Greater Des Moines and the state of Iowa have a long history of leadership on progressive issues. In honor of Black History month, we celebrate our community's historic milestones and the contributions of Black leaders and artists to the fabric of Greater Des Moines’ culture.
A fitting ruling for Independence Day, and seven years before the Iowa Territory would become a state, its newly formed Supreme Court ruled that a slave was a person, not property, and could not be returned to his “master” in Missouri. “Shattering Silence,” (2009 by James Ellwanger) a sculpture outside the Iowa Supreme Court, commemorates Ralph Montgomery’s case.
James C. Jordan, one of Iowa’s earliest settlers, built his Victorian-style home in West Des Moines. Jordan was a staunch abolitionist, and the Jordan House was a designated stopover on the Underground Railroad. Freedom-seeking slaves hid in the fields, barns, and outbuildings on the property. Jordan was regarded as the “chief conductor” for Polk County. Today, the house serves as both a museum for West Des Moines and as the home of the West Des Moines Historical Society.
Iowa legalized interracial marriage, more than a century before the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed this right for all Americans in the 1967 landmark case Loving v. Virginia.
The University of Iowa became the first state university in the nation to admit men and women on an equal basis.
Long before women had the right to vote, Iowa’s Julia C. Addington became the first woman elected to public office in Iowa (Superintendent of Schools for Mitchell County in 1869) and she is believed to be the first woman elected to public office in the United States.
Iowan Arabella A. Mansfield was the first woman admitted to the practice of law in any state in the nation.
Fort Des Moines became the country’s first officer training school for African Americans.
At a time when the American Bar Association and other national legal associations denied membership to African Americans, 12 attorneys founded the National Bar Association (NBA) in Des Moines. A sculpture at the corner of Grand & 2nd Avenues, entitled “A Monumental Journey” (July 2018 by Kerry James Marshall) pays tribute to the NBA’s founders.
The Mother Mosque of America is completed in Iowa, and is the first building designed and constructed as a house of worship for Muslims in America.
During World War II, Fort Des Moines was selected as the site of the first Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps training center.
Robert D. Ray, Iowa governor from 1969 to 1983, was the first public official anywhere in the United States to offer a safe-haven for the endangered Vietnamese “Boat People.” The Robert D Ray Asian Gardens, located downtown along the Des Moines River, are a tribute to Ray’s work and a celebration of diversity within the community.
Iowa outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
In a unanimous decision for the Varnum v. Brien case, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the right of same-sex couples to marry, six years before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Obergefell v. Hodges, would do the same.
Cultural celebrations & festivals
Greater Des Moines is an inclusive, welcoming community with a growing and diverse population. Enjoy the community’s rich culture at these events hosted throughout the year.
Iowa State Fair