Director Tom Moore remembers 20 years at the African American History Museum of Iowa

May 4, 2013

A bird's eye view of exhibits at the African American History Museum of Iowa.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren / Iowa Public Radio

It’s with pride that museum president and founding member Tom Moore moves between exhibits at the African American History Museum of Iowa.

"My hero is Alexander Clark," he says with a grin. "Clark was very instrumental in integrating Iowa’s classrooms,"

In 1867, nearly a hundred years before the Civil Rights Movement, Clark sued the Iowa's public schools in Clark v. Board of Directors to allow his daughter to attend the school near their home. He won, making Iowa one of the first states to have a law for the integration of schools.

It’s been 20 years since Moore and his colleagues founded the Museum in a church basement in Cedar Rapids. They now occupy a large building next to the Cedar River. The interior has been redone after major flood damage in 2008.

Moore said he felt it was important to establish the museum to teach Iowans about the roles African Americans played in their state’s history,  something he didn’t think was being taught in schools. 

“We wanted to preserve it, we wanted to collect it," Moore said.  "We were hoping to instill a sense of pride in our African American children. We wanted African Americans who had lived their lives and done much in their communities to feel appreciated.”

Some of those historical figures still live in Iowa. He points them out like old friends, like Art Pennington, a professional baseball player who later settled in Cedar Rapids.

"Pennington's still with us, he lives up the street and around the corner."

Moore says the history of African Americans in Iowa includes some of the first sit-ins at a diner in Des Moines, and black soldiers who patrolled the Midwest following the Civil War. Moore says he sees elements from that history repeating themselves today among different ethnicities and demographics, which is why it's important to remember.

"We hurt ourselves as a country when we leave anyone behind. When we have a segment of our population that we’re ostracizing, they soon become a weight for you," he said.

Moore is retiring from his position as president this month. He says going  forward, the museum will continue to work with other communities to develop their own exhibits on African American history.

Director of Education for the museum, Michelle Poe, says her favorite moments have been when children react to the exhibits.

“The was a woman who was taking a group of students from a local after school program, and they were going through. She goes, you know this is your history, look at the strength of the people who came before you. She said don’t tell me about not doing your homework, because look what they put up with so you could go to school and have all these opportunities.”

20th anniversary activities will continue throughout the weekend.