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A Statement from the Executive Director

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Dear Iowans,

The African American Museum of Iowa team and board have been deeply saddened and outraged by continued injustices against black people in our country. In recent days, the Museum has been the focus of an outpouring of support, with offers of individual, community, and organizational collaboration. This is a clear message that what we do matters to communities across the state. The Museum is uniquely poised to serve as a resource for many seeking historical perspectives, real answers, and social justice platforms.

There are many people who were taken off guard by the most recent and traumatizing murders of black people by law enforcement. These instances of police brutality are only more examples of centuries of oppression. There has been a collective gasp of pain and outrage as yet another video has become the witness for the unheard in our society. The exhaustive list of black men, women, and children who have been victimized throughout the history of this country is not new but now being seen through a new lens – one of authenticity and truth.

The mission of the Museum is to preserve, exhibit, and teach the African American heritage of Iowa. Teaching includes exposing the past and recent injustices to impact the strides we can make today and tomorrow. We are weeks away from our annual Juneteenth celebration, which will take on added meaning this year. This year, we won’t just be celebrating, but launching renewed efforts in the fight toward real justice and equality, armed with allies and voices that need to be heard. There has been a unified awakening of many Americans and global citizens to the atrocities faced by black people today and over the last 400 years.

History has demonstrated the injustices are many and the time of action long overdue. I am heartbroken but not hopeless. I pray for peace and justice in our land. We must demand it for the sake of all our children and their children.

Whether you march, implore your legislature, kneel, or stand up to lawlessness, please do consider your own personal responsibility toward ensuring all people are treated with dignity and humanity. All lives don’t matter until Black lives matter!


LaNisha Cassell
Executive Director

Happy International Jazz Day!

April 30th is International Jazz Day! To celebrate, we’re sharing this content from our 2014 temporary exhibit Behind the Beat featuring a few of Iowa’s jazz legends. Is your favorite on the list?

Who Was Maya Angelou – A Virtual Story Time

In place of our planned April Who Was program, we have created this virtual story time that you can watch at home! Listen to Ava Challenger read Who Was Maya Angelou?, explore one of Angelou’s famous poems, and follow along with a guide to make your own poetry collage at home!

A Letter from the Executive Director

Dear Friends,

Thank you for your continued encouragement and support of the African American Museum of Iowa in the midst of such uncertainty surrounding us all. Like so many organizations and businesses nationwide, the Museum closed its doors to the public and made the decision to cancel or postpone all planned programs, tours, events and rentals through the end of April. We have been relying on social media to regularly bring our resources to you. If you haven’t already done so, consider visiting the new digital tour of our exhibit Endless Possibilities, which includes highlights of items and links to 360°views of select areas, joining our Facebook community group, and following us on social media to keep up with our happenings.

The Museum team certainly misses engaging with you as much as you are missing your routine of getting out and about. We particularly miss what makes this time of year so much fun: leading student tours, giving presentations, meeting out-of-towners, and introducing visitors to our cool store inventory. While closing has been in the best interest of our patrons, staff, and volunteers, the Museum’s operations have taken a hit. We expect a loss of approximately $1,250 of earned revenue for every week we remain closed. From event rentals in our two venues (Celebration Hall and AEGON Learning Lab) and store merchandise to group tours and presentations, the Museum is facing challenges to our daily operations that could have long-term impact. Extended closure will indeed present increased challenges and some unknowns as it relates to anticipated grant funding, donor contributions, and sponsors who all may grapple with their traditional levels of support.

As we enter into a “new normal,” the AAMI is forging ahead with opportunities to bring our members and patrons digital or virtual programming. Stay tuned for more information on our Who Was storytelling series, a viewing party of Netflix’s Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker, and other programs we plan to bring you over the coming weeks. You’ll be happy to know we are moving ahead with our planned Juneteenth celebration, scheduled for Saturday, June 20th at NewBo City Market from 11 AM – 4 PM. You will also be excited that we have announced our 2020 History Makers Gala, which will return to The Hotel at Kirkwood Center on Thursday, September 24th from 5 PM – 8 PM. Honorees this year include trailblazers Dr. Sharon Collins (Cedar Rapids), Judge Odell McGhee (Des Moines), Fred Mims (Iowa City) and Okpara Rice (Marion).


