Allow me to introduce you to three very special people from the 1870’s…
The Honorable Joseph M. Beck of Ft. Madison, Iowa. A fair and reputable man, Judge Beck (above center) served on the Iowa Supreme Court for twenty-four years, from 1867 to 1891. During that time, he helped decide many notable cases, but maybe none more important than the one we will be sharing with you here.
The second person we want to introduce you to is General Daniel Fry Miller of Keokuk, Iowa. A seasoned lawyer born in 1814, Miller (above right) was known throughout Iowa as an able and worthy counsel who would take up a good cause, especially when others wouldn’t touch it.
Saving the best for last, our third hero is Emma Lane Coger of Quincy, Illinois. In 1872, Emma (depicted above left) was a 19-year-old African American school teacher who got caught up in the middle of a racial discrimination case that is still studied and celebrated by historians and civil right activists today.
And yes, the one common thread that brought these three brave souls together was…
The 1873 Iowa Supreme Court Case – #37 Iowa 145 – Emma Coger v. The North Western Union Packet Company.
Allow me to begin by telling you about the background of this important case…
Cruising southward on the Mississippi River on the North Western Union Packet Route from Burlington, Iowa to Quincy, Illinois…
On the morning of September 4, 1872, an African American woman named Emma Lane Coger was preparing to board the S.S. Merrill as it was heading south to her hometown of Quincy, Illinois. As we mentioned earlier, Emma was a 19-year old school teacher of 7th grade students at Lincoln, a segregated school in Quincy, and was returning home after a short visit with friends in Keokuk, Iowa. Author Sharon E. Wood describes what happened next to Emma, who in the 1873 Iowa court documents, was defined legally as a “quadroon” – a person who is one-quarter “African” by descent.
As the story goes, Emma went ahead and boarded the steamboat with the second-class ticket, but it frustrated her greatly to have been treated in such a way. Coger had never been denied dining privileges on a Mississippi River steamboat, although her sister Zenobia had a similar experience on a trip to St. Louis with several white female friends from Quincy. Determined to defend her Constitutional rights, and highly frustrated to see the words, “colored girl” stamped in red on the back of her ticket, Emma kindly asked a fellow traveler, a white gentleman, to buy her a first-class dinner ticket. He obliged and gave her 25 cents change from her dollar.
When the dinner hour arrived, Emma walked into the ship’s dining room, showed the waiter her first-class meal ticket, and quietly sat herself down at the “single ladies” table. At which time – all hell broke loose.
I’ll let the official Iowa Supreme Court Records from 1873 tell you what happened next…
According to other historical records, when Emma finally arrived in Quincy, this highly embarrassed (and quite angry) 19-year-old tried to find a local attorney to represent her in her grievances, but all declined, believing she would lose the case.
Which now leads us to our second person in our trio of heroes…
Disappointed with the lack of response in Quincy, Emma Coger almost gave up her idea to sue, until a neighbor suggested she contact Daniel Fry Miller, a long-time lawyer with McCrary, Miller and McCrary in Keokuk. Despite the odds, Miller decided to take up Emma’s case, filing assault and battery charges against the North Western Union Packet Company, although racial discrimination was what truly fueled the ugly incident.
Historian Heather Bangert tells us what happened next…
The trial began in Keokuk in February 1873, and the defense had many witnesses. The steamboat captain admitted to hitting Emma and knocking her hat off but said she first hit him. He and other witnesses accused her of using vile language and exclaiming that she “would make you pay for this.” Coger maintained her composure in the packed courtroom and gave her testimony. She said the captain had struck her four times, and she received no dinner or her money back. She also said: “I never, never use bad language, and do not recollect of doing it on that occasion. I was angry because I was refused, and the way I was spoken to.” She admitted to holding on to the table as the clerk and captain removed her, causing the tablecloth to come off.
After about a week of trial, the verdict was returned, with the Lee County judge deciding in Coger’s favor, awarding her $250 in damages. In the Keokuk Constitution account of the trial, Emma is quoted (below), responding to the news of her victory by her lawyer, Daniel F. Miller…
I did not sue for the sake of money, but to vindicate the rights of my race, and my character of womanhood, and I would not touch a cent of that money if were it a thousand dollars; you must and shall take it all.
