Former teacher: Take a bold step in naming junior high school

Muscatine High School, pictured here, may soon have a name counterpart in Muscatine Junior High School. But some are lobbying for a name commemorating a young girl behind a landmark civil rights case. Photo by Jim Elias

The Muscatine School Board meets Monday, Aug. 12 with plans to discuss a name for the district’s combined middle school opening next school year.

In June, the Muscatine Community School District Middle School Transition Committee voted to recommend the name “Muscatine Junior High School.”

Community support, however, was strong for a different name: Susan Clark, a 12-year-old African-American girl whose father sued Muscatine in the late 1800s so his daughter could attend the all-white neighborhood school. She graduated with honors in 1871.

In a statement after the committee’s June meeting, members urged the school district to “develop a plan to recognize individuals and/or families from Muscatine who have had a great impact to the community.”

Jean Clark, a special education teacher at Muscatine High School for 27 years, is urging the school board to put that plan into action now, and asks people to turn out to the school board meeting in support of the name Susan Clark Junior High School.

Below is her reasoning, in her own words:

“I think we as a community have a very special opportunity right now as we consider what to name our new combined middle school/junior high. It’s an opportunity that happens once in a lifetime. And it’s an opportunity to educate the community and shine a spotlight on a local girl who impacted our state and the nation.

We have an amazing local history regarding civil rights and the desegregation of public schools. Unfortunately, not many people know about the courageous actions of Susan Clark. Yes, it was her father, Alexander Clark, who sued the school board in 1867 so 12-year-old Susan could attend the white, neighborhood school. But it was young, teen Susan who walked the halls daily from 1868 to 1871 when she graduated with honors from MHS.

Think of the courage, grace, and determination it took! What a role model for our students.

The 1868 Iowa Supreme Court ruling desegregating Muscatine — and all Iowa schools — happened 86 years before the U.S. Supreme Court desegregation ruling of Brown versus the Board of Education. Susan’s case was cited as precedence in this landmark U.S. school desegregation case.

We can help our students, community, and state learn this important history by naming our junior
high after her.

Muscatine doesn’t have any schools named after women–and Iowa and the U.S. have very few. We are getting ready to celebrate 100 years of women having the right to vote, and it’s just been 150 years since Susan Clark integrated Iowa schools.

What a perfect time to name the junior high after Susan and send a very clear message to our students — and the community, and the world — that women and girls DO matter, and that they DO have a place in history, and they HAVE helped shape laws and policies.

Choosing this unique name for our school would be a bold move — it’s not the original generic recommendation of the committee or staff. But just as young Susan Clark was bold in asserting her right to a better education, I hope our school district is bold enough to RECONSIDER its recommendation and LEAD the community in honoring this amazing young woman by choosing Susan
Clark as the name for the new junior high.”

The Muscatine School Board meets Aug. 12 at 7 p.m. at City Hall.