In an earlier post, we told you about the monumental court decision in 1839, when Judges Charles T. Mason, Joseph Williams, and T. S. Wilson, Iowa’s first Supreme Court, ruled in favor of the Dubuque slave, Ralph Montgomery, a decision which bolstered the abolitionist movement across the Territory of Iowa. Now, allow me to tell you about another ground-breaking case…
Civil Rights Case #24 Iowa 266 – June 1868 – Clark v. Board of School Directors.
Nineteen years after the Ralph Montgomery case, in 1868, another huge court decision was made here in the Hawkeye State – but one that has, largely, been forgotten. The case pitted a Muscatine, Iowa family: Alexander and Catharine Clark and their 12-year old daughter, Susan Clark, versus the Muscatine School Board.
The Clarks were long-time residents of Muscatine, with Alexander Clark moving here, from Pennsylvania, in 1842, when the city was still known as Bloomington. As a long-time tax payer, land owner, and well-respected businessman of Muscatine, the city map indicated that the closest school for their daughter Susan was Grammar School No. 2, located just two blocks from the Clark home.
The Muscatine School Board disagreed, however. Not because of location, but because of the color of Susan Clark’s skin. But, before we get deeper into this story, allow me to share a bit more background about the Clarks…
Alexander G. Clark was born on February 25, 1826 in Washington, Pennsylvania, son of former slaves, John and Rebecca (Darnes) Clark. But by age 13 (1839) Alexander took off for the big city, going west to Cincinnati.
Once here, Alexander’s uncle took him in, training this young adventurer to be a barber – a profession that will serve him well when he moves further west.
After two years of interning as a barber, Alexander, age 15, decided to go west, taking a job as a bartender on board the steamship George Washington while making his way down the Ohio River. By May of 1842, Clark arrived in the booming Mississippi River town of Bloomington (Muscatine), where he opened a barbershop which allowed him to meet many of the movers and shakers of the new Iowa Territory. An entrepreneur at heart, the 16-year-old Clark began acquiring real estate by using the extra money he earned from selling timber as firewood to the many steamboats that frequented the river. Before long, Alexander was doing quite nicely for himself, and for a black man, was accepted in ways he would not have been in larger cities back east.
In 1848, Alexander met and married (October 9) Catharine Griffin from nearby Iowa City, whose family had escaped slavery in Virginia when she was just a young girl. The Clarks soon purchased a nice home (above left) in Bloomington and were among the thirty-four founding members of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, helping buy land for their first building, which was completed in 1849.
As we have written in other posts, Iowa was a “free state” when admitted into the Union in 1846, with many early state leaders being actively involved with the abolitionist movement. The Underground Railroad had many “stations” throughout Iowa (see map above), with the Clarks serving as pro-active “station agents” in Muscatine.
Bloomington, as it was called until around 1850, had long been a favorite destination for African Americans. Located 90 miles upriver from the slave state of Missouri, the area attracted the largest black population in Iowa: 62 in 1850, with hundreds more by 1860.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, the Underground Railroad had a large network of supporters throughout Iowa, both black and white, and the Clarks, living in Bloomington (Muscatine), were a key contact for nationally-known abolitionists such as John Brown and Frederick Douglas.
Alexander Clark was the Iowa agent for the Frederick Douglass’ newspaper The North Star, and, in 1853, attended a Douglass-organized convention in Rochester, New York where delegates insisted that slavery and discrimination could not be tolerated in a nation founded on the principles of democracy and freedom.
Clark brought the fight for equality back to Iowa, initiating a petition campaign in 1855 (see above) to overturn an exclusionary law that prohibited the immigration of free blacks into the state. In 1857, Clark gathered 122 signatures from blacks and whites on a petition to repeal Iowa’s black laws and was one of 33 delegates to a convention of African Americans in Muscatine where delegates demanded full citizenship. Black suffrage emerged as a primary issue at Iowa’s 1857 constitutional convention, but while Iowa voters rejected black suffrage, Clark and many others did not abandon the fight.
