As a journalist I have the opportunity to research, interview, and visit with the subjects of my articles. In this particular case I don’t have that luxury as my subject died in Liberia in 1891. I am a proud Muscatine native, I have lived in Muscatine 28 of my 34 trips around the sun, but admittedly I could never have answered the question, “Who is Alexander Clark?” This week, I asked myself that question and began to research. What I discovered was that Muscatine was the home of one of the strongest African American leaders, and a civil rights pioneer.
Clark was born in Pennsylvania, to John Clark, a former slave, and Rebecca Darnes Clark. When he was 13 he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to learn the trade of barbering from an uncle. Clark left Cincinnati in October 1841, working for a few months as a bartender on the steamboat George Washington before arriving, at 16, in Muscatine (then called Bloomington, in Iowa Territory). It was May 1842.
Alexander Clark began a barber business and other pursuits in Muscatine. He cut and sold wood from timberland he owned along the Mississippi river bottom to expand his income. The innovative Clark maximized the land he owned by planting vegetable gardens on the cleared land. He met a Catherine Griffin of Iowa City, Griffin was freed from slavery in Virginia at age three. On Oct. 9, 1848, Clark and Griffin married. The Clarks had five children, two of whom died in infancy. In September 1849, at age 23, Clark purchased a house at Third and Chestnut streets in Muscatine. Using his keen nature for identifying investments, Clark had accrued and estimated $10,000 in real estate holdings according to the African American Registry. Clark used his financial position to gain influence and improve the status of blacks in Iowa.
In 1855, he and 32 other African Americans in Muscatine County petitioned the Iowa Legislature to repeal the law prohibiting “the immigration of free Negroes into this State.” The plea was rejected. During the Civil War, Clark organized the 1st Iowa Volunteers of African Descent (later re-designated the 60th Regiment Infantry, United States Colored Troops), a Union regiment of 1,100 black soldiers from Iowa and Missouri. Clark himself enlisted in 1863 and was appointed a sergeant major. A disability forced him to focus his energies on soldier recruitment.
Perhaps Clark’s greatest achievement came in 1867. The Clark family was notified by the Muscatine school district that Clark’s daughter, Susan, 12, couldn’t attend the same public school that white students attended. This action caused Clark to sue the school district. His legal challenge went before the Iowa Supreme Court in 1868 where the court ruled in Clark’s favor. This ruling was ground breaking in Iowa and the nation in that it meant that all children could attend a common school in Iowa. Clark’s lawsuit made Iowa one of the first states to integrate its public school systems. This decision was part of the precedent that was used in the landmark 1954 ruling in a Topeka, Kansas. The U.S. Supreme Court in Brown vs. the Topeka, Kan., Board of Education reversed the “separate but equal” education policy.
Clark entered the realm of National Politics in 1869. Clark was appointed a delegate to the Colored National Convention in Washington, D.C. It was as a member of this convention. It was at this convention that Clark met President Ulysses S. Grant. In 1873, Grant offered Clark an appointment as ambassador to Haiti, but Clark turned down the position because he felt the salary was too small.
In June 1878 his home burned, possibly by arson. Clark chose to build a 2-story, brick double-house on the site and the home still stands today in Muscatine.
Clark wanted pursue a career as an attorney but was denied admission to the University of Iowa Law School because he was black. Later in life Clark fought to get his son, Alexander Jr., admitted to the U of I law school. In 1879 Alexander Clark Jr. became the first African American to graduate from that the U of I law school. Five years after his son graduated Clark Sr. became the second black U of I law graduate in 1884, graduating eighth in a class of 80. The father-son team practiced law together in Iowa and Illinois. While attending Law School (1882), Clark purchased the Chicago Conservator newspaper and ran it with success as both publisher and editor until 1887, when he sold it. The newspaper enabled Clark to speak out on rights issues.
Clark’s final achievement came when President Harrison appointed him U.S. minister to Liberia on Aug. 16, 1890. One of the most influential men of his time, Clark arguably did more for civil rights than anyone else in 19th century Iowa. Alexander Clark died in Monrovia, Liberia, on June 3, 1891. He was buried with honors at Muscatine’s Greenwood Cemetery on Feb. 16, 1892.
Muscatine has a storied history when it relates to industry and commerce. As a young person growing up in Muscatine I was familiar with the name Alexander Clark. What I did not know is that one of the most important men in the civil rights movement in Iowa and the nation chose to make Muscatine his home.