A Monumental Journey

Nov 30, 2021  | 27 min  | 

Judge Odell McGhee, Fifth Judicial District of Iowa (ret.): “… you know, just organization at the beginning. And folks said, ‘Is it viable?’ ‘Is it necessary?’ ‘Why do we have to do this?’ ‘And, yah, we need to do this and just getting people out and, and, and getting people involved, uh, was hard.”


Tim Hickman, Principal, Substance Architecture: “…for me it wasn't really resolved until the day before the dedication when Kerry actually came to town because he had never seen it.”


Kerry James Marshall, Artist: “That was the challenge, to figure out…I made a model that was only about 18 inches high. This thing is 37 feet tall. That's where the real challenge lies.”


On a non-descript corner in downtown Des Moines, Iowa sits a statue dedicated to the efforts of 12 Black lawyers who, almost a century ago, founded an organization based on the principles of improving justice and civil rights for all. Their struggle was the catalyst for what has become The National Bar Association, an international group still devoted to those same basic ideals.

Each brick in the monument symbolically represents how the organization was built – brick-by- brick, meeting-by-meeting, one-step at a time. The statue is dedicated to the memory and drive of that small group of African Americans who persevered in the face of racism and took the first steps on A Monumental Journey.

Announcer: The Pella Rolscreen Foundation is a proud supporter of Iowa PBS. Pella Windows and Doors strives to better our communities and build a better tomorrow.


Announcer: Funding for this program was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation as well as generations of families and friends who feel passionate about the programs they watch on Iowa PBS.


Before the founding of the National Bar Association, the only national organization of U.S. lawyers was the American Bar Association. Started in August of 1877, the ABA had a history of denying entry to Blacks.

Among the many Blacks who applied for ABA membership were six African American lawyers from Iowa. According to one National Bar Association historian, in 1924 when the number of Black lawyers numbered barely 1,000, George H. Woodson, Charles P. Howard, S. Joe Brown, Gertrude Elzora Durden Rush, James B. Morris, Sr. and Henry Lay Thompson made applications to the American Bar. There are some scholars who believe Henry Lay Thompson may actually be Iowan John Lay Thompson, a lawyer, newspaper editor and business associate of James B. Morris.

Their applications for membership were denied. According to the National Bar Association’s historical record, the ABA agreed to give memberships to the six lawyers but they all had to join as a group. The late Cleota Wilbekin was a historian for the NBA.

Dr. Cleota M. Wilbekin, NBA Historian:” H. Lay Thompson said, ‘I'm done with it. Count me out.’ So there were only five, they said, no, we will not, six will not join the American Bar. We will start our own.”


Some have referred to these lawyers as the Five Founders. Over the next year, they recruited seven more Black lawyers from around the Midwest. These men have also been called the Seven Incorporators. The NBA calls all of these people the 12 incorporators.

According to the National Bar Association archives, the first meeting of what was originally called the Negro Bar Association took place in the Polk County Court House in Des Moines, Iowa on August 1st, 1925. Joining the 12 were Black lawyers who had travelled from as far away as the U.S. Virgin Islands and Washington State and as close as Missouri, Kansas, and Illinois.

George H. Woodson is given credit by the NBA for bringing everyone together.

Retired Iowa District Court Judge Odell McGhee is a past president of the Iowa National Bar Association, an affiliate of the National Bar Association.

Judge Odell McGhee, Iowa Fifth Judicial District (ret.): “I would say that Woodson was more or less, he was just a basic practitioner who worked very hard to, uh, help, uh, local people get their, their legal issues resolved.”


The son of ex-slaves, Woodson was born in Virginia on December 15, 1865 just three days before the ratification of the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery. After graduating with a law degree from Howard University in 1895, he came to Iowa and opened a law practice in the racially integrated coal mining camp of Muchakinock, near present day Oskaloosa.

After 37 years of practicing the law, he suffered a stroke. When he died in July of 1933, he was the oldest Black lawyer in Iowa at the age of 67.

Another of the original five was Woodson’s law partner, S. Joe Brown.

Judge Odell McGhee, Iowa Fifth Judicial District (ret.): “S. Joe Brown was, uh, also a local, uh, attorney, took a lot of interest in working on issues here locally.”


Brown was a native Iowan born in Keosauqua in 1875. He earned his law degree from the University of Iowa in 1902.

Following graduation, he joined Woodson’s law firm and began practicing in Buxton, another racially integrated mining community. Brown eventually moved to Des Moines and remained Woodson’s law partner for 20 years.

Throughout his legal career, he defended the civil rights for people of color, winning several cases that centered on discrimination. When he died at age 75 in July of 1950, he was credited with helping establish several branches of the NAACP in Iowa as well as being president of the Des Moines branch of the organization.