Below is an editorial sent to the Keokuk New National Era, from a personal friend of Emma’s, soon after the February verdict was in…
Yet, despite Emma’s victory in Keokuk, this story was far from being over. As it is with many legal cases, the defense didn’t agree with the judge’s decision and appealed, filing a motion for a new trial, this time before the Supreme Court of Iowa. Which now brings us to the third person in our trio of heroes:
Judge Joseph M. Beck, Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court during the 1873 session, decided to receive the defense’s objection and set up a September date for the case to be re-tried before the Supreme Court in Des Moines. Judge Beck and Emma’s attorney, Daniel F. Miller, had been law partners and good friends for years, and I’m surmising that Miller was absolutely thrilled to know that his case would be fairly tried with Beck overseeing the court!
Court records indicate that on Friday, September 19, 1873, the Supreme Court began hearing the arguments from both sides, and interestingly enough, this was not the first time the Court had been brought in to address the civil rights of a person of color. In fact, this was the third such case in Iowa’s short history, all of which resulted in wise, discerning judges making powerful legal decisions that upheld a deep and abiding respect for the values enshrined in our U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. And in each case, these Iowa decisions were made long before any Federal court even dared addressing such things.
Civil Rights Case #1 – July 1839 – In the matter of Ralph (a colored man), on Habeas Corpus – The case focused on a Missouri farmer named Jordan J. Montgomery and his slave, Ralph, who was living and working in Dubuque. Click here to read the full details of this case…
Civil Rights Case #2 – #24 Iowa 266 – June 1868 – Clark v. Board of School Directors – The case focused on Alexander Clark, a black resident and tax-payer of Muscatine, Iowa vs. a school board that refused to allow his daughter Susan to attend a “white” school. Click here to read the full details of this case.
In December, 1873, the Iowa Supreme Court easily upheld the earlier decision made in Keokuk, agreeing that Emma Coger was fully entitled to the same rights and privileges as white passengers. Judge Beck, as Chief Justice, wrote the decision, with this paragraph (below) stating the obvious…
Sadly, this same conclusion was not reached by the U.S. Supreme Court until Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (1964), a case that upheld the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Emma L. Coger was born in Quincy, Illinois on September 1, 1853. Teaching became her passion, and eventually she taught school at an all-black school in Boonville, Missouri (25 miles west of Columbia), before returning to Quincy sometime after 1893. Apparently, Emma, an accomplished musician, never married, dying on October 30, 1924, at age 71. She is buried in an unmarked grave located adjacent to her mother (Cynthia Coger) in Woodland Cemetery in Quincy, Illinois. In many ways, Emma was a Rosa Parks of the 19th century, and in our humble opinion, her gravesite in Quincy needs to be marked with an appropriately-designed marker that celebrates her life.
Daniel Fry Miller was born in Cumberland, Maryland on October 4, 1814, moving with his parents to Wayne County, Ohio in 1816. After attending the public schools, Daniel taught for several years, before engaging in newspaper work in Wooster, Ohio. After studying law, Fry was admitted to the bar (1839), opening up his law office in Ft. Madison, Iowa soon after. In 1840, Daniel served as a member of Iowa’s Territorial Legislature in Burlington, followed by a successful run for the U.S. Congress in 1848. After his brief service in Washington DC, he returned to Lee County, resuming his practice of law, and in 1859, Fry was elected mayor of Fort Madison, before moving to nearby Keokuk, where he continued practice law. In 1873, the year he represented Emma Coger, Fry was elected mayor of Keokuk. Retiring from active practice in 1895, Daniel moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where he died on December 9, 1895, at age 81. He was interred in Oakland Cemetery, in Keokuk.
The honorable Joseph M. Beck died at his home in Fort Madison on May 30,1893. On February 8th, 1894, the Iowa Supreme Court honored Beck, with Washington Galland reading the following address on behalf of Beck’s long-time friend, Daniel F. Miller, who was unable to be present on account of sickness. Here are Miller’s words…
May it please the Court: On the thirtieth day of last May, Hon. J. M. Beck, who for twenty four years of his life was a distinguished justice of this court, paid the debt of nature and passed, as I believe, to a home of happiness in the supernal world.
