Alexander G. Clark (born February 25, 1826 - died June 3, 1891) was an African-American businessman and activist who served as United States Ambassador to Liberia in 1890-1891, where he died in office. Clark is notable for suing in 1868 to gain admission for his daughter to attend a local public school, gaining a constitutional ruling for integration from the Iowa state supreme court 86 years before the United States Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education (1954). That year he also had gained the right for African Americans in Iowa to vote.
Born free in Washington, Pennsylvania, Clark moved at the age of 13 to learn barbering with an uncle in Cincinnati, Ohio. After working on a steamboat, he settled at age 16 in Muscatine, Iowa, a town on the Mississippi River. There he worked as a barber, married, acquired real estate, and became a civil rights activist. Active in the Republican Party and known for his speaking skills, he was nicknamed the "Colored Orator of the West".
Later in life Clark completed college and earned a law degree, a few years after his son. He moved to Chicago, where he owned and edited The Conservator, and then to the East Coast to work as an attorney. He was buried in Muscatine, where his house has been preserved.
Early life and family
Alexander G. Clark was born February 25, 1826 in Washington, Pennsylvania to parents who had been freed from slavery. His parents were John Clark and Rebecca (Darnes) Clark. When Clark was around 13, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to live with an uncle and learn the barbering trade; his uncle also saw to his education in other areas. Barbers were considered middle-class in this period. Two years later the young Clark started working on the river steamboat, George Washington.
Settling in Muscatine
In May 1842 at age 16 Clark settled in the river town of Muscatine, Iowa (then known as Bloomington), where he made his life. He worked as a barber and became an entrepreneur, acquiring real estate and selling timber as firewood to the steamboats that frequented the Mississippi River. Barbering was a service trade that helped him meet influential whites in town as well as blacks. According to later correspondence, Clark appeared to have met and befriended abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the 1840s. They were still in touch in the late 1880s.
During the next two decades, this area along the Mississippi River was a destination for other African Americans. Located 90 miles upriver of the border of the slave state of Missouri, Muscatine attracted the largest black population in the state, 62 in 1850, with hundreds more by 1860. Some blacks settled there after fleeing the South via the river as fugitive slaves; others came from eastern free states. Quakers and other religious groups supported abolitionism.
Having gotten established, on October 9, 1848, Clark married Catherine Griffin of Iowa City. She had been freed from slavery in Virginia at age 3. The Clarks had five children, two of whom died in infancy. Surviving children included Susan and Alexander G. Clark, Jr.
That same year Clark was among the 34 founding members of the local African Methodist Episcopal Church in Muscatine, helping buy land for their first building, which was completed the next year. The AME church was the first independent black denomination in the United States, founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the early 19th century.
In 1863, during the American Civil War (1861-1865), Clark helped recruit the "60th Iowa Colored Troops, originally known as the 1st Iowa Infantry, African Descent." Despite being a small minority in the state, by war's end, a total of nearly 1,100 blacks from Iowa and Missouri served in the regiment. Clark enlisted at age 37 and was ranked as sergeant-major, but he could not muster due to a physical defect in his left ankle.
Clark pressed for improving civil rights for African Americans in Iowa, as well as related issues on a national level. In 1855 he had signed a petition to the state legislature with more than 30 other African Americans from Muscatine County, seeking a repeal of the law prohibiting the migration of free blacks into the state. The legislature did not change the law, but migration to the area increased after the war and emancipation of slaves. As industry developed in other areas, the center of the black population moved to other cities such as Des Moines. After the Civil War, Clark and African-American veterans pressed the Iowa legislature for the right to vote, gaining that in 1868.
In 1867 Clark sent his daughter Susan to a local public school in Muscatine, where she was refused admission due to her race. Muscatine had a separate school for blacks, but it was located more than a mile from their house. In addition, Clark thought the quality of the instructors there was low. He sued the school board in 1868 for the right of his daughter to attend her local school. The local municipal court ruled in his favor but the school board appealed.
The Iowa State Supreme Court also ruled in his favor, noting that under the 1857 Iowa Constitution, the board of education is required to "provide for the education of all the youths of the State, through a system of common schools. The court ruled that requiring black students to attend a separate school violated the law which "expressly gives the same rights to all the youths." Due to Clark's action, Iowa was among the first states to integrate its schools. This state case was cited by the US Supreme Court in its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) many years later.
