She Was the First – Women’s History Month Feature

Anna Mae Weems, Catherine Gayle Williams, Romonda Belcher, LaMetta Wynn, and Willie Glanton at the AAMI History Makers Gala

Each year, the African American Museum of Iowa recognizes African American men and women from the state of Iowa who have made history. These people have, by their actions, modified the course of history, imparting knowledge and impacting the communities where they live. Through their existence and influence, history is forever changed. In 2007, AAMI recognized Anna Mae Weems, Catherine Gayle Williams, LaMetta Wynn, and Willie Glanton. They are pictured here with Romonda Belcher, who just a few years later would also make history, becoming the first black, female judge in the state of Iowa. Each of these incredible women have contributed to shaping the history of our state and our communities, each of them pioneers within their fields. Take a look below to learn more about each of their amazing stories.

Anna Mae Weems was born in Waterloo, Iowa in the mid-1920s. A passionate advocate for civil rights, Anna Mae joined the fight against racial discrimination as an active leader in the Civil Rights Movement. She participated in many civil rights demonstrations and helped bring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Iowa in 1959. A union organizer at Rath Meatpacking, Anna Mae joined Dr. King and labor leaders in the 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike in Memphis, Tennessee. Anna Mae Weems later became the first African American woman to serve as the Director of the Iowa Workforce Center for the State of Iowa.

Originally from Des Moines, Catherine Gayle Williams was born in 1914 and graduated from North High School in 1932. She spent several years as a professional dancer, before pursuing business, bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Catherine worked for the State of Iowa for 33 years. Although she started her career with the State as a typist, she rose to become the Deputy Commissioner for the Iowa Department of Social Services. According to the Iowa Department of Human Rights, Catherine was the highest-ranking African American female in the state government, and one of the highest ranking in social services nationally. She received many awards and recognitions during her life including a honorary doctoral degree from Simpson College and in 2010, a local chapter of the National Association of Social Workers named an award in her honor. Catherine passed away in 2020 at the age 105.

Romonda Belcher is a notable figure for many reasons, but particularly that she is Iowa’s first black female judge. Born in Plymouth, North Carolina, Judge Belcher attended Drake Law School, having completed her undergraduate degree at Howard University. After 15 years in the Polk County Attorney’s office, she was appointed to the bench in 2010. She became the first black female judge for the state of Iowa and continues to serve in this capacity today.

LaMetta Wynn with Barack Obama

LaMetta Wynn was born in Galena, Illinois, but moved to Iowa in 1955 to pursue a career in nursing. Throughout much of her life, LaMetta worked as a nurse while also raising ten children and serving on her local school board. In 1993, she ran for a different office: mayor of Clinton, Iowa. Although she finished third out of the five candidates, LaMetta decided to run again in 1995. That year, she beat four male candidates to become the first black woman to hold the office of mayor in the state of Iowa. She would go on to serve three terms as mayor.

In 1922, Willie Stevenson Glanton was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas. After completing both bachelor’s and law degrees, Willie moved to Iowa in 1951. Two years later, she became the second African American woman to be admitted to the Iowa bar association. In 1956, she became Iowa’s first African American woman to serve as an Assistant County Attorney. Eight years later, she would make history again by winning a seat in the Iowa House of Representatives, making her also the first black woman elected to the Iowa General Assembly. Because of her remarkable achievements, Willie was inducted into the National Bar Association Hall of Fame in 1995.

Judge Romonda Belcher with family

Each of these remarkable women shaped the course of our history through their accomplishments. Their impact on the state was not without sacrifice, hard work or tenacity. Speaking on her ambition to become a judge, Romonda Belcher once said, “To realize my dream, even though it had never been done in the state of Iowa, is a great achievement. It’s also hard to do or be something no one has ever seen before. It’s a huge weight to carry to be the first at anything.”* We are grateful for these remarkable women, who carried the weight of being the first and in doing so, made history.

Learn more about other history makers in our state and support the AAMI by joining us for our annual History Makers Gala (save the date for September 29, 2022!). To explore other incredible figures featured in the AAMI Collection, visit our online database.

*De Roo, Mikola. “‘Protecting Hand, Wise Counselor’: Romonda D. Belcher.” Fearless, June 1, 2021.

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.