In 1863, Alexander Clark, age 37, enlisted, after recruiting many of his African American brothers into the 1st Colored Regiment of Iowa (later known as the 60th U.S. Colored Regiment). Despite the small minority of blacks in our state, by war’s end (1865), a total of nearly 1,100 African Americans from Iowa and Missouri had served in the regiment. Clark was ranked as sergeant-major, but he could not muster due to a physical defect, perhaps in his left ankle.
At the Benton Barracks in St. Louis in November 1863, Sgt. Maj. Clark presented the regiment with a flag from ‘the ladies of Keokuk and Muscatine.’ Lt. Col. Collius responded to Clark…
Sir: On behalf of my command, I receive this fine emblem of freedom from your hands. With hearts full of gratitude to the ladies of Keokuk and Muscatine, we return them our thanks, and promise on our part to defend their invaluable gift to the death. When it trails in the dust, we shall have left the world. With this promise I turn it over to these able sons of Africa, who, I know, are bound to receive it and bear it further into rebel land.
After the war, the Clarks pressed for improving civil rights for African Americans in Iowa, as well as related issues on a national level. As industry developed in other areas of the state, the center of the black population moved to other cities such as Des Moines and Waterloo, but Alexander remained a prominent leader, still living in Muscatine, which now brings us to the civil rights case we mentioned at the top of this page…
Our story starts with a strong editorial Alexander Clark submitted to the Muscatine Journal in the late summer of 1867. Clark considered education essential to “the moral and political elevation of the colored race” and that barriers to education kept blacks illiterate, reinforcing stereotypes about black intelligence. Author Bill Silag tells us more…
As he promised to do in the editorial, on September 10, 1867, Alexander Clark walked his 12-year-old daughter Susan to the public school closest to their home – Grammar School No. 2 – and was quickly told that Susan wasn’t welcome there. Later that day, the school’s principal drafted a letter to Clark, stating, “I am authorized by the school board of this city to refuse your children admittance into Grammar School No. 2.”
But Alexander Clark refused to take “no” for an answer, so in October of 1867, he sued the Muscatine School Board for refusing the civic rights of his daughter to attend the nearest public school. Because of Clark’s prominent position in the city, the local municipal court decided to hear the case, with the School Board insisting that its decision to keep students segregated was in line with “public sentiment that is opposed to the intermingling of white and colored children in the same schools.”
Fortunately, that argument didn’t stand and the local judge issued a writ of mandamus compelling the Board of Directors to allow Susan to attend the all-white Grammar School No. 2. But, as we all know, racial prejudice doesn’t die easily, and the school board quickly appealed, forcing the entire case to be re-tried with the Iowa Supreme Court in Des Moines.
Now, allow me to introduce to you…
Judge Chester C. Cole served on the Iowa Supreme Court from March 1, 1864 until he resigned January 19, 1876. Born in Oxford, New York in June 1824, Cole graduated from Harvard Law School and practiced law in Marion, Kentucky for nine years. He came to Des Moines in May 1857, and together with Justice George W. Wright, established, in 1865, the first law school west of the Mississippi River – which is now the College of Law at the University of Iowa. Cole served as professor at the SUI Law School for ten years, and upon his return to Des Moines in 1875, he established another law school, which in 1881 became the Law Department of Drake University. Cole continued as dean until 1907, practicing law until he was eighty-nine years of age. Justice Cole died on October 4, 1913 and is buried in Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines.
The Case of Clark v. Board of School Directors opened in June of 1868, with the school board arguing that its schools were “separate but equal.” This argument had worked well in a number of other courts at the time, including the highest courts in Massachusetts, New York and California, but it didn’t fly with Justice Cole and the Supreme Court of Iowa.
The Iowa Supreme Court, in a decision written by Judge Chester C. Cole, stated that “separate” was not “equal” because, as Cole concluded, “people of color” was simply a separation of nationality and nothing else. Cole went on to argue that if the school board is to separate one nationality from the rest that they must then separate all people based on their nationality. As his argument progresses he states that all youths are equal before the law, that while school directors may have the ability to dictate school uniform, they do not have the ability to say who can attend their school when the student meets all the necessary requirements.