After the American Civil War, Clark became increasingly politically active in the Republican Party and in Freemasonry, a growing fraternal organization. In 1869, he was a delegate to the Washington, DC Colored National Convention and was among a committee that met with President Ulysses S. Grant. He served as spokesman of the committee. That same year Clark was elected vice-president of the Iowa State Republican convention. In 1872 he was a delegate-at-large to the Republican National Convention which nominated Grant. Because of his abilities as a speaker, Clark became known as the "Colored Orator of the West". In 1873 President Grant offered him an appointment as consul to Aux Cayes, Haiti, but he declined the position as he thought the pay was too low.
Law school and Chicago
After Clark fought for his son's admission to the University of Iowa, Alexander Clark, Jr. graduated in 1879 as the first black to get a law degree from the college in Iowa City. Later Clark Sr. also studied there, graduating in 1884 with a law degree. He and his son practiced together for a while.
He moved to Chicago. He had previously invested in The Conservator, a newspaper founded by Ferdinand L. Barnett in Chicago in 1878. In the late 1880s he bought the newspaper, also serving as an editor. Later Clark moved to the East Coast, where he worked as an attorney.
Clark was appointed on August 16, 1890 by President Benjamin Harrison as U.S. Minister to Liberia. This was one of the highest-ranking appointments of a black by a U.S. president up to that point. Harrison also appointed Clark's longtime friend Frederick Douglass as U.S. Minister to Haiti. Clark died of fever in office in Monrovia, Liberia on June 3, 1891. His body was returned to Muscatine for burial with honors in Greenwood Cemetery. The grave is marked by a tall memorial tombstone.
Legacy and honors
- The Alexander Clark House in Muscatine has been preserved; it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was purchased and restored as a private residence by Kent Sissell, who has worked much of his life to preserve and present Clark's story.
- In 1977 the new high-rise Clark House was dedicated; named in Clark's honor, this was Muscatine's "first high-rise to provide subsidized housing for low-income elderly residents."
- The Alexander G. Clark Project is a website devoted to Clark, which was created and maintained by Dan Clark (no relation).
- Lost In History: Alexander Clark is a 2012 film documentary about the activist, directed and written by Marc Rosenwasser and produced by Jacob Rosdail; produced and broadcast by Iowa Public Television. It is hosted and narrated by opera star Simon Estes.
- Alexander Clark House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
- Alexander G. Clark an Iowa Icon", African American Registry
- Marc Rosenwasser, Lost In History: Alexander Clark, 2012, Iowa Public Television
- Simmons, William J., and Henry McNeal Turner. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. GM Rewell & Company, 1887. pp. 1097-1100
- Connie Street, "Black history pioneer: Alexander Clark became prominent achiever while residing in Muscatine", Muscatine Journal, 24 February 2006
- Dr. Paul Finkelman, in Lost In History: Alexander Clark, 2012
- Gil Dietz, "From Muscatine's City Housing Director to Freelance Artist", Muscatine Journal, 5 July 2005
- "Alexander Clark of Muscatine, Iowa"
- Iowa Public Television "INAUGURATION OF THE GOVERNOR 2003"
- "From Emancipation to Equality: Alexander Clark's Stand for Civil Rights in Iowa", History Cooperative
- Gallaher, Ruth A. "A Colored Convention," Palimpsest, Vol. II. State Historical Society of Iowa, May 1921. Iowa City, Iowa. pp. 178-81.
- Randall, J.J. Little Known Stories of Muscatine, Fairall Service. l949. Muscatine, Iowa.
- Witter, F.M., Walton, Alice B., Walton, J.P., History of Muscatine County. Western Historical Society, 1879. Chicago. pp. 597-598.
- Lost In History: Alexander Clark, 27-min documentary produced by Iowa Public Television, 2012, directed and written by Marc Rosenwasser and produced by Jacob Rosdail.
- Mike Ferguson, "Filmmakers want to help bring Alexander Clark’s story to TV", Muscatine Journal, 31 March 2011. Available on YouTube