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How Iowa’s First African-American Woman Lawyer Ended Up As ‘The Sunday School Lawyer’

Gertrude Durden Rush
Gertrude Rush 1024x826


Gertrude Durden Rush was the first African-American woman admitted to the Iowa Bar in 1918.

After graduating from high school in Quincy, Illinois, she began her professional career as a teacher from 1898 to 1907. When she married Des Moines attorney James B. Rush in 1907, her legal interest was piqued.

According to the Iowa Department of Human Rights, she began learning the ropes of the legal profession while working in her husband’s office. Her husband encouraged her to pursue her bachelor’s degree at Des Moines University in 1914, and she went on to pass the Iowa Bar Exam in 1918.

When she was denied membership in the American Bar Association in 1924, she formed the National Bar Association with four other African-American lawyers, which began operations in 1925 to unite black lawyers across the country. Rush was an Illinois Bar member who managed her offices in Des Moines and Chicago. She was also the president of the Des Moines Coloured Federated Clubs and the Iowa State Federation of Colored Women’s Club.


When her husband died, she took over the management of his office. She was active in community activism in addition to managing the law firm. Rush devoted her legal practice to women’s rights and estate cases, and she volunteered to improve the quality of life in her community. In 1912, she was also active in the Charity League of Des Moines’ African-American community. The league was instrumental in establishing a black probation officer at the Des Moines juvenile court, as well as advocating for the establishment of a protection home for negro girls and a shelter home for working females.

From 1911 to 1915, she was the state president of the National Association of Coloured Women’s Club, and she chaired the NACWC’s legislative and mothers departments. She was active in the Coloured Women’s Suffrage Club and the National Baptist Convention’s Women’s Auxiliary, and she served on the boards of directors for the Des Moines Health Center, the Des Moines Playground Association, and the Dramatic Arts Club. She was a member of the Women’s Law and Political Study Group, a delegate at the Half Century Exposition of Negro Emancipation, and a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Rush was born in Navasota, Texas in 1880 to Baptist minister Frank Durden and Sarah Durden. In the early 1800s, her family moved from the South to the Midwest, but later settled in Oskaloosa, Kansas. She was passionate about religious issues and made research and writing a priority alongside her legal practice.

Rush was known as the “Sunday School Lawyer” because of her belief in the Golden Rule, according to the Iowa Women’s Foundation. “It’s been said that Rush kept a well-worn Bible on her desk, which she consulted as frequently as the Iowa Code,” the Foundation wrote.

Rush, as a researcher and writer, conducted extensive research on the 240 biblical women and was the inspiration for plays and pageants such as Sermon on the Mount (1907) and Black Girl’s Burden (1908). (1913). According to history, she was also known for hymns such as “If You Only Knew” (1905) and “Jesus Loves the Little Children” (1907), as well as patriotic plays such as True Framers of the American Constitution (1928).

Rush was killed in 1962. She was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994. In honor of her contributions to society, two monuments have been erected at the Des Moines Public Library and St. Paul AME Church.




Written by How Africa News

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