Black Iowa lawyers paved way for group

Discussion in 'Honoring Black Ancestors' started by dustyelbow, Feb 20, 2006.

  1. dustyelbow

    dustyelbow Well-Known Member MEMBER

    Oct 25, 2005
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    Black Iowa lawyers paved way for group
    Amid racial tensions, the 5 founded the National Bar Association


    February 19, 2006

    Five powerful, rebellious black lawyers in the 1920s had two choices after the American Bar Association refused them admittance because of their race — accept defeat or fight.

    George Woodson, Samuel Joe Brown, Gertrude Rush, James Morris and Charles Howard Sr. fought back. Their act of defiance 81 years ago spawned a historically black organization. Here. In Iowa.

    Despite segregation, prejudice and the threat of the Ku Klux Klan, these Iowa lawyers formally organized the National Bar Association in 1925.

    Today, the organization's members number 20,000 worldwide.

    The accomplishments of the Iowa trailblazers who battled discrimination and injustice isn't widely known outside of legal circles.

    Attorney Robert Wright Sr. was born in 1925. A 1954 graduate of Drake University, he has been a fixture in legal circles for more than 50 years. He knew some of the early founders. He had attended East High School with Howard's son. Rush — the first black woman admitted to the Iowa bar in 1918 — was practicing law from her offices in Des Moines, Buxton and Chicago, he said.

    Competition and a sense of community bound the civil rights leaders together, Wright said.

    "There was an affinity," he said. "We had respect for each other. There was a togetherness."

    The law office of Morris' grandsons William Morris and James Morris III is located north of downtown Des Moines. It houses legal bookcases their grandfather used 80 years ago.

    William Morris said his grandfather and other founders blazed trails in an era that saw lynchings across the country and thousands of KKK members march and burn crosses in Iowa and elsewhere.

    "I have the utmost respect for them," William Morris said. "It was formed at the time of great violence and danger, particularly for African-American lawyers."

    A few historical displays exist in Des Moines heralding the association. Photographs of the five founders hang at the State Historical Building. The Drake University Law Library houses a small collection of documents. A small stone monument carved with the faces of the founders is located at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church. About 25 feet separate the graves of Woodson and Morris at Glendale Cemetery.

    Many black judges and lawyers today feel indebted to the founders for removing racial barriers.

    Polk County judge Odell McGhee , who is one of five black judges in the state, believes that a large monument to the founders is necessary and overdue. Maybe then people, including members of the National Bar Association, would be convinced that the association was founded in Iowa amid limited diversity, he said.

    At association meetings, where McGhee has rubbed shoulders with the late Johnnie Cochran and U.S. presidents, association members have expressed surprise that Iowa has black lawyers and judges.

    They'd say: " 'There aren't any blacks in Iowa," McGhee said. "I'd say, 'The organization was founded in Iowa.' "

    Progress, then and now

    In 1925, the five founders were the only black lawyers practicing in Iowa, according to the book "Outside In: African American History in Iowa, 1838-2000."

    McGhee had research conducted for a law article that said the nation had 1,100 black lawyers in 1930 and about 13,000 today. Iowa has 8,000 lawyers, according to the Iowa Bar Association. McGhee estimates that 100 of those are black.

    Despite the paucity of black lawyers in the early 1900s, the founders made history in many ways. They won cases and operated law firms. According to historical reports, Woodson founded the Iowa Negro Bar Association in 1901 and was its first president, as well as the first president of the National Bar Association.

    In 1917, Morris and Howard attended the U.S. Army's only training camp for "colored" officers at Fort Des Moines. Morris published the Iowa Bystander, Iowa's oldest black newspaper, for several decades. Brown in 1905 was the first black to try a case before the Iowa Supreme Court. Brown also ran unsuccessfully for a city council seat in 1910 and district judge in 1928. Rush was president of the Iowa Negro Bar Association in 1921. Howard, who never lost a death penalty case, published a black newspaper, the Iowa Observer.

    "They were the community leaders," said Morris' grandson Robert Morris . "They were the leaders of the civil rights struggle."

    Polk County District Judge D.J. Stovall agreed. Their acts "exemplified courage, tempered with a certain amount of recklessness, because they knew what they were up against," he said.

    Southern blacks flocked north to Iowa, including Rush, who hailed from Texas; Howard, from South Carolina; Woodson, from Virginia; and Morris, from Georgia, said William Morris.

    "For many African-Americans that came here, particularly from the South, this was a comparative mecca of freedom and opportunity," he said.

    Polk County District Judge Don Nickerson said it seems to "defy logic" that the association was founded here with relatively few blacks.

    "It speaks to the type of progressive nature of people, of the black lawyers that were here in Iowa," he said.

    And the progress continues.

    Luther Glanton was Iowa's first black judge in 1959. Today, Iowa has five black judges: Stovall, McGhee, Nickerson and George Stigler and Jeff Harris.

    "It was quite unusual for judges from other states to appreciate there are minorities from Iowa, leave alone judges," said Stovall.

    One or two judges could be perceived as "tokenism," Stovall said. But now when he meets with judges from across the nation, there's "not that sense of astonishment" that there are five black Iowa judges.

    Recognizing founders

    The insistence by some that the association couldn't have been founded in Iowa has strengthened McGhee and others' resolve to commemorate the organization and its founders.

    McGhee and others pushed for the Iowans to get credit. The history of the organization's founding is posted on the association's Web site

    Others, too, are recognizing the association's founders.

    Artist Sherrie Taha last fall created a bronze bust of Rush. She ran across Rush's name while researching another art project.

    "She was pretty important, but I had never heard of her," Taha said.

    She displayed the bust last month during the "I'll Make Me a World in Iowa" festival of black arts and culture. Only a few people recognized Rush, she said.

