Rowena R. Stewart, 83, of Jacksonville, Fla., a nationally known director of African American museums in Philadelphia and elsewhere, died Saturday, Sept. 19, of complications from a stroke at home.

Between 1975 and 2002, when she retired to Florida, Dr. Stewart led four major African American historical museum societies - 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, Mo.

She was one of the most sought-after African American museum directors in the country, according to a profile posted on TheHistoryMakers.com.

Born in Jacksonville, Dr. Stewart was the only child of Essie Brazle Rhodes and Oliver Rhodes.

She was reared in New Berlin, Fla., and graduated in 1960 from Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, with a bachelor's degree in history. In 1983, she was awarded an honorary doctor of humanities degree by the University of Rhode Island.

After graduation, Dr. Stewart started out as a social worker in settlement houses and reform-minded community centers in Jacksonville and Boston.

In 1975, she moved to Providence, R.I., where she became the first director of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. From 1985 to 1992, Dr. Stewart served as director and curator of Philadelphia's Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum.

She is credited with bringing a sense of purpose and stability to the museum and turning a visit there into a lively, interactive experience.

Under her guidance, the museum's collection grew from 5,000 items to more than 400,000. Attendance rose from 67,000 to 350,000 annually.

But as she departed from Philadelphia, she worried aloud that funding African American museums was an uphill battle because few had large endowments or steady philanthropic support.

"It's tough for us," she told The Inquirer in 1992. "We are in a fight for our very lives."

In late 1992, Dr. Stewart moved to Detroit as head of the Motown Historical Museum, according to TheHistoryMakers.com. Three years later, she was recruited to Kansas City to supervise development of the American Jazz Museum. She was named executive director in 1997.

In 2002, Dr. Stewart retired and moved back home to Jacksonville. 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.

She continued working as a consultant to museums on programs involving historical preservation and public education, the website said.

"My mom was an amazing woman," said her son Clarence D. Johnson, a retired Army colonel.

Besides her son, she is survived by daughter Gwendolyn Brittian; another son, retired Army Lt. Col. Alvie Johnson; seven grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren. Her first husband, Ester "Tyrone" Stewart, from whom she was divorced, survives. Her second husband, Clarence Dale Johnson, died in 1972. A daughter, Wannetta Johnson, died in 2004.

Services were Friday, Sept. 25, in Jacksonville. Burial was private.

Donations may be made to the American Stroke Foundation via http://americanstroke.org/, or to the National Breast Cancer Foundation via www.nationalbreastcancer.org/.

bcook@phillynews.com     610-313-8102