February is Black History Month, which makes this is a good time to recall one of Iowa’s most successful, if least known, civil rights heroes.

Alexander Clark was a black man who lived in Muscatine for nearly 50 years before his death in 1891. His lawsuit on behalf of his 12-year-old daughter Susan in 1867 produced a landmark Iowa Supreme Court decision that ended separate-but-equal schools in Iowa, nine decades before the U.S. Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion in Brown v. Board of Education.

Clark’s case set a precedent that has redounded through history, most recently in the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2009 decision legalizing gay marriage.

Retired Iowa Supreme Court Justice Robert Allbee captured pieces of Clark’s amazing life in an article written two years ago as part of Drake University Law School’s 150th anniversary celebration of the 1868 Clark decision. (https://libguides.law.drake.edu/Clark150)

Allbee wrote that Clark was “an entertaining conversationalist,” who was “endowed with innate intelligence combined with boundless energy, ambition, ingenuity and sound judgment.” 

Like many great men, Clark was constantly evolving. He was a barber, newspaper editor, lawyer, church leader, world traveler and a diplomat.

But Clark’s early years were “unremarkable.” Allbee wrote that he was born in 1826 in western Pennsylvania and sent to Cincinnati when he was 13 to learn barbering from an uncle. 

Three years later, he was working on a riverboat when it landed at what is now Muscatine. Although slavery was illegal in the Iowa Territory, Allbee noted that “Black Codes” discouraged people of color from settling in Iowa. Nonetheless, Clark got off the boat and opened a barber shop. 

“With his energy and personality, it became a thriving business,” Allbee wrote. Money earned cutting hair was used to purchase timber land along the Mississippi River. Trees harvested by the young entrepreneur were sold as fuel to steamboats. Profits were reinvested in real estate, and Clark eventually become one of Muscatine County’s largest property tax payers.

In 1848, Clark, 22, married Catherine Griffin, a 19-year-old who had been born a slave in Virginia but was freed when the two women who owned Catherine and her mother moved to Ohio. They later moved to Iowa, and Catherine was working in Iowa City when she met Clark.

During the 1850s, Clark was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves travel north. In 1863, despite a bad ankle, he enlisted in the 1st Iowa Colored Voluntary Infantry and became a recruiter.

“Clark firmly believed education was essential for elevation of the colored race,” Allbee wrote. By the time his middle child, Susan, was 12, he realized Muscatine’s black students’ school lacked the supplies and competent teachers to qualify Susan for high school. 

In September 1867, he enrolled Susan at the nearby all-white public school. When her admission was denied, Clark sued and won in District Court. The school appealed, but the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in Clark’s favor. 

Clark’s son, Alexander Jr., later became the first African American to enroll at the University of Iowa and the first to graduate from its law school. 

In 1882, Clark purchased “The Chicago Conservator,” a black weekly newspaper, and was credited with making it a success by virtue of his “fearless pen … dipped in acid.” 

President Benjamin Harrison selected Clark as the first U.S. ambassador of color in 1890 and sent him to Liberia to open the first U.S. embassy in that African nation. Clark died soon after arriving in Liberia, and his body was returned to Muscatine for burial.

Clark’s 1868 court victory did not end racism in Iowa. But his life suggested the possibilities equal opportunity held for a culturally diverse future.