They were joined by James B. Morris, Sr., a lawyer and newspaper publisher.

Judge Odell McGhee, Iowa Fifth Judicial District (ret.): “He had done so many things which he just truly believed you can’t depend on no one you’ve got to get up and do something for yourself and, once again, that's the same concept and philosophy that I think was, uh, was this the reason why they started the NBA.”


Morris was born in October of 1890 in Georgia and graduated from Howard Law School in 1915. He came to Des Moines at the request of George Woodson. He passed the bar in June of 1917.

After his deployment to France during World War I, Morris returned to Iowa to practice law. A longtime advocate of Civil Rights, he participated in cases which ultimately resulted in a greater opportunity for Blacks in housing, teaching, and employment in Iowa.

Morris owned the Iowa Bystander, one of a handful of Black-owned newspapers in the United States. He always believed he had lived up to the papers motto of “Fear God, Tell the Truth and Make Money.”

Morris died in December of 1977.

The three men were joined by Charles P. Howard. Born in South Carolina in 1890 he also returned to Iowa after the war and attended the Drake University Law School, graduating in 1922. Along the way, he began writing and reporting for Morris’s Iowa Bystander. In 1928, he joined with his sons and launched his own paper, the Iowa Observer.

In the late 1940s, he was the lead attorney on the Edna Griffin discrimination case against the Katz Drug Store, a local Des Moines business. The case centered on a group of young African Americans who were refused service at a segregated lunch counter. Griffin prevailed and the lunch counter was desegregated.

A series of events lead Howard to voluntarily surrender his law license and he left Des Moines for New York.

Howard made two attempts to get his law license reinstated but he was unsuccessful. He died in January of 1969.

The final member of the Five Founders was Gertrude Elzora Durden Rush, Iowa’s first Black female lawyer. Rush was born in Texas in 1880 and her travels took her to Iowa in 1901. By 1908, she was learning the law from her husband, James Buchanan Rush.

Rush was accepted to the Iowa Bar on October 16th, 1918 just days after her husband James passed away. For a little more than three decades, Rush was the only Black female lawyer in Iowa. While able to practice law in the Hawkeye State, it would be nearly two years before she had the right to vote.

Romonda Belcher is the first African American  female judge in the state of Iowa.

Judge Romonda Belcher, Iowa Fifth Judicial District:  “I was just fascinated that in the climate that she lived in with the turbulent times regarding race relations that she wanted to, and that she withstood, all that she had to withstand and all the challenges that she faced to ensure that she was in a position to encourage other individuals to come together, to build an organization…and really just understand fully what it took for those individuals, who in 1925, did not have the opportunities that we have today.“


Rush passed away in September of 1962 at the age of 81.

From Chicago, came five black lawyers.

Wendell E. Green was born in 1887 in Kansas. He was the first African American lawyer to become a Judge in Cook County. He passed away in August of 1959.

Cornelius Francis Stradford was born in Kentucky in 1891. He received his law degree from Columbia University. In 1921, he represented his father who was accused of starting a race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma. By the 1940s, he was part of a team arguing the landmark Hansberry versus Lee case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. The final decision abolished restrictive covenants in Chicago neighborhoods. Stradford passed away in April of 1963.

Jesse Nathaniel Baker was born in Virginia in 1890 and earned his law degree at Howard University in 1917. Baker also served in the Army during World War I. He passed away in 1976.

William H. Haynes was born in Tennessee in July of 1894. He graduated from the Chicago University’s Law School in 1921. Haynes dedicated his life to preserving the rights and wellbeing of all citizens, particularly Black people.  Haynes died in August of 1942.

George Cornelius Adams, born in Louisiana in 1889, earned his law degree from Howard University in 1917. He was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1920 and practiced law in Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. 

The last two Incorporators came from Missouri. Charles H. Calloway was born in Tennessee in 1878. By 1905, he had moved to Kansas City, Kansas to practice law. He passed away in 1944.

L. Amasa Knox was born in Virginia, four years after the end of the Civil War. He earned his law degree at Howard University in 1897. In 1928, he became the first Black American to be elected as a state representative in Missouri. Knox passed away in 1949.

On July 29 of 1926, when the articles of incorporation were filed, the name had changed to the National Bar Association.

Judge Odell McGhee, Iowa Fifth Judicial District (ret.): … you know, just organization at the beginning. And folks said, ‘Is it viable?’ ‘Is it necessary?’ ‘Why do we have to do this?’ ‘And, yeah we need to do this’ and just getting people out and, and, and getting people involved, uh, was hard.”


