Fighting for the Right to Learn

Alexander G. Clark, an African-American diplomat who served as a U.S. ambassador, was one of the most influential men of his time. In fact, Clark arguably did more for civil rights than anyone else in 19th century Iowa.

He was born in 1826 in Pennsylvania to parents who had been freed from slavery. When Clark was around 13, his family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio for his education and to learn the barbering trade.

In 1842, he arrived in Muscatine, Iowa where he spent most of the rest of his life. He worked as a barber, as orator, editor for The Conservator and as clark-orator-sma lawyer. On Oct. 9, 1848, Clark married Catherine Griffin of Iowa City, who had been freed from slavery in Virginia at age 3.

Throughout his life, Clark worked to improve the status of blacks in Iowa. In 1855, he and 32 other blacks 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.

In 1867, Clark sent his daughter to a school in Muscatine, where she was refused admittance due to her race. Muscatine had separate schools for blacks, however, these schools were not located near where the black children lived. This made it hard for them to attend and the quality of the instructors was poor.

Clark took his fight all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court where he won a ruling based on the Iowa Constitution of 1857 which states that the board of education is required to “provide for the education of all the youths of the State, through a system of common schools.” Requiring black students to attend a separate school violated the law.

Later, Clark took up the fight again for the education of his children by pushing for son Alexander Jr. to attend University of Iowa law school. He succeeded, and his son became the first black to graduate from the law school. Clark himself became the second.

His final achievement would be the appointment by President Benjamin Harrison to be the U.S. minister to Liberia — one of the highest appointments of a black by a U.S. president up to that point. Clark died in Liberia in 1891.

He was buried with honors at Muscatine’s Greenwood Cemetery on Feb. 16, 1892.

Sources: Wikipedia,

Author: Claire Stewart

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