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Madison, Walter Garfield

Published onJul 30, 2021
Madison, Walter Garfield

(January 1, 1888 — February 14, 1964)

 Quick Facts

Early African-American Iowa State student and was the first to receive a degree in mechanical engineering when he graduated in 1914, inventor, Ames businessman, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Howard University, civil rights activist. 

Walter Garfield Madison was born at Sprinkle, Travis County, Texas on January 1, 1888, a son of Thomas Mack Madison and Ophelia Jackson Madison.  He grew up in several communities in Travis County (close to Austin) including Sprinkle and Manor. About 1906 he went to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and studied there while George Washington Carver, a famous alum of Iowa State, was also teaching.  He graduated in 1909 and then came to Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) to study mechanical engineering.  While at Iowa State, he was a member of the Forum Literary Society and the College Band.  He also learned to read and speak both German and Spanish.  In addition, he patented an invention designed to reduce resistance to ascent in airplanes, improve both vertical and horizontal steering, and improve the performance of propellers.  He received a patent for this in 1912.  Madison graduated from Iowa State in 1914 with a Bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and was both the first Iowa State student to receive a degree in mechanical engineering and the third African-American student to graduate from Iowa State. 

Madison (front row, fourth from left) played first clarinet in the Iowa State College Military Band. Source: The Bomb, 1915

Upon graduation he decided to stay in Ames where he opened a plumbing business, located first in the Masonic Building at 5th and Douglas, but later he moved to the Olson Building at Main Street and Burnett Avenue.  He quickly diversified his business to include heating, venting, electrical work, and sheet metal work.  He also sold several brands of electric washers and offered service contracts. He advertised widely in the Ames area including Iowa State publications such as The Iowa Engineer and The Iowa Homemaker and received many large contracts.  In 1918, he won a contract to install plumbing and heating in the new Boone County Home.  In 1920, he was given a contract to install the heating and plumbing in a new school in Beaver, Iowa.  In 1923, he received a large contract to install heating, ventilation, plumbing, and electrical equipment for a new school building in Ida Grove, Iowa.  In May, 1930, he was awarded a contract by the City of Ames to install sewer and water connections on Lincoln Way west from Campus Avenue to the city limits.  A few months later, the Ames Board of Education voted a contract with Madison to install the heating and plumbing system in the senior high school.  In 1932, he received a contract to install all plumbing, heating, and mechanical equipment for a new science building at Tuskegee Institute. 

Also in 1932, he received a patent for an adjustable radiator bracket which could be used for supporting radiators of heating systems and allowing them to be installed at various heights on office walls and shops.  He was also involved in writing Iowa's first plumbing code.

Early in his career, Madison married Gussie Irene Agnew on November 1, 1917 in Chicago.  They had four sons, Walter Garfield Jr., Archibald Warren, Horace E., and Ira Augustus.  They lived at 1204 3rd Street.

Madison was also concerned with affairs affecting African-Americans.  In 1915, in reaction to a local troupe's presentation of Uncle Tom's Cabin, he wrote to the Ames Weekly Tribune that African-Americans “need respect, pure and simple respect—not an abstract, something unearned, but due recognition for our status in the things that measure men.”  In 1917, he entertained a group of black soldiers from Fort Dodge who were visiting Ames over the weekend.

In 1922, things became personal.  On February 1, he entered the New London Restaurant on Main Street with a client, and both the waitress, Iva Steele, and the proprietor, John Siagres, refused him service because of his race.  On February 24, he filed suit in Story County District Court through his attorneys, Lee & Garfield, against the New London Restaurant and Siagres for $5,000.  The petition, Case No. 12138,  W.G. Madison vs. New London Restaurant, et. al., stated  that Madison “was thereby deprived of his right to the enjoyment of defendant's place of business guaranteed him under the law; that such refusal...was willful, intentional and malicious.”  It  also stated that “plaintiff was greatly humiliated and has suffered mentally because of the public disgrace...the plaintiff has been exposed to public contempt and ridicule.”   The case wasn't decided for nearly a year, but on January 10, 1923, Judge E.M. McCall, awarded Madison $100 in which Siagres “consented to the entry of judgment against him” which suggests that a deal may have been negotiated.  The reward was not large but was a major victory for the rights of African-Americans in 1923. 

