A Public Art Project Honors Des Moines' Place in Civil Rights History

Jul 12, 2018

A new piece of public art in downtown Des Moines honors a little known chapter in the city’s civil rights history.

"A Monumental Journey," by Kerry James Marshall
Credit Public Art Foundation of Greater Des Moines

The year was 1924. A dozen African-American lawyers who could not gain membership in the American Bar Association because of their race decided to form a professional organization they could belong to. Five of the founding members of what was first called the Negro Bar Association lived and worked in Iowa. And it was in Des Moines the group now known as the National Bar Association was incorporated in August of 1925. Until now, there has been no monument to their achievement. District Associate Judge Odell McGhee, a former president of the association, thought that was wrong.

“It would be really nice if we had something, something coming out of the ground somewhere that would be a reminder to people that some folks passed this way,” he says.

Now, there is a 30-foot-high, black brick sculpture to honor the formation of the National Bar Association in Des Moines. “A Monumental Journey” sits in Hansen Triangle Park bordered by Grand and 2nd avenues downtown. It’s the work of Chicago-based artist Kerry James Marshall, a one-time winner of the so-called “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. It’s shaped to resemble African talking drums, one on top of the other. But Marshall designed them off-kilter as if the top drum is about to tip over. He says it sends a message.

“The idea of what it means to pursue justice and how justice is achieved had to be at the center of my ideas about the piece," he says. "And since we know justice is never really guaranteed, it’s not a simple matter, it’s always complicated, and it’s precarious.”

It took 18 years from the time Judge McGhee and other community members formed a steering committee to look into a sculpture to honor Des Moines’ place in the history of African-American lawyers to a dedication ceremony this week. The Public Art Foundation of Greater Des Moines led a drive to raise more than a million dollars for the project. The occasion drew the current president of the association, Juan Thomas. He says the large piece is more than a symbol for his organization.

“But also we gather today in memory of those unknown and unnamed Africans, who were enslaved in this country, who never became lawyers, who never became judges, who were never allowed to go to law school because they lived at a time when it was illegal to teach a black person to read,” he says.

There were fewer than a thousand black lawyers practicing in the U.S. in 1925 when the National Bar Association was created. Today it represents a professional network of more than 60,000. One of them is Waterloo native Danielle Carr, who spoke two years ago when ground was broken for “A Monumental Journey.”

“For me, the monument will serve as a reminder of how proud I am to be an African-American attorney who provides support to the National Bar Associations initiatives, and how proud I am to call the state that gave birth to the NBA my home,” she says.

The five Iowans who were critical to the historic creation of the National Bar Association were George Woodson, who was the organization’s first president; S. Joe Brown; James B. Morris; Charles Howard Sr.; and Gertrude Rush, the first African-American woman ever admitted to the bar.