History on Display: Sculpture Honors Black Lawyers, Iowa Founders of the National Bar Association

The 37-foot-tall sculpture hides in plain sight in downtown Des Moines.

*Originally posted on Nov. 4, 2020, by Black Iowa News on its former platform.

Iowa PBS is currently airing the documentary, "A Monumental Journey" about the 12 Black lawyers who founded the National Bar Association in 1925 in Des Moines.

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“A Monumental Journey” located at the Hansen Triangle at Grand and Second avenues in Des Moines by artist Kerry James Marshall honors the founding of the National Bar Association by 12 Black lawyers here in 1925. Photo by Black Iowa News.

My favorite park is the Pappajohn Sculpture Park in downtown Des Moines. Several times a week, I drive west on Grand Avenue, past the Iowa State Capitol, through the East Village and over the bridge above the Des Moines River until I arrive at my favorite spot.

When I read on Facebook that a sculpture honoring the founders of the National Bar Association is situated along my route to the park, I wondered how I could have missed it.

“A Monumental Journey” up close. Artist Kerry James Marshall’s massive brick, steel and granite sculpture celebrates the founding of the National Bar Association in 1925 in Des Moines. Photo by Black Iowa News.

I couldn’t believe I’d driven the same route for two years and had somehow missed the enormous 37-foot-tall sculpture, “A Monumental Journey,” which was installed in 2018 at the Hansen Triangle, set back from the corner of Grand and Second avenues.

Made of Manganese Ironspot brick, steel and granite — and inspired by the talking drums of West Africa — the sculpture commemorates 12 Black lawyers who founded the National Bar Association on Aug. 1, 1925, in Des Moines. The association was founded after some members were denied admittance to the American Bar Association because of their race.

Several trees shroud “A Monumental Journey” from view along Second Avenue. The golden dome of the Iowa State Capitol can be seen in the background. Photo by Black Iowa News.

The association serves lawyers, judges and law students and has 66,000 members and more than 80 chapters around the globe.

I first learned about the founders in 2006 while working on a story about it at the Des Moines Register. It is an inspiring piece of Black Iowa history everyone should know.

Polk County Judge Odell McGhee, who served on the association’s national board and as president of the Iowa chapter, had pushed for a monument for more than 16 years.

“A Monumental Journey” sits behind the trees near the corner of Grand and Second avenues. The more than 37-foot-tall sculpture honors the founders of the National Bar Association. Photo by Black Iowa News.

Founding Iowa members include Gertrude E. Durden Rush; S. Joe Brown; Charles P. Howard Sr; James B. Morris Sr. and George H. Woodson. Their names, along with seven founders from two other states, George C. Adams; C. Francis Stradford; L. Amasa Knox; William H. Haynes; Wendell E. Green; Charles H. Calloway and Jesse Nathaniel Baker, form a circle around the base of the sculpture, by artist Kerry James Marshall. Learn more about the sculpture here.

A ring around the base of “A Monumental Journey” contains the names of the 12 founders of the National Bar Association. Photo by Black Iowa News.

A sign near the sculpture reads, “The upper drum is off center atop the bottom drum, giving the sculpture a precarious tension that suggests a struggle to maintain balance and equilibrium. The sculpture reminds us that the quest for equality and perfect balance is not yet achieved. The legacy of the founders of the NBA is the continuation of the “monumental journey” towards human dignity and justice for the disenfranchised and politically oppressed people of the world.”

Now that I know where the sculpture is located, I find myself looking for it from different vantage points when I’m nearing downtown. I salute McGhee and others who worked tirelessly to honor the 12 trailblazing Black lawyers whose important work now has a fitting, permanent tribute for all to behold.


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