African American Museum of Iowa celebrates 20 years

Youth's disconnection from community spurred idea for foundation

CEDAR RAPIDS –— The African American Museum of Iowa will celebrate its 20th anniversary next week, but Executive Director Tom Moore remembers when it was a simply an idea.

“We started out very small at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church,” Moore says. “It was an idea to educate our children about African American history at the church.”

The concept stemmed from concerns that the city’s youth felt disconnected from their community and the state as a whole.

“Many of the children felt that had to go to Atlanta or somewhere to find their history,” Moore says. “Iowa belongs to them, too. They have a history here and we wanted to help give them a sense of pride.”

That desire led to the formation of The African American Heritage Foundation of Iowa, a grassroots organization of concerned community members. The next two decades were a learning curve of fundraising, organization, lectures, programs and planning as the foundation struggled to find their place in Cedar Rapids.

“We moved out of the church because it was starting to be seen as a Mt. Zion thing and we wanted it to be bigger than that,” Moore says. “We didn’t know then that it would be statewide, but we wanted to involve the community.”

The organization had several temporary sites over the next few years, but wasn’t until the move to Westdale Mall in 2000 that the foundation was able to create its first museum exhibit. This led to hiring a curator and gift shop manager, in addition to Joseph McGill, who was hired as the first executive director in 1998. Fundraising for their own museum building began in earnest, as did creating public programs that would speak to all members of the community.

Early on, supporters pictured the future museum as a statewide attraction — not just a Cedar Rapids’ facility — and worked to promote it as such, garnering support from communities as far away as Council Bluffs and Sioux City.

“We’ve always been in this unique position where there aren’t any other statewide museums doing what we do,” says Grant Stevens, the museum’s development director.

Construction for the African American Museum of Iowa started in April 2002, with the museum opening in September the following year. Nearly 10 years have passed since the museum first opened its doors, but the museum’s mission extends beyond brick and mortar.

“Over half of what we do happens outside of the museum,” Moore says. “You can’t wait for people to come to you; you have to go out to them. We started out that way and we’ve never stopped.”

Michelle Poe, the museum’s director of education, travels the state regularly, leading presentations in schools, community centers and libraries in Davenport, Des Moines, Fort Dodge and Muscatine. The information she shares is tailored to each community, each group. The presentations, she says, reinforce the belief that the museum may be located in Cedar Rapids, but it belongs to everyone in the state.

“People respond to it,” she says. “I’ll be leading a presentation and I’ll hear, ‘Oh, this is from our museum.’”

She recently gave a talk in Burlington. A woman at the end of her program asked Poe to show the first slide again.

“She looked at it and said, ‘That’s me,’” Poe says. “I wouldn’t know that, wouldn’t be able to identify her or learn more about the picture if we didn’t operate this way.”


The African American Museum of Iowa has several events planned for its 20th anniversary.

Thursday, May 2: A celebration/fundraiser will be held from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Cedar Rapids Marriott, 1200 Collins Rd. NE. A look back on the museum’s past and its future will be shared through storytelling and performances. A formal dinner will be served. Tickets are $60 per person, $100 per could and $540 for a table of 10. Tickets can be purchased through the museum Website at or by contacting Katherine Smith at or (319) 862-2101, ext. 216.

Friday, May 3: A grown-ups only celebration will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with free museum tours and refreshments. A celebration mixer with live music, snacks and drinks will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Both events will take place at the museum, 55 12th Ave. SE.

Saturday, May 4: A community-wide birthday party will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., beginning with a play performed by the Eulenspiegel Puppets at 10 a.m. Twenty activities will be available for families, including cake at noon and African drumming at dancing at 1:30 p.m.

For more information about the museum and its 20th anniversary, visit

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