At the turn of the 20th century, people of color were frequently denied equal access to places to eat, places to stay or places to learn.  The separation was mandated through what were called “Jim Crow” laws. Many whites, made the argument that these laws allowed for the creation of institutions of equal quality for Blacks. The notion of “separate but equal” was validated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896 in what was known as the Plessy decision.

In 1920, five years before the founding of the National Bar Association, the population of the United States was almost 106 million. Seventy percent of the nation lived east of the Mississippi River. Nearly 90 percent of the people in the U.S. at that time were white and almost 10 percent were Black.

Iowa’s population was just over 2.4 million which placed it 16th amongst the 48 states. Its people lived a largely rural lifestyle. Of those Iowans, a little more than 19,000, about eight percent, were Black.

In Iowa, people of color were often prevented from owning houses in certain parts of many cities and towns, membership to some civic groups was denied and more than a few jobs were kept just out of reach.

Nevertheless, Iowa had a history of being progressive.

In 1868, Alexander Clark sued the Muscatine Public Schools to allow his daughter Susan into classes. The decision by the Iowa Supreme Court was that "separate" was not "equal" and ordered that Susan be admitted to the school.

In 1879, the Iowa General Assembly removed the words “white male” from the statute governing qualifications to practice law.

In the same year, Alexander G. Clark, Jr, was the first African American to earn a law degree from the University of Iowa.

Judge Odell McGhee, Iowa Fifth Judicial District (ret.): “Iowa has always been a tolerant community. And so, I mean, that was not a tremendous amount of, um, uh, KKK or any of those types here. And Des Moines specifically, uh, African Americans were allowed to, to step out and to do things as long as they, they did it in their own community, you know, as long as they didn't, you know, influence or affect the overall community.”


According to the NBA, much of the work done by its members has helped shape the struggle for Blacks in the United States and has helped many African Americans receive equal justice under the law.

One of the most famous cases argued the by members of the National Bar Association was Brown versus the Board of Education. Heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 50s, the proceedings focused on segregation in public schools. Thurgood Marshall, who became the first African American to be appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States, argued the case.  On May 14, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion of the Court, stating that

"We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."


The ruling overturned the Plessy decision which, nearly six decades before, had upheld the validity of Jim Crow laws.

Currently, the NBA and its members are weighing in on several issues including the rights of voters, protection of the undocumented and the prevention of police brutality. 

Today, the National Bar Association is the nation’s oldest and largest national association of predominately African American lawyers and judges.  The NBA has more than 80 chapters in the United States and around the world.

As the National Bar Association approaches its 100th anniversary, its members continue to see the value of the organization.

Judge Odell McGhee, Iowa Fifth Judicial District (ret.) “I had my first experience with the National Bar Association in law school and, um, and we would go to the national meetings and…all the, uh, African Americans in the national scene would come and you'd have an opportunity to actually to sit down and talk to them.”


Until the A Monumental Journey statue, there was nothing to honor the Five Founders and Seven Incorporators. During a celebration for the 75th anniversary of the founding of the NBA, Judge McGhee set out to create a monument that commemorated the work of all 12 lawyers.

Judge Odell McGhee, Iowa Fifth Judicial District (ret.) “And the President of the NBA, a woman by the name of Evett Simmons, came to Iowa, uh, to help us celebrate the 75th anniversary. …we're trying to find some memento or something to show that this organization was founded here in 1925. We need to, um, do a monument or something to, to at least, uh, document that these folks came through here and the challenges that they had to face…and also hope to inspire the African American community and other communities, uh, to the fact that when something is not necessarily where you want it to be, you know, you get up and do something for yourself.”


From that meeting in 2001, work began. An artist was commissioned to create the work. A site was selected in the capitol city along the Principal River Walk next to the Des Moines River and close to the current federal courthouse of the Southern District of Iowa.  The Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation was eventually brought in to help raise money for the project.

Progress was slowed when the first artist had to be replaced due to a funding requirement. In 2008, the Public Art Foundation selected internationally known and critically acclaimed artist Kerry James Marshall.

Kerry James Marshall, Artist: “I had never heard of the National Bar Association before that moment… once I found out what the organization was that it was founded in Des Moines in 1925, then the research I was doing to start figuring out what kind of, what way I would approach the project….”


Marshall based the statue on the shape of a talking drum, an instrument used by African tribes to communicate over long distances. His design cut the drum shape in half and shifted the two pieces to a new balancing point. The finished piece symbolically represents the scales of justice and embodies the legal principles on which the NBA was founded.

Kerry James Marshall, Artist: “…what you want is a certain kind of equilibrium where over time there's a certain kind of stability that's achieved over time because you can't account for every single variation, every single discrepancy, you can't account for that.”


