IWF Celebrates Black History in Iowa: Gertrude Rush

We want to thank the African American Museum of Iowa for providing these African American women who made an impact in Iowa.

Gertrude Elzora Durden Rush was born in Navasota, Texas, the daughter of a Baptist minister.

The Durden’s were part of the Exoduster movement in late 1870s settling in Oskaloosa, Kansas. Between 1898 and 1907, Rush was a teacher in Kansas, in governmental schools in Indian Territory (later Oklahoma), and in Des Moines, Iowa. After marrying Iowa attorney James Buchanan Rush in 1907, Rush began studying law while working in her husband’s Des Moines law office. Under his tutelage, Rush furthered her education at Des Moines College, graduating with a B.A. in 1914, and completed her third year of law study through correspondence with LaSalle University of Chicago. Rush became the first black woman admitted to the Iowa bar in 1918. Forty years earlier in 1879, the Iowa General Assembly removed the phrase “white male” from the qualifications to practice law in the state of lowa. This statute opened the door for women and people of color to obtain the right to practice law. This ruling was in opposition to an 1872 US Supreme Court decision to uphold the Illinois Supreme Court’s refusal to admit a woman to the practice of law in Illinois.

Portrait of Gertrude Rush, 1950. Photo provided by the National Bar Association Archives, Drake University.

After the death of her husband, Rush took over his law practice and won election as president of the Colored Bar Association in 1921. After being denied admission to the American Bar Association, Rush and four other colleagues (S. Joe Brown, George Woodson, James B. Morris Sr., and Charles P. Howard), founded the Negro Bar Association (later the National Bar Association) in 1925, to unite black lawyers throughout the nation. This organization is still in existence today. Rush was known as the “Sunday School Lawyer” because of her belief in the Golden Rule. It’s been said that Rush had a “well-used Bible on her desk that she consulted as often as the Iowa Code.”

Rush focused on women’s legal rights in estate cases in her practice. Her desire to aid women carried over into her community activism. Rush headed the Charity League that served Des Moines’ African American community. The league was successful in creating the Protection Home for Negro Girls, a shelter for working girls in 1917. Rush also served as state president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC) between 1911 and 1915. Rush had stated that, “The type of character held up to our girls as a model should be strong prideful morality, strong in point of conduct prompted by a sense of self-respect and honor….” She also maintained several memberships including the Colored Women’s Suffrage Club and the Women’s Auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention, and served on several charitable boards. Aside from her legal career and activism, Rush was also a playwright and songwriter. Rush died in 1962 of a stroke. She is honored by The National Bar Association with the Gertrude Rush Awards Dinner and The Iowa Organization of Women Attorneys grant the annual Gertrude Rush award.

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The African American Museum’s current temporary exhibit, Unwavering: 21st Century Activism allows audiences to engage with contemporary social movements from Black Lives Matter to the Me Too movement. Through objects, stories, and hands-on activities, you can explore the stories of groups who continue to bring to light the struggle for Black civil rights and equality that began centuries ago. Within this exhibit you can develop an understanding of the past and present social movements involving the Black community, engage in the meaning of protest and social justice in the modern era, and become empowered to work for change within your own community.