Your engagement, membership and/or contribution will go a long way toward keeping our operations on track and allowing us to increase our digital resources during this mass shutdown to decrease the spread of COVID-19. Please consider ways in which you can help sustain the Museum’s programming, exhibit development, and vast educational resources as you go about maintaining your own sense of normalcy over the coming months.

On behalf of our team and board, be well.


LaNisha Cassell
Executive Director

Community Call for Loan Objects

Do you consider yourself an activist? Have you attended protests, created a piece of artwork, or been part of a group making change in your community? The AAMI is looking for objects (buttons, signs, t-shirts, hats, stickers, artwork, etc.) and photographs documenting the black experience in modern activism including BLM, sports protest, MeToo movement, and LGBTQ rights both nationally and in Iowa. Our 2020-2021 temporary exhibit Unwavering: 21st Century Activism will look at modern social movements and activism and the black experience within them. Please contact our Curator Felicite Wolfe at for more details or to suggest possible loan items.

African American Medical Pioneers

While we are closed in response to the spread of COVID-19, we want to ensure that our educational resources remain available to the public. Over the next few weeks, we will be sharing information from our exhibits and archives. For our first post during this time, we thought that it would be appropriate to share the stories of a few of the medical pioneers featured in our 2015-2016 exhibit Products of a Creative Mind. All of the text here has been adapted from that exhibit.

If you would like to help ensure that we can continue to offer our educational resources during our closure, consider making a donation or becoming a member of the Museum.


Dr. Percy Lavon Julian – Via Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Percy Julian

If you’ve ever received cortisone shot to relieve pain or inflammation, thank Dr. Percy Julian. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from DePauw University in 1920 and a master’s from Harvard in 1923, Julian went on to study at the University of Vienna, where he received his doctorate in 1931.

While in Vienna, Julian’s research focused primarily on physostigmine (also called eserine), a compound used to treat glaucoma and Alzheimer’s disease. Though its medical benefits were well-known, no one had yet been able to synthesize the drug. When Julian returned to the United States, he brought with him Josef Pikl, a colleague from Vienna. While working at DePauw in 1935, Julian and Pikl became the first to successfully synthesize physostigmine. By doing so, they made the treatment of glaucoma more affordable and thus, more widely available.

Julian left DePauw in 1936 after funding for his research and salary ran out. He was denied a faculty position due to his race and experienced similar discrimination when received a job offer in Appleton, Wisconsin that was later rescinded when it was discovered that the city had a law forbidding black residence. Julian was eventually hired by the Glidden Company in Chicago to lead its Soya Products division and find uses for soybean oil by products.


Portrait of Charles Drew – Courtesy of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center via Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Charles Drew

During World War II, the lives of countless soldiers and civilians were saved by the pioneering work of Dr. Charles Drew. After working at Morgan State College in Baltimore for two years as director of athletics and an instructor of biology, Drew began medical school at McGill University in Montreal, Canada in 1928. Here he was introduced to research in the field of blood preservation and transfusion. He graduated in 1933 with a doctor of medicine (M.D.) and master of surgery.

After teaching at Howard University’s College of Medicine from 1935-1938, Drew received a fellowship to study at Columbia University, where he completed his doctoral thesis on “Banked Blood.” His work included research on plasma, the liquid portion of blood. Plasma can be used as a substitute for whole blood and stored significantly longer. Drew received a doctor of science (Sc.D.) from Columbia in 1940, the first African American to receive such a degree in the United States.

Later that year, Drew led the Blood for Britain program, established to provide aid to England in the wake of Nazi German air raids. Drew organized the program, coordinated the efforts of several major hospitals, and established procedures to organize donors and collect, store, and ship plasma. When the American Red Cross took over the program in 1941, Drew became its first director. One innovation he implemented was the use of bloodmobiles (mobile blood donation centers). Drew left the Red Cross after several months, possibly due to the organization’s policy that blood donations must be segregated by race.

Drew returned to Howard University in 1941, dedicating the rest of his career to surgery and training black surgeons.