Several years later, in 1927, Madison wrote to the NAACP to ask for permission to organize a local chapter in Ames.  Apparently there were few local cases of discrimination but the situation had deteriorated and several African-Americans had formed an “Ames Protective League.”  The NAACP required at least 50 people to organize a local branch, and since there so few African-Americans in Ames at that time, Madison asked for and was granted a waiver.  He and others then formed an Ames branch of the NAACP which had about 30 members for some years.

Madison continued operating his business until 1941 or early 1942.  Walter Madison left Ames in 1938 to serve as chief engineer at Fisk University, a historically black university in Memphis, Tenn. In April, 1942, he was living in Nashville, Tennessee, and the U.S. Government awarded him a contract for the use of his 1932 invention of hanging brackets for use in the Lone Star Ordinance Plant in Fort Worth, Texas.   A newspaper at that time reported that the bracket was already widely used throughout the southern and western parts of the United States.

A few years later, Madison moved to Washington, D.C., where he established the W.G. Madison Company specializing in plumbing, heating and ventilation, air conditioning, repairs, and consulting.  He also became an associate professor of engineering at Howard University for a time.

Walter Garfield Madison died at Freedmen's Hospital on the Howard University campus in Washington, D.C. on February 14, 1964. 


Selected Sources

A small variety of items on Walter Garfield Madison can be found in RS 21/7/2, Box 80, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University. 

Other general information on Madison is found in Nick Fetty, “Walter G. Madison—Early African-American Pioneer from Iowa State,” Dimensions (a publication of the Mechanical Engineering Department, ISU), Volume 25, No. 2, July, 2018, p.12. Nick was also very helpful personally in obtaining sources for his article on Madison including news articles from the Ames Daily Tribune on Madison's lawsuit against John Siagres and the New London Restaurant plus an obituary for Madison from the Baltimore Afro-American, February 29, 1964, p. 19.

A formal photograph of Madison and of the College Band is found in The 1914 Bomb of Iowa State

Examples of his advertising can be found in various issues of The Iowa Homemaker for the years 1922-1925 and in The Iowa Engineer for May, 1923. 

Coverage of his contracts can be found in The Crisis for April, 1918; Domestic Engineering, March 13, 1920; Ames Daily Tribune-Times for May 20, 1930, p. 1 and September 9, 1930, pp. 1,2; and Indianapolis Record, February 21, 1942, Section 2, p. 1.

 Madison's patents can be found on Google Patent Search online.  The patent numbers are No. 1,047,098 on December 10, 1912 for the Flying Machine patent and 1,867,854 on July 19, 1932 for the Adjustable Radiator Bracket patent.  An article mentioning Madison's patents can be found in Major Robert J. Jakeman, America's Pioneers, unpublished dissertation, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, 1988, 88-1355 (found online).

The Ames Historical Society also has information on Madison in the Archie and Nancy Martin collection.  Old city directories and telephone directories there and online from the AHS were also helpful in locating his residence and business addresses over the years.  In addition, several brief articles on Madison by Alex Fejfar of the AHS staff are available.

Court records for the lawsuit against the New London Restaurant and John Siagres, Case No. 12138, were obtained at the Story County Court House in Nevada, Iowa. 

Information on Madison's effort to establish a local chapter of the NAACP in Ames can be found in Jeremy J. Brigham and Robert Wright Sr., “Civil Rights Organizations in Iowa,” in Bill Silag (ed.), Outside In: African-American History in Iowa, 1838-2000. Des Moines, IA. State Historical Society of Iowa, 2001, p. 328.

Information on Madison was also found on for the 1940 Federal Census and family information on the Public Family Tree. 

Information was also found online on Gussie Irene Agnew Madison at



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