This article is published in Explore Magazine’s fall & winter 2018 issue, featuring Iowa’s scenic byways. This week, The Gazette will publish articles featuring one byway each day online. You can pick up a hard copy of the magazine at area businesses, convenience stores and grocery stores. You also can pick up a copy at The Gazette.
LaNisha Cassell understands why Eastern Iowans might assume the African-American Museum of Iowa is filled with grim reminders of a history of oppression, prejudice and poverty for people of color.
And Cassell, the museum’s executive director since September, said those elements are certainly present in the landmark facility, established in 1994 and relocated to a permanent facility on the banks of the Cedar River, close to the original Lincoln Highway route, in September 2003.
But there’s a much bigger and more optimistic story to tell of African-American history in Iowa — and it’s being told in new ways this year as the museum celebrates its 25th anniversary.
“There are hard things to see, certainly,” said Cassell, “But I think a lot of people who visit here are pleasantly surprised about some of the things Iowa was doing before the rest of the nation.”
The museum was founded when local leader Tom Moore and fellow members of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church began asking about preserving the heritage of African-Americans in Iowa as part of Black History Month celebrations. Later that year, the African American Heritage Foundation was established as a 501c(3) nonprofit, and the roots of the museum were planted.
“It was just that informal,” Cassell said.
After hiring its first full-time executive director, Joseph McGill, in 1998, and after operating in a Westdale Mall storefront for nearly a decade, the museum’s state-of-the-art facility opened in 2003, featuring temporary and permanent exhibit spaces, meeting rooms, a gift shop and archival storage.
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A major challenge came with the Flood of 2008, when the museum’s main exhibit spaces took on 5 ½ feet of water. The facility closed for several months while a $1.3 million repair and reconstruction project was completed, reopening to the public in January 2009. It’s now a fixture on the city’s southeast side.
The museum’s temporary and permanent exhibits excel at telling the story of African American history and influence in Iowa, but Cassell, who worked for years under Moore’s guidance before taking the museum’s helm a year ago, said a primary goal moving forward is to improve the museum’s visibility, through outreach and a focus on what makes Iowa’s ethnic groups alike rather than different.
“There are a lot of people who live here who aren’t from Iowa,” Cassell said. “We’re trying to stress that you can’t judge a book by its cover. There are so many stories to be told, lots to be uncovered. We learn something new every day.”
As part of an effort to broaden the museum’s influence from exhibits to outreach, the 12th Avenue Bridge over the Cedar River, near the museum, was renamed the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge in 2005. New banners added this summer emphasize the bridge’s renaming and help lead visitors to the museum’s front door.
And the museum’s new temporary exhibit, “Driven By Hope,” looks at African-American migration to Iowa from the end of the Civil War through the Great Depression and the factors that brought people here. It’s a story shared by many ethnic groups, not just African-Americans, Cassell said.
“I think people come to find out that we’re more alike than we are different,” she said. “People do wonder what we’re all about (as a museum). Many think they actually need to be black to come here. But if that was our only goal, there’s no way we could succeed. There’s just not enough of a demographic makeup. We want to share authentic stories, and many times they aren’t just African-American stories.”
Other goals on Cassell’s agenda include establishing a presence for the museum in Des Moines — though it’s unlikely the museum’s main operations would leave Cedar Rapids — and making the facility more self-sustaining through grants, fundraisers and memberships.
And as the museum wraps up its 25th anniversary celebration this fall with a History Makers Gala Oct. 4 — honoring local leaders Venise Berry, Shelby Humbles Jr., Rudy Simms and Dr. E Dale Abel — Cassell said she’ll continue to push for greater visibility and an increased emphasis on the stories and challenges shared by all ethnic groups.
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“I think Cedar Rapids thinks of itself as inclusive, and we’re trying to put our stamp on that effort as well,” she said. “When people visit, they’ll be surprised and amazed by how far we’ve come. They’ll hear authentic stories, and I think they’ll really be inspired by our shared experiences.”
If you go
WHAT: African American Museum of Iowa
WHERE: 55 12th Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
DETAILS: (319) 862-2101, blackiowa.org