to house black female students so that they would have the same opportunities as their male counterparts in the Martin house. Her house was located nearby at 118 Sherman Avenue.[5]

In Ames, on the corner of Fifth Street and Burnett Avenue, a terracotta pier was dedicated to the Martins in 2002. One tile on the pier depicts the house and the other depicts the couple.[2]

Local Historic Landmark and Controversy

The Martin House was named a local historic landmark by the Historic Preservation Commission in a unanimous decision in 2007. Laurel and Mildred Ely, owners of the land next to the home who intended to buy the land the house stood on, took issue with that decision. Naming the house a historic landmark meant that the house could not be removed or moved. They filed suit, arguing that the house was in disrepair and, therefore, decreasing the value of their lot. In 2008, the Ely’s lawyer, Bob Goodwin filed a petition for certiorari saying that city ordinances used in the rezoning denied them due process and equal protection, and claiming that the council’s actions constituted illegal spot zoning. A district court bench trial dismissed these claims in 2009 but the Elys appealed. The Iowa Court of Appeals upheld the district court decision, finding that the Elys’ due process rights were not violated and ruled that the alleged spot rezoning was rather the “continuation of a permissable nonconforming use”.[13]

Martin Hall

Archie and Nancy Martin Hall was dedicated by Iowa State University on November 5, 2004. This residence hall which is located on the west end of the Iowa State University campus, houses approximately 360 students. The building consists of suite-style rooms and a number of unique lofted rooms on the fourth floor. Each floor has a den, kitchenette, and study space. There are also two classrooms and a lounge on the first floor. The hall is complete with a portrait of the Martins created by Dr. Brenda Jones, Professor of Art and Visual Culture at Iowa State University.[14] The true tribute to the Martins inside of Martin Hall is the piano—reminiscent of the one in Archie and Nancy’s living room that provided their boarders with so much joy. Martin Hall housed students for the first time in the Fall semester of 2004.[15]

The building was originally named Union Drive Suite Building #2. However, in a memorandum to the Board of Regents from the Board Office on the Naming of the Union Drive Suite Building #2, it was noted that “During that period of time, Archie and Nancy would have been considered deans of students, directors of residence and counselors for black students -- a need that was not being met by the university. Many of the students who found lodging in the Martin home went on to be leaders in their respective fields and trace their success in part to the care and counsel they received from the Martins. Because of the many contributions made by Archie and Nancy Martin to Iowa State University and the Ames community during a very difficult period for African Americans, it is a fitting tribute to name the new Union Drive Suite Building #2 in their honor”.[8] The motion was approved in September 2004. The naming dedication took place on November 5, 2004 and was attended with over 100 people, including descendants of the Martins.[16]

In an interview after the naming, Archie and Nancy’s granddaughter, Pauline, said, “It’s really a great honor… That’s what everybody feels. My grandparents were just simple people doing something they had to do, coming from the South and knowing how hard it was to get an education and to be accepted. My dad would be bursting his buttons if he were alive… but it wouldn’t have fazed Grandma and Grandpa much—they were just humble people.”[2]

Header image: Martin Hall at Iowa State University

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?