Alum preserves house, legacy of UI civil rights pioneer

This brick duplex, located at 205-207 West Third Street in Muscatine, Iowa, originally belonged to civil rights pioneer Alexander G. Clark Sr., the second African American law graduate from The University of Iowa. The house was restored by current owner (and UI alumnus) Kent Sissel, who hopes to make the home an academic research and heritage center focusing on the history of African Americans in Iowa and the state’s early settlement. Photo by Tom Snee.

Any list of America’s great civil rights leaders is incomplete without Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks.

But few of those lists will have Alexander G. Clark Sr.’s name on them, even though they should.

“Alexander Clark is not well known, but he deserves to be considered in the same breath as the great civil rights pioneers,” says Willard “Sandy” Boyd, president emeritus and law professor at The University of Iowa. “He was certainly one of the great, great graduates of the University of Iowa and the College of Law.”

Clark was one of America’s earliest civil rights leaders, who started his work to end segregation in the state of Iowa before Iowa was even a state. It was his lawsuit that ended Iowa’s brief period of segregated schools, and his list of accomplishments goes even further—he was a nationally prominent abolitionist, owner and editor of an influential Chicago newspaper, and eventually a U.S. minister to Liberia.

Along the way, he would become the second black law graduate of The University of Iowa (his son, Alexander Clark Jr., was the first, and also the first black student at UI).*

* not only the first black graduates from the UI law school, but from any law school west of the Mississippi, and possibly any law school in the country.

Clark Sr. was determined and driven and knew it was easier to get something done with charm, but wasn’t afraid to use all the tools available to him, including his intelligence and oratorical skills. A brilliant speaker, he was known as the “colored orator of the West,” splitting the country with Douglass, who was dubbed simply “the colored orator.” As a UI student in 1883–84, Clark was regularly featured in the student newspaper, the Daily Vidette-Reporter, for his stirring lectures and debates about civil rights, women’s rights, and whether Fitz John Porter* should be reinstated by Congress.

* a Union general who was court-martialed and discharged during the Civil War, and who spent the next 25 years lobbying to restore his reputation and commission.

“Clark was immensely popular at the law department,” law professor Patricia Acton wrote in her history of the law school’s early years. “…(H)is speeches, writings, and activities were the subject of comment throughout his law school career. His legendary powers as an orator spellbound his fellow students. The new campus newspaper, the Vidette-Reporter, wrote: ‘We can announce to Aleck’s friends that he made a display of his oratorical abilities in a case in moot court the past week that captivated the members of the court by storm.’”

Art courtesy of alexanderclark.org.

A native of Washington County, Penn., Clark was 16 when he moved from Ohio to the territory of Iowa in 1842 and later opened a barbershop in Muscatine. Then called Bloomington, it was in the early stages of becoming a boomtown, and he grew into a man of some means after making shrewd investments and property purchases in the fast-growing river city. One of those properties—a duplex now located at 205-207 West Third Street—is still standing, and has been restored by its owner, Kent Sissel, ’64 BA ’66 MA.

Sissel says the house is a good example of Clark’s determination. The house was built in 1878 at the corner of Chestnut and Third, an almost exact replica of a house Clark purchased in 1848 that was later torched by an arsonist. Sissel says his new house was virtually identical in layout and physical appearance to the old, with the exception that it was made of brick—and thus fireproof. It was even built on the exact same spot as the older house.

“I think he was making a point,” Sissel says. “You burn my house down and I’ll just rebuild it.”

Clark’s drive was crucial in Muscatine’s early development. He helped establish the city’s first African Methodist Episcopal Church and became grand master of the Prince Hall Masonic Order, Missouri Lodge, that also included Minnesota, Missouri, Tennessee, and Mississippi. He was a Republican Party organizer and helped recruit Union soldiers for Iowa’s colored regiment during the Civil War.

But it was in court that Clark made his greatest accomplishment and his permanent mark in Iowa and American history. When he took his daughter Susan to enroll in the local grammar school in 1867, he was told the school was for white children only. He sued, and the next year the Iowa Supreme Court decided that segregation violated the state’s constitution and segregated schools were illegal. The case, Clark v. Muscatine Board of Education, was the first time a U.S. court struck down a law requiring segregated education, and came 86 years before the U.S. Supreme Court did the same thing in Brown v. Board of Education.

More information about Clark and his legacy is available on the web at www.alexanderclark.org.

Clark’s determination rubbed off on his son, Alexander Jr., who broke the color barrier at UI and graduated with a law degree in 1879,* paving the way for his own father to attend five years later. Clark Sr. at first dismissed the possibility of attending law school—Acton said that when it was first suggested to him by a Davenport attorney, he thought he was too old. But after giving it further thought, he decided to act upon the suggestion.

* though Jr. did not have Sr.’s wanderlust. After practicing law in Muscatine and Chicago for a time, he settled in Oskaloosa and worked as a barber-lawyer, a not-uncommon vocational combination in those days. He died in 1939 at age 83.

Clark’s charm and intelligence made him immediately popular with fellow UI students, even though he was a good 30 years older than most of them. He was elected class treasurer, and graduated in 1884,* eighth in a class of 80.

* the course of legal study at the time was only one year.

Following his graduation, he moved to Chicago to practice law, and also published and edited the Chicago Conservator, the city’s first black newspaper. He returned to Muscatine three years later and practiced law until President Benjamin Harrison appointed him U.S. consul general to Liberia in 1890. He died the following year at age 65 and his body returned to Muscatine for burial in the city’s Greenwood Cemetery.

Today, Clark’s home is his most prominent legacy in the town he made his own. It sits 200 feet west of its original location on the edge of downtown Muscatine, on a hill with a view of the Mississippi and shaded by crabapple trees in the front yard. It’s charming in the way that mid-19th century brick homes are. Sissel, who bought the house in 1976, lives in one half of the duplex and rents the other.

Clark used the house as a rental property and lived in it during those periods he was in Muscatine. It has a host of historic designations—listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it anchors a National Register historic district and the City of Muscatine’s Alexander G. Clark Heritage District. Sissel has also begun the application process to have it named a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service, which would make it one of only 24 such properties in Iowa.

Eventually, Sissel hopes to make the home an academic research and heritage center focusing on the history of African Americans in Iowa and the state’s early settlement. He says he’s received valuable assistance and inspiration from the University, including help from Boyd and emeritus home economics professor Margaret N. Keyes.

“I’m glad he’s doing that because Clark is such an important person in our history and needs to be known by future generations,” says Boyd.