Des Moines Black memorial destroyed, historic building damaged in fire

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An early morning fire Wednesday at the former North Des Moines City Hall building caused “extensive damage” to the historic building’s exterior and destroyed a make-shift Black children’s memorial.

The memorial at 1601 6th Ave., created last summer by the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement, honored Black Iowan youth who have died in recent years, including Breasia Terrell, Italia Kelly and Abdullahi Sharif.

Lt. Rick Thomas of the Des Moines Fire Department said the fire is still under investigation and its cause has not yet been determined, but said investigators have reason to believe its cause is “suspicious.” He said the department’s reviewing video of the fire, which was reported to authorities right before 5 a.m. Wednesday

The cases of Breasia Terrell, Italia Kelly and Abdullahi Sharif:

An early morning fire on June 23, 2021 damaged the historic former North Des Moines City Hall building and destroyed the Black children’s memorial created by the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement. (Photo: Andrea Sahouri/The Register)

Embellished with flowers, candles, signs and more, the Black children’s memorial that was destroyed was located on the porch of the 132-year-old building, which has been unoccupied for years and is up for renovation.

Previously, preservation groups labeled the building one of the city’s most endangered, due to its poor condition.

► More: Des Moines marchers remember Black women, girls killed throughout the U.S.

An early morning fire on June 23, 2021 damaged the historic former North Des Moines City Hall building and destroyed the Black children’s memorial created by the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement. (Photo: Andrea Sahouri/The Register)

Since its creation, the Black children’s memorial has been a site for vigils and marches. Most recently, about 100 people marched from Edna Griffin Park to the memorial on June 12 to honor Black and transgender women and children killed in Iowa and across the country.

The Des Moines Black Liberation Movement said the organization is heartbroken and believes the fire was set intentionally.

“It’s hard for us to believe that this was not done intentionally against us and the Black children and femmes we have honored there,” the group’s organizers wrote in a statement posted online. “Help us rebuild the memorial and bring red, yellow and purple flowers.”

Candles and flowers sit on the steps of the old City Hall building as protesters march with members of the Black Liberation Movement calling for justice for Black children on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020 in Des Moines. (Photo: Brian Powers/The Register)

More:

The group said this isn’t the first incident in which individuals have damaged the memorial, either.

The organization said they chose the former North Des Moines City Hall building as the site of the memorial to make a statement about the many Black children who live in poverty, saying plans to redevelop the building will further gentrify the city’s north side.

Protesters march along College Ave. with members of the Black Liberation Movement calling for justice for Black children on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020 in Des Moines. (Photo: Brian Powers/The Register)

According to a 2020 One Economy report on the state of Black Iowans, 31% of Black households with children in Polk County live at or below the federal poverty line, compared to 10% of people overall in the county.

► More: Des Moines native, TV pitmaster Moe Cason hopes to open his first restaurant in River Bend

Chaden Halfhill, the developer behind the former city hall’s renovation, planned to start construction late this summer, the Des Moines Register previously reported. Halfhill previously said he plans to lease three or four affordable apartments on the building’s upper levels.

And Marlando “Moe” Cason, a Des Moines native who cultivated celebrity by competing in and judging pitmaster competitions on TV, has been in talks with Hafhill to open up his first barbeque restaurant on the building’s first floor.

The building’s renovation is happening in conjunction with a more than $10 million dollar investment by the city of Des Moines and private developers to renovate the Sixth Avenue corridor and surrounding streets.

Protestors marched to the old City Hall building in the cities River Bend neighborhood where they hung signs and held a vigil calling for justice for Black children on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020 in Des Moines. (Photo: Brian Powers/The Register)

Andrea Sahouri covers social justice for the Des Moines Register. She can be contacted at [email protected], on Twitter @andreamsahouri, or by phone 515-284-8247.

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