    Busts of the other founders will also be created, she said.

    "It's important for Iowans to remember," she said.

    Black lawyers in Des Moines include many trailblazers such as Willie Glanton, who was Iowa's first black state legislator.

    Also among them are high-profile names — Alfredo Parrish, Nolden Gentry and Wright — all of whom have children who are lawyers.

    Still, concerns about the future persist — the high incarceration rate of black men, the lack of blacks choosing the legal profession, and the lack of black history being taught to inspire black youth.

    Iowa has about 67,000 blacks, which is 2.3 percent of Iowa's population. About 25 percent are incarcerated, according to judicial statistics.

    "We've got a lot of problems," said Robert Morris. "Nobody is really doing anything about it."

    McGhee said some blacks are "truly repugnant" toward the law because of history, and they don't see law as a viable profession.

    They feel "the only thing the law has done to us is something negative," he said. "When we see judges and lawyers, they've always done something bad to us."

    McGhee said it's vitally important for blacks to work in all aspects of the profession — especially since blacks are overrepresented within the penal system.

    He added that blacks also need to be more supportive of black lawyers. Many black lawyers said most of their clients are white.

    "Even today, a lot of African-Americans don't go to black lawyers because they just don't think that we're competent and capable," McGhee said. "So it must have been really hard in the 1920s and 1930s to step out and get through law school."

    But scores of blacks did get through law school. Like the Clarks.

    Alexander Clark and his son graduated from the University of Iowa Law School in 1884 and 1879, respectively.

    It's a shame that black Iowans' contributions aren't more widely known, Robert Morris said.

    "If these kids don't get any history, especially any Iowa history, how can they have any pride in this state, and how can they want to stay here?" he said.

    William Morris said his grandfather was a "walking lexicon of African-American history" who would constantly quiz his grandsons about black leaders. He said the founding of the National Bar Association is captivating and motivating.

    "The largest thing that these young black men and women stood for was to tell young black people that there is no obstacle that you can't overcome," William Morris said. "That you can achieve your dreams. That hard work and perseverance and education will pay off, but you'll have to sacrifice to attain that."

    New set of trailblazers: Don Nickerson, left, D.J. Stovall, center, and Odell McGhee, right, are three of Iowa's five black judges. These three work in Polk County. Judges George Stigler and Jeff Harris are the other two. They work in Black Hawk County.


    What is the National Bar Association?

    The association was formally established on Aug. 1, 1925, in Des Moines, in Judge Hubert Utterback's courtroom at the Polk County Courthouse. The association was founded after the American Bar Association refused to admit attorneys George Woodson, Samuel Joe Brown, Gertrude Rush, James Morris and Charles Howard Sr. because of their race.

    The five established the National Negro Bar Association. "Negro" was later dropped from the name. Woodson served as the association's first president. Charter members hailed from Illinois and Missouri.

    The National Bar Association, which is the oldest and largest for blacks, was created to uphold the legal profession, promote interaction among members, and protect the civil and political rights of citizens. Today, the association serves about 20,000 lawyers, judges, educators and law students worldwide.

    A spokesperson for the American Bar Association said some black applicants were mistakenly accepted as members in the early 1920s because they were not asked to identify their race on the applications. The association had discussed rescinding their membership, but did not do so. The group then began inquiring about the race of potential members and did not admit more minorities until 1954.



    See Polk County District Judge Odell McGhee interact with teenagers in truancy court. Watch the video.



    The association's founders:

    James Morris — (1890-1977) Attorney, publisher, graduate of U.S. Army 17th Provisional Training Regiment Camp at Fort Des Moines in 1917. Operated Morris Law Firm. Purchased the Iowa Bystander newspaper in 1922 and operated it until 1971.
    George Woodson — (1865-1933) Attorney, founded the Iowa Negro Bar Association in 1901. He was its first president.
    Samuel Joe Brown — (1875-1950) Attorney, co-founded the Des Moines branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Served with U.S. Army 17th Provisional Training Regiment at Fort Des Moines.
    Charles Howard Sr. — (1894-1969) Attorney, graduate of U.S. Army 17th Provisional Training Regiment Camp at Fort Des Moines in 1917. Howard was a columnist for the Bystander. He later published the Iowa Observer.
    Gertrude Rush — (1880-1962) Studied law under her attorney husband, James Rush. Was first black woman admitted to the bar in Iowa in 1918. In 1921 she was elected president of the Iowa Negro Bar Association.

    Iowa's black court judges

    The state has five black district court judges.

    Polk County; appointed to 5th Judicial District in February 2002.

    Polk County; appointed to 5th Judicial District in 2003.


    Polk County; appointed to 5th Judicial District in 1995.

    Black Hawk County; appointed to 1st Judicial District in 1978.

    Black Hawk County; appointed to 1st Judicial District bench in 1997.

    Source: Iowa Judicial Branch Web site

    William Morris

    Morris is an attorney at the Morris Law Firm in Des Moines. He operates the firm with his brother, James Morris III, who is known as Brad. The brothers are grandsons of the late James Morris, who was one of the five founders of the National Bar Association in Des Moines in 1925.



    Group began in Des Moines

    Five black attorneys started what would become the National Bar Association in the Polk County Courthouse in 1925 after the American Bar Association refused to admit them because of their race. Today, the association serves about 20,000 lawyers, judges and educators.


    Learn about the founders

    One of the five National Bar Association founders, Charles Howard Sr., wrote of fellow founder George Woodson in the Feb. 13, 1927, issue of the Iowa Bystander newspaper: "He has done more to make the Iowa Negro lawyer respected and feared than all other Negro lawyers combined."



    See a judge in action

    Watch a video clip of Polk County judge Odell McGhee in the courtroom at



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