We were friends, as intimate as brothers, for forty-five years of our lives. He was a native of Clermont County, Ohio (Cincinnati), and was born April 21, 1823. His father was a farmer, and he was raised on a farm, and attended the common schools of the neighborhood until he was sixteen years of age, when he entered Hanover College, Indiana, from which he graduated in 1842. He then taught school several years in Kentucky, and next studied law with Judge Eggleston of Madison, Indiana, and was admitted to the bar of Indiana in 1846. Like many other young men anxious to come and grow up with the west, he came to Iowa in 1847, and settled at Montrose, Iowa, where he commenced the practice of the law and continued in practice there for several years.
I became acquainted with him while he was in Montrose, and formed for him a personal friendship almost the first time I met him. His location at Montrose was very unfortunate for law practice. Though he was learned and able as a lawyer, there was not enough law practice there to earn his board. There were no railroads in the west in those days, and in November, 1849, I took a steamboat at Fort Madison, Iowa, on my way to Washington City, where I expected to remain during the winter, and where I did remain. On the way down the river the boat stopped an hour or two at Montrose, and there I saw Judge Beck and advised him to go to Fort Madison, and enter my law office, and do what law business he could on his own account. He went and took possession of my office during that winter, and when I returned in the spring, I had so much faith in his legal capacity and honesty of character that I tendered him a full partnership, which he accepted.
We were in partnership almost eight years, and I found him to be the soul of friendship and honor in every transaction I had with him. So well did the people of Fort Madison think of the young lawyer, who had newly come amongst them, that in two years from the time he came there, they elected him mayor of that city, though the majority of its voters were opposed to him in politics; and a couple of years afterward, as his sphere of acquaintance became more extended in the county, he was elected prosecuting attorney for the county, though the party in opposition to him in the county had three hundred majority.
His personal worth and merit secured him a large number of votes from the opposite party, and the man whom he defeated was one of the leading men of that time. Judge Beck’s talents and fame as a lawyer and good citizen continued to grow, until at last, it had become of state proportion, and in 1867, he was elected on the Republican ticket to the bench of the Supreme Court of the state, and he was elected three times subsequently to the same position, thus holding the office of Justice of this court for twenty-four consecutive years (1868-1891), and it is a pleasure to all his friends to know that he performed the duties of that position with learning and ability, and he has left an unstained character upon the records of the country.
His uncle on his mother’s side was the celebrated Thomas Morris, a United States senator, of Ohio, a man who a half century ago, when slavery controlled everything in the legislature and politics of the land, yet, as a senator of Congress, boldly stood forward and spoke in favor of the emancipation of the slave, and that freedom which is the birthright of all. It is true that speech destroyed his political influence in Ohio, and he was not re-elected, but his fame lives and is consecrated-in the heart of every true American.
Judge Beck was prudent in his management of his business affairs, and left an estate valued at about $75,000. In 1844 I had the pleasure of being present at his marriage with Miss Clara C. Reinhart, a most beautiful, accomplished and lovely young lady of Fort Madison, Iowa. They were the parents of three children, of whom but two survive him. William J. R. Beck, and Miss Vallie E. Beck, both of whom worthily represent the merits and popularity of their parents. The Judge’s wife died in 1885, preceding him some nine years.
“He has gone, he has fled, from the scene of his manhood. From the many who loved him so well. And the cord of regret in each bosom is started, As on his lov’d memory we dwell.”
Here’s a tip of the old hat to… Emma L. Coger – Daniel F. Miller – Joseph M. Beck. Three American Heroes of the 19th Century. May we never forget their rich contributions to Our Iowa Heritage.
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 Emma Coger – The Apothecaries, Wangari Mathenge, Roberts Projects, 2019
#22, Emma Lane Coger, Nineteenth-Century Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri, Sharon E. Wood, As If She Were Free – A Collective Biography of Women and Emancipation in the Americas, Cambridge University Press, 2020, p 393