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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Clark, Alexander G.
(February 25, 1826–May 31, 1891)

–barber, entrepreneur, orator, lawyer, newspaper editor, and civil rights advocate—was the son of emancipated slaves John and Rebecca (Darnes) Clark. Born in Pennsylvania, Clark moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, at age 13 to live with an uncle who taught him the barbering trade and sent him to grammar school. In 1841 Clark boarded the steamer George Washington as a bartender and headed south on the Ohio River. The following May he traveled north on the Mississippi, landing in Muscatine, Iowa, where he lived for the next 42 years.

    When Alexander Clark opened his barbershop in Muscatine in 1842, Iowa's black codes were among the strictest in the North. "Colored people" were considered unfit to vote, hold elected office, or attend public schools. Clark, however, saw Iowa as a land of opportunity. He married Catherine Griffin of Iowa City, and they had three children: Rebecca, Susan, and Alexander Jr. He bought timberland along the river bottom and negotiated contracts to provide wood for the lucrative steamboat market. At a time when most blacks in Iowa took menial, low-paying jobs, Clark invested in real estate, helped organize Muscatine's African Methodist Episcopal Church, and launched his campaign for civil rights.

    Clark attended the 1853 National Colored Convention in Rochester, New York, where delegates insisted that slavery and discrimination could not be tolerated in a nation founded on the principles of democracy and freedom. Clark brought the fight for equality back to Iowa, initiating a petition campaign in 1855 to overturn an exclusionary law that prohibited the immigration of free blacks into the state. In 1857 Clark gathered 122 signatures from blacks and whites on a petition to repeal Iowa's black laws and was one of 33 delegates to a convention of African Americans in Muscatine where delegates demanded full citizenship. Black suffrage emerged as a primary issue at Iowa's 1857 constitutional convention. Voters rejected black suffrage, but Clark did not abandon the fight.

    During the Civil War, Clark recruited 1,153 blacks for the First Iowa Volunteers of Africandescent (later designated the 60th Regiment Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops) and was chosen as the regiment's sergeant major but was unable to serve due to an old leg injury. Following the war, Clark thought the time was right to fight for suffrage. On October 31, 1865, members of the 60th Regiment met in Davenport. Elected president of the convention, Clark declared, "we have... a duty we owe to ourselves and to our race, in asking for those political rights of which we are now deprived.... He who is worthy to be trusted with the musket can and ought to be trusted with the ballot."The convention drafted a petition that Clark delivered to the Iowa General Assembly asking legislators to strike the word "white" from constitutional requirements for voting. "We appeal to the justice of the people and of the Legislature of our State, for those rights of citizenship without which our well-earned freedom is but a shadow," Clark said.

    Clark's campaign for suffrage continued at the Iowa State Colored Convention in Des Moines in February 1868, where delegates elected him secretary and spokesman of the assembly. Iowa Republicans responded with a provision in their platform to enfranchise black males. Democrats firmly opposed black suffrage. In 1868 voters considered a referendum to strike the word "white" from the voting clause of Iowa's constitution. The amendment passed. Clark's unyielding stand for equality helped Iowa become the first Northern state to extend suffrage rights to black men after the Civil War in a referendum where voters knew exactly what they were voting for or against. Minnesota soon followed, and those victories began the push for the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

    Clark considered education essential to "the moral and political elevation of the colored race."Barriers to education kept blacks illiterate, reinforcing stereotypes about black intelligence. In 1858 the Iowa General Assembly required that school boards provide separate schools for black students. Muscatine operated a colored school, but in 1867 Clark sent his 12 year old daughter, Susan, to a neighborhood white school. When she was denied admission, Clark, determined that "my children attend where they can receive the largest and best advantages of learning," filed a lawsuit in the Muscatine County District Court. The judge issued a writ of mandamus compelling the board of directors to allow Susan to attend the all-white Grammar School No. 2. The board appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, asserting its right to require colored children in Muscatine to attend the separate school. The Iowa Supreme Court disagreed. Writing for the majority, Justice Chester C. Cole pointed out that the Constitution of 1857 created a State Board of Education that was required to "provide for the education of all the youths of the State, through a system of common schools.... The board cannot... deny a youth admission to any particular school because of his or her nationality, religion, color, clothing or the like."Susan Clark graduated from Muscatine High School in 1871; her brother, Alexander Jr., followed. Alexander Jr. became the first black graduate of the State University of Iowa's law school. At the age of 58, Alexander Sr. became the second.

    Clark bought the Chicago Conservator in July 1882, turning to the black press to convey his opinions in the ongoing struggle for equality. Two years later he became editor and "wielded a fearless pen... dipped in acid."

    While many Americans thought the solution to "the Negro problem" after emancipation was to send blacks back to Africa, Clark opposed colonization: "We are Americans by birth and we assure you that we are Americans in feeling, in spite of all the wrongs which we... endured in this our native country."However, when President Benjamin Harrison appointed Clark as the U.S. minister to Liberia in 1890, Clark accepted the position because it was the highest presidential appointment ever offered to a black man to that point. Clark died in Liberia in 1891.
Sources include Marilyn Jackson, "Alexander Clark, a Rediscovered Black Leader," Iowan 23 (Spring 1975), 43–52; The United States Biographical Dictionary and Portrait Gallery of Eminent and Self-Made Men: Iowa Volume (1878); Robert R. Dykstra, Bright Radical Star: Black Freedom and White Supremacy on the Hawkeye Frontier (1993); and Bill Silag et al., eds., Outside In: African-American History in Iowa, 1838–2000 (2001), chaps. 4, 6, 8, and 11.
Contributor: Stephen J. Frese

Cite as: Frese, Stephen J. "Clark, Alexander G." The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 12 December 2017