The months following the horrific events in Charlottesville have brought renewed attention to Confederate monuments, reigniting the debate surrounding symbols of racism and white supremacy in the United States. As Americans contend with the possibilities of relocating, destroying, or recontextualizing these objects, some have argued that new monuments should be built, ones that honor the achievements of black historical figures rather than their oppressors.
That is just what is now happening in Des Moines, Iowa, where, in 1924, twelve black attorneys based in the Midwest founded the National Bar Association, a law organization whose stated purpose was “to strengthen and elevate the Negro lawyer in his profession and in his relationship to his people.” Kerry James Marshall has created a new monument honoring them, and it is set to go on view in the spring.
During the sculpture’s ground-breaking ceremony on November 3, 2016, Judge Odell McGee of the Polk County District Court, a former president of the Iowa chapter of the NBA, spoke of a single headstone in a church parking lot being the only visible symbol of the organization’s founding.
“The idea for a monument to the National Bar Association first arose when Judge McGee approached us in 2007,” Pamela Bookey, the founding president of Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation (GDMPAF), one of the principal organizations behind the project, explained in an interview.
Jeff Fleming, the director of the Des Moines Art Center, who is a member of the GDMPAF board, reached out to Marshall, who enthusiastically accepted the commission and later flew out to Des Moines to present his proposal to the NBA committee.
Laws designed to prevent judicial candidates from soliciting campaign donations frustrated the Iowa NBA’s early attempts to raise funds. In addition, the Army Corps of Engineers mandated that the site Marshall had selected, in a small park across the Des Moines River from City Hall, undergo a water feasibility study, an expense that the NBA struggled to cover.
“If we all agreed that that was the best site for the piece, then we had to know whether or not we could do it,” Marshall said during a phone interview, a twinge of frustration in his voice. “You can’t just throw in the towel because it’s going to cost you a little bit to find out, so I paid for the study. I wanted to know if I was going to have to modify my design or not.” Despite the positive results from the test, the project went dormant. “I didn’t hear from anybody for a couple of years until I was contacted by Jessica Rowe, the director of the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation,” Marshall said. Unable to raise the funds necessary to move the project forward, the NBA had passed control of the project onto the GDMPAF.
“The [Greater Des Moines] Public Art Foundation is a private-public organization,” Bookey explained. “It relies on a combination of city money and private donations to pursue its mission of turning Des Moines into a world class destination for public art.” Marshall’s work, A Monumental Journey, represents one of the most significant works of public art to arrive in the Iowa capital since 2009, when local art collectors John and Mary Pappajohn donated their collection of monumental outdoor sculpture, including works by Williem de Kooning, Louise Bourgeois and Sol LeWitt, which are now installed in a new park space near the city center.
Thirty feet tall and clad in a sleek black brick called “manganese ironspot,” A Monumental Journey weighs nearly 25 tons. Its shape is derived from the talking drum, an instrument of the West African Yoruba people that is named for its ability to imitate the tone and prosody of human speech.
“The talking drum, as a point of departure, seemed like a great way to embody the ideas that I wanted to communicate in the piece,” Marshall said in a phone interview. “On the one hand, I had been trying to find a way to use African sculptural forms as a starting point for an underlying aesthetic principle to evoke Africanness without resorting to bright colors and patterns. On the other hand, it allowed me to talk about the ways in which information and ideas relating to things like equality and justice could be communicated over time and distances.”
In A Monumental Journey, Marshall has manipulated the drum’s forms, shaving angles off its top and bottom and shifting its upper part forward, almost to the tipping point on the edge of the base. These alterations cause the sculpture to surge in different directions, giving it a sense of precariousness and a dynamic asymmetry. “If justice and equality are about anything,” Marshall told me, “they are about a kind of balance.”
Ideas of balance and representation are also, to be sure, central to law, and they are inexorably intertwined in the origin story of the National Bar Association. Inspired by the organizing efforts of a group of black Southern lawyers known as the “Greenville movement,” George H. Woodson, one of the NBA’s co-founders, organized the first convention of what was then called the “Iowa Colored Bar Association” in 1924.
Aiding Woodson, who had also been involved with W.E.B Dubois in the Niagara movement (a precursor to the NAACP), was his law partner, S. J. Brown. Orphaned at the age of 14, Brown had supported himself throughout high school and college as a hotel bellboy. After graduating, he began a career in education administration, first as a high-school principal, then as the head of the departments of mathematics and Greek at the all-black Bishop College in Marshall, Texas. Within a year, Brown and his wife, Sue, had returned to Iowa so that Brown could enroll in the University of Iowa Law School. Working as the janitor in a campus fraternity house, Brown graduated at the head of his class. He would be the first in a number of instances—the first black graduate of law school, the first black graduate to earn Phi Beta Kappa, the first president of the Des Moines NAACP (the first chapter to emerge west of the Mississippi River), and the first black attorney to argue before the Iowa State Supreme Court. In 1906, he argued the state’s first discrimination case (Humburd v. Crawford) and won.