Louis T. Wright and colleagues at patient bedside, Harlem Hospital, New York, N.Y. From left to right: Dr. Lyndon M. Hill, Dr. Louis T. Wright, Dr. Myra Logan, Dr. Aaron Prigot, unidentified African American woman patient, and unidentified hospital employee. – Harvard Medical Library, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Boston, Mass, via Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Louis T. Wright

Louis T. Wright had two doctors to look up to – his father, a graduate of Meharry Medical College, and his stepfather, the first African American graduate of Yale Medical School. Following in their footsteps, Wright earned his M.D. from Harvard Medical School in 1915.

Entering the Army Medical Corps during World War I brought Wright to Iowa. He completed training at Fort Des Moines, home to the first officer candidate school open to African Americans. While stationed in France, Wright conducted tests that showed intradermal inoculation was more effective than scratch inoculation in vaccinating against smallpox.

In 1919, Wright was hired by Harlem Hospital, becoming the first black staff member at any New York City hospital. Four white doctors resigned in protest. He received several promotions and became director of surgery in 1943. In addition, Wright was the New York Police Department’s first black surgeon.

In 1948, Wright founded the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Foundation, with the goal of advancing studies in chemotherapy, the use of chemicals, to treat cancer. At the time, chemotherapy was a newly emerging concept and one that many physicians did not take seriously.


Jane Cooke Wright – Via Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Jane C. Wright

In 1949, Dr. Louis T. Wright’s daughter Jane joined him at the Cancer Research Foundation. Dr. Jane C. Wright received her medical degree from New York Medical College in 1945. After completing an internship at Bellevue Hospital and a residency at Harlem Hospital, both in New York, Jane’s intent was to enter private practice. However, when her father asked her to join him, she accepted the offer.

When Dr. Louis T. Wright died in 1952, Jane became the director of the Cancer Research Foundation, where she would conduct pioneering research on the treatment of cancer over the next several decades. Wright tested numerous cancer-fighting drugs on cancerous cells removed from patients and multiplied in a lab. As cancer fighting drugs were introduced, Wright could observe their effects and determine if the drug would be effective on the patient. She was among the first to promote individualized treatments for cancer and the coordinated use of multiple methods (radiation, surgery, and/or chemotherapy) to combat the disease. In addition, her experiments proved that injecting drugs directly onto the location of the cancer was more effective than using a more convenient vein or artery.

AAMI Introduces New Accessibility Programs

The African American Museum of Iowa is excited to announce two new partnerships that will increase accessibility to the Museum for people of all backgrounds. Through the Museums for All and Adventure Pass programs, we will be able to offer free and reduced admission to members of the Cedar Rapids community and beyond who may otherwise be unable to visit the Museum. 

Museums for All, a signature access program of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), administered by the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) encourages people of all backgrounds to visit museums regularly and build lifelong museum-going habits. The program supports those receiving food assistance (SNAP) benefits visiting the African American Museum of Iowa for a minimal fee of $1 per person, up to four people, with the presentation of a SNAP Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card. Similar free and reduced admission is available to eligible members of the public at more than 500 museums across the country. More information about Museums for All and a list of participating museums can be found at

Adventure Pass allows adults (18+) with a valid Cedar Rapids Public Library card to access free admission to museums and other cultural institutions across the state. These passes cover up to 4 people and can be accessed at

The African American Museum of Iowa has committed to these accessibility initiatives because “barriers to access equal barriers to education,” stated Executive Director LaNisha Cassell, “The AAMI’s mission to ‘preserve, exhibit and teach’ must be available to all.”

These new partnerships are part of the AAMI’s ongoing initiatives to ensure that our exhibits are accessible to all audiences. In addition to these programs, the AAMI will continue to offer Museum Day and Blue Star Museums admission. Museum Day (April 4) is an annual event presented by Smithsonian Magazine in which museums across the country offer free admission. Blue Star Museums admission will begin on May 16, providing free admission to active military personnel and their families.

Museum Day Tickets Now Available

Museum Day is an annual celebration of boundless curiosity hosted by Smithsonian magazine. Participating museums and cultural institutions across the country provide free entry to anyone presenting a Museum Day ticket. The Museum Day ticket provides free admission for two people on Saturday, April 4, 2020.

To obtain your free pass, register at the Museum Day website.