Sadly, this type of monumental decision wouldn’t be made on a national basis for another 86 years when the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled against segregated schools in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
Active in church, freemasonry, and the Republican Party, Alexander Clark became known for his speaking skills and was nicknamed “The Colored Orator of the West.” He continued his campaign for suffrage at the Iowa State Colored Convention in Des Moines in February 1868, where delegates elected him secretary and spokesman of the assembly. Later that year, voters considered a state referendum to strike the word “white” from the voting clause of Iowa’s constitution – and it passed. Minnesota voters soon followed, and these Mid-Western suffrage victories began the push for the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
1882 was a big year for Alexander. In July he bought The Chicago Conservator, turning to the black press to convey his opinions in the ongoing struggle for equality.
In the fall, Alexander went to Iowa City, following in the footsteps of his son, Alexander Clark, Jr., and studied law, receiving his diploma, at the age of 58, from the SUI College of Law in 1884!
Clark’s son, Alexander G. Clark Jr., (below) was the first African American to earn a law degree from SUI, graduating in 1879 and then practicing in Muscatine and Chicago before settling in Oskaloosa.
President Benjamin Harrison appointed Clark as U.S. Minister to Liberia on August 16, 1890. This was the highest-ranking appointment of an African-American by a U.S. president up to that point. Harrison also appointed Clark’s longtime friend Frederick Douglass as U.S. Minister to Haiti.
Sadly, Clark died of fever in office in Monrovia, Liberia on June 3, 1891 and his body was returned to Muscatine for burial with honors in Greenwood Cemetery. Sadly, Alexander’s dear wife, Catharine had passed 12 years earlier on September 3, 1879 at age 56.
Susan V. Clark went on to become the first black graduate of a public school in Iowa – Muscatine High School – in 1871 and served as commencement speaker. The Muscatine Journal praised Susan’s commencement address, “Nothing But Leaves,” for its “originality,” observing it was “unpretending in style” and had “many excellent thoughts.”
Susan married the Rev. Richard Holley (1848-1914) on December 6, 1877. As an AME minister’s wife, she was active in her church and community. The Iowa State Bystander, Iowa’s black newspaper, reported her involvement with the “colored” Order of the Eastern Star, Heroines of Jericho, JSY Club, and One More Effort Club. She was also a leader in the Iowa Federation of African American Women and statewide chairperson of the Mothers’ Child Study Committee which encouraged black women to train and educate their youngsters in deportment, civic-responsibility, and the arts.
The Holleys lived most of their married life in Cedar Rapids (1890-1914) where Susan was known as a popular dressmaker with her own shop. The couple also lived in Davenport, Waterloo, and Champaign, Illinois, but sadly, did not have any children who lived more than a month. Although written records are scarce, one news item of a train wreck in 1898 stands out as an illustration of Susan’s character as an adult. After listing the names of those who died and were injured in the accident, the article describes the heroics of the crew and first responders. A single sentence reports…
Mrs. S. V. Holley, a colored woman, promptly left her perilous position in one of the cars and ministered to the injured.
After her husband died in 1914, Susan resided in Chicago with her niece Clara Appleton Jones. She died of diabetes in 1925 and is buried in the family plot at Greenwood Cemetery in Muscatine.
In 2019, the Board of Education of the Muscatine Community School District voted unanimously to name its newly-combined middle schools for Susan V. Clark.
Here’s a tip of the old hat to Alexander & Catharine Clark, their daughter Susan, and Judge Chester C. Cole. With great courage these heroes brought about a dramatic change in our laws, opening the door for equality in education eighty-six years before our country made the same commitment. Godspeed!
Click here to read about Judge Charles T. Mason, Iowa’s first Supreme Court Chief Justice (1838-1847), who ruled in favor of the Dubuque slave, Ralph Montgomery, a decision which bolstered the abolitionist movement in 1839.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Artwork used to depict a young Susan Clark – Women’s History Month: Meet 17 Iowa women who changed the world, The Des Moines Register