Also in attendance at the first meeting of the NBA was Charles P. Howard, Sr., a Drake University Law grad reputed to have never lost a trial. Together, he and Brown saved over a hundred of their black clients from the death penalty and countless others from discrimination, disenfranchisement, and exploitation. By 1928, Howard was a county commissioner, a prosecuting attorney, and the publisher of a local newspaper, the Iowa Observer. Howard’s activism in the realm of law and justice was matched only by his involvement in the worlds of media and publishing, a passion that he shared with another NBA co-founder, James B. Morris, who owned the Iowa Bystander.
Howard and Morris helped to co-found the National Negro Publishers Association (now the National Newspaper Publishers Association), and under their respective leaderships the Iowa Observer and the Iowa Bystander came to represent the voices of black communities in the state, telling their stories in a way that countered the racist animus of some white-owned outlets.
From the editor’s desk of the Bystander, Morris crusaded against forces, like the Klu Klux Klan, that terrorized and oppressed black communities in Iowa. In 1926, the paper took on the gubernatorial candidacy of Alex R. Miller, who boasted openly about his Klan membership. In response, a group of Klansmen showed up to Morris’s doorstep one Sunday afternoon and offered to buy the paper from him, threatening his family about what would happen if he were to refuse. Morris and his wife Clyde responded to the threats by chasing the Klan from their property with a shotgun. The KKK never visited the Morris house again.
The NBA’s 12 original founders included a single woman, Gertrude E. Durden Rush, who, in 1918, became the first women of color, and only the second woman ever, to practice law in Iowa. A composer and a playwright, Rush had taught English literature and music for nearly a decade to black and Native American children before entering the legal profession. Her experience as an educator most certainly influenced her practice and civic activism, which were centered on the needs of Iowa’s minority youth. In 1911, she became president of the Iowa State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, gaining notoriety for promoting syndicates like the Woman’s Law and Political Study Club, which encouraged women and young girls in activities that defied contemporary patriarchal conventions. The following year, she founded the Charity League and the Protection Home for Negro Girls, organizations that she mobilized successfully to elect of the first black probation officer to the Des Moines Juvenile court.
Listed on a ring around the base of A Monumental Journey are the names of the pioneering founders of the NBA from Iowa, along with those who came from elsewhere: Wendell E. Green, Cornelius Francis Stradford, Jesse Nathaniel Baker, William H. Hayes, and George Cornelius Adams, all of Chicago, and Charles H. Calloway and Amasa Knox, of Kansas City, Missouri.
The profound blackness of the sculpture’s exterior is reminiscent of the blackness of the figures that populate Marshall’s paintings, and as is the case with so much of his work, A Monumental Journey, speaks to centuries of struggles, solidarities and triumphs, from the continental origins of the talking drum to the confrontation of history in public space today.
The NBA represents a bright chapter in that long history, though progress on civil rights in the state where it was founded has been uneven.
“In 1868, the Supreme Court of Iowa held—nearly 100 years before Brown v. Board of Education—that denying a black child admission to public schools because of race violated the state constitution,” said Angela Onwuachi-Willig, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley and the 2017–18 National Bar Association research fellow. Onwuachi-Willig also mentioned a 2009 Iowa Supreme Court decision that ended the state’s ban on same-sex marriage—at the time, only the fourth state to have done so—before turning to a grimmer part of the state’s history. “Despite Iowa’s impressive civil-rights history on the books, the state has grappled with racial prejudices and hostility and systemic racism that have stilted the growth and development of its black population and legal community,” she said. “For instance, Iowa is number one, out of all states, in racial disproportionality between its population of African Americans and the percentage of African Americans in its prisons.”
Indeed, this new monument to Iowa’s progressive politics and place in the history of black liberation arrives at a time when Republicans, who are in control of all levels of state government, are aggressively pushing a number of conservative measures, including $117.8 million in cuts to higher education and the arts, an expansion of stand-your-ground laws, and bills targeting access to abortion, overtime pay, workers compensation, and labor organization. In September, a high school in Creston, Iowa, cut five of its varsity football players from the team after a photograph of them wearing white hoods and brandishing firearms and a Confederate flag beside a burning cross was circulated widely on the internet.
Marshall said that he wants viewers to think about his piece as a model for looking into the future, rather than as a monument to the past. “The monumental journey is to become truly modern,” he said. “It is to escape the dependency on a culture that has dominated you and oppressed you and to arrive at a true independence where you can do what you want, and act in your self-interest without having to ask permission.” Marshall spoke of the NBA founders’ will to act, to break with the desire to seek validation within hostile spheres and to instead create a new institution that was all their own. “This is what it means to be equal,” Marshall said. “This is what it means to be free.”