The Association of African American Museums is saddened to learn of the passing of one of its founders, Dr. Rowena Stewart on September 19, 2015. Dr. Stewart, or Rowena as she was known had mentored dozens of museum professionals and founded a number of museums. She was nationally known as one of the foremost African American museum directors - having led four major African American museums and historical societies between 1975 and 2002 - The Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia, the Motown Historical Museum in Detroit, and the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City. She was one of the most sought after African American museum directors and consultants in the country.
A native of Jacksonville, Florida, she was a graduate in 1955 from Edward Waters College in Jacksonville. She began her career in settlement houses and reformist-minded community centers in Jacksonville and then in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1975, Stewart became the first director of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society in Providence. And then, from 1985 to 1992, Stewart served as the Director and Curator of Philadelphia’s Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum, today known as the African American Museum in Philadelphia. She transformed what was a rather static museum into one that was interactive. In 1992, Stewart moved to Detroit to head the Motown Historical Museum and three years later, she was recruited to Kansas City, Missouri where she oversaw the development of the American Jazz Museum and became its executive director upon completion in 1997. In 2002, Stewart retired and moved back home to Jacksonville. Here she served for a time as President of the A.L. Lewis Historical Society Board and Coordinator of the American Beach Community Center and Museum on Amelia Island north of Jacksonville.
AAAM is indebted to Dr. Stewart as one of the most profound advisors and mentors for an entire field of museum professionals. She will be missed but her legacy lives on in the work of many museums and museum professionals.