Guest Columnist

Honor Iowa's Black history all year, not just in February

African American Museum of Iowa leads #NotJustFebruary campaign

Part of the
Part of the "Unwavering: 21st Century Activism" exhibit at the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

At the end of 2019, the African American Museum of Iowa launched a social media campaign, #NotJustFebruary, in an effort to advocate for year-round learning about Black history.

The campaign and museum share a goal to teach history as it really happened. The museum strives to share the authentic stories of African American struggle and achievement through relevant exhibits, programs, presentations, events and other educational resources.

While development of Black History Month and its predecessor (Negro History Week, founded by Carter G. Woodson in 1926) has always been a means to celebrate and learn about the untold history and blotted out contribution of Black people, we must not limit this education or celebration to February alone. A much revered and necessary push toward truth-telling, the 1970 launch of the long-awaited Black History Month was a way to remind everyone the significance Black people had and continue to have in every facet of our society. From science and invention, literature and the arts, to psychology and social justice, Black contribution is everywhere and in everything.

The African American Museum of Iowa has been a statewide resource for preserving, exhibiting and teaching Iowa’s African American history since 1993. The museum continues to be a vibrant contribution to Iowa’s arts and culture scene and an economic driver in our community.

Any day, week or month is a good one to learn more about our shared history. Black history IS Iowa’s history.

As the United States welcomes Kamala Harris as the first person of color to be vice president, let us remember Iowa trailblazers like Gertrude Rush (1880-1962), the first African American female lawyer in Iowa and first admitted to the Iowa bar in 1918; Willie Stevenson Glanton (1922-2017), the second African American woman to be admitted to the Iowa bar in 1953 and the first African American woman elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 1964; and Helen Miller (1945-), who served in the Iowa House of Representatives from 2003 to 2013.

The list goes on and on, and includes more recent groundbreakers like Nancy Humbles, the first African American elected to the Cedar Rapids Community School Board; Stacey Walker, the first African American elected supervisor in Linn County; and Royceann Porter, the first African American elected supervisor in Johnson County.

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We can also look to local pioneers like Virgil Powell, Viola Gibson, Nelson Evans, Rufus and Betty Johnson, Cedar Rapids City Council member Dale Todd, Dr. Sharon Collins, Dedric Doolin and Paulette Clark, who all have made significant contributions to our city and state. It’s also the “everyday” heroes who stayed the course and serve as beacons for equality and justice without fame.

The African American Museum of Iowa envisions building a community that comes together to foster a greater understanding and appreciation of Iowa’s African American history and culture through conversation, engagement and reflection.

You can learn more at the museum, open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday to Saturday. The temporary exhibit is “Unwavering: 21st Century Activism,” which explores modern protest. This exhibit is on display through mid-August. Stay tuned for the opening of “Mapping Exclusion: Redlining in Iowa,” coming in September.

In 2021, challenge yourself to learn about your neighbors and the leaders of our past and present year-round, #NotJustFebruary.

LaNisha Cassell is executive director of the African American Museum of Iowa: blackiowa.org

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