At one point, the Army Corps of Engineers told project coordinators a study needed to be done to confirm the monument and surrounding plaza would not affect flooding in the area. Marshall stepped in and paid for the study out of his own pocket.

Kerry James Marshall, Artist: “So I needed to know whether that would work or not before we would change our, our mind and look for another location….to find out whether it was going to be feasible. And then we could go ahead. If it wasn't going to work, I'm good with that. But not knowing whether it will work or not. It was unacceptable to me.


The study showed the project would conform to Army Corps rules. However, flooding regulations for the area were changed and the financial burden to rework the ground was too great. A search began for a new spot to build the monument.

Finally, another piece of property along the Riverwalk was offered to the Foundation. Known as the Hansen Triangle, the land at the corner of Grand Avenue and 2nd Avenue was approved.

Through an unexpected turn of events, the new location fulfilled Marshall’s wish to locate the monument across from the new federal courthouse.

In 2008, Marshall delivered his concept model to Tim Hickman, one of the principal partners at Substance Architecture and the current president of the Greater Des Moines Art Foundation.

Tim Hickman, Principal, Substance Architecture: ”Kerry came and saw our mock-up, but then he never came during the construction. So, I think we all felt like we're here to make sure that the quality and all the details are as much as possible, the way that Kerry would want it.”


Marshall’s initial concept was to cover the outside in fiberglass but he dropped the idea and decided on a brick exterior.

Each of the 14,000 bricks in this $1.2 million project had to be handmade so they would fit properly around the statue’s metal armature. 

Tim Hickman, Principal, Substance Architecture: “Because for me it wasn't really resolved until the day before the dedication when Kerry actually came to town because he had never seen it. That was the most stressful moment on the project for me, because he had been so generous, but he'd never actually seen this piece, it was his baby.”


Kerry James Marshall, Artist: “Man the work you guys did was just was amazing.”


Dan Amble, Site Supervisor, Seeder Masonry, Inc.: “We build walls at schools and stuff like that and it’s supposed to be flat and we get this and there’s…”


Kerry James Marshall, Artist: “Every angle, all that crazy stuff.”


Tim Hickman, Principal, Substance Architecture: “So a lot of our office, most of our design team, um, we're able to see the process of fabricating. You know, usually we send our drawings away and we know there's somebody welding and grinding and doing all these things, but to actually see it in the process is pretty exciting.”


Kerry James Marshall, Artist: “I made a model that was only about 18 inches high. This thing is 37 feet tall. That's where the real challenge lies. … I'm really satisfied. I'm really pleased with the way it turned out.”


Marshall, who took no fee for his work, believes the statue represents more than just the founders of the NBA.

Kerry James Marshall, Artist: “it's not just about them. They were instrumental in establishing the organization, but the organization has to become something that's bigger than who they are. And so that's why it's not particular, not made so specific that it's just about these people. It's not just about them. It's about everything that happened after that. And the monument itself is a kind of Testament to the durability of those people in their idea and the organization they created.”


Judge Odell McGhee, Iowa Fifth Judicial District (ret.) “That was my dream was to have a living monument and community within a community, something that, um, that people could make a part of their lives…. I mean, everybody could come there and speak up and speak out, not just minorities, but anybody who wants to say something.


Judge Henry Hamilton, Federal Administrative Law Judge: “Talk or dress differently have equal opportunities and equal encouragement for success and advancement.


On Thursday, July 12, 2018, nearly two decades after the day McGhee spoke with Evett Simmons, there was a ceremony to dedicate the statue.

Simon Estes: “…march on ‘til victory is won.”

Juan R. Thomas, the 75th president of the National Bar Association was one of the featured speakers.

Juan R. Thomas, President, NBA, 2017-2018: “But also, we gather today in memory of those unnamed and unknown 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. This is the defining moment in the nation’s history….We gather on behalf of our future.”


Since that day, the area surrounding the statue has been a place where people have spent time in calm reflection, spoken strong words and held celebrations.

Romonda Belcher, Iowa Fifth Judicial District: “We don't want it just to be a piece of art where you just kind of glance at when you drive by, and really just understand fully what it took for those individuals who in 1925, did not have the opportunities that we have today…have it be a place where you or individuals can express, you know, voice their ideas and have freedom of expression”


Judge Odell McGhee, Iowa Fifth Judicial District (ret.): “This project stands for ‘We will not be stopped. We will continue to fight and continue to move forward.”


Announcer: The Pella Rolscreen Foundation is a proud supporter of Iowa PBS. Pella Windows and Doors strives to better our communities and build a better tomorrow.


Announcer: Funding for this program was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation as well as generations of families and friends who feel passionate about the programs they watch on Iowa PBS.