How Iowa’s 1st African-American woman lawyer ended up as ‘the Sunday School Lawyer’

Gertrude Rush/Photo credit: Iowa Department of Human Rights

In 1918, Gertrude Durden Rush became the first African-American woman to be called to the Iowa Bar.
Her professional journey started as a teacher from 1898 to 1907 after she graduated from high school in Quincy, Illinois. Her legal interest was stirred when she married Des Moines attorney James B. Rush in 1907.

She started learning the ropes of the legal job while working with her husband in his office, according to the Iowa Department of Human Rights. Her husband encouraged her to do her bachelor’s degree at Des Moines University in 1914 and later she passed the Iowa Bar Examination in 1918.

In 1924, when she was denied an opportunity to join the American Bar Association, she partnered with four other African-American lawyers and established the National Bar Association which began operations in 1925 to unite black lawyers throughout the nation. Rush was a member of the Illinois Bar and managed her offices in Des Moines and Chicago. She was also the President of the Iowa State Federation of Coloured Women’s Club and president of the Des Moines Coloured Federated Clubs.

When her husband died, the affairs of his office came under her control. Aside from managing the law firm, she was also instrumental in community activism. Rush dedicated her legal practice to women’s rights and estate cases and volunteered her services to the improvement of life in her community. She was also a key figure in the Charity League at Des Moines’ African-American community in 1912. The league played a role in having a black probation officer at the Des Moines juvenile court and advocated the creation of a protection home for negro girls, a shelter home for working females.

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

Rush was born in Navasota, Texas in 1880 to Frank Durden, a Baptist minister, and Sarah Durden. Her family relocated from the South to the Midwest in the early 1800s but later migrated to Oskaloosa, Kansas. She was passionate about matters centering on religion and made it a priority alongside her legal practice with research and writing.

According to the Iowa Women’s Foundation, Rush was known as the “Sunday School Lawyer” due to 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,” the Foundation wrote.

As a researcher and writer, Rush did extensive research on the 240 women of the Bible and was behind plays and pageants, such as Sermon on the Mount (1907) and Black Girl’s Burden (1913). She was also noted for hymns such as “If You But Knew” (1905) and “Jesus Loves the Little Children” (1907), and patriotic plays such as True Framers of the American Constitution (1928), as stated by history.

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

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: December 22, 2022


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