Lawyer, newspaper publisher, orator
Inheriting the genius of his emancipated slave father and African mother, Alexander Clark Sr. embarked on a career path that took him all over the world engaging in social and political justices.
Clark's father was freed by his Irish master and his mother was an African. They were political and social activists, often taking in fugitive slaves. At the age of thirteen, Clark moved to Cincinnati, Ohio for one year to study. At the same time, under the watchful eye of his uncle, William Darnes, Clark mastered the barber trade. Two years later Clark decided to go south for a year, landing a job as a bartender on the steamer George Washington. Years later, Clark sold firewood to the steamboats. In 1842, Clark's journey took him to Muscatine, Iowa. At the age of sixteen and for many years to follow, he operated a successful barbershop. With the success of his barbershop, Clark soon began to invest in real estate where he managed to acquire a small fortune.
On October 8, 1848 at the age of twenty-two, Alexander Clark was married to Catherine Griffin, a twenty-three-year-old former slave. Alexander and Catherine became prominent in Iowa. The union produced five children: John and Ellen, who died in infancy; Rebecca in 1850; Susan in 1855, and Alexander Jr. in 1858. Iowa's state founders believed that all men were entitled to freedom, but the law did not allow Negro children to attend public schools. The Clarks' home-schooled their children. In 1867, at the age of twelve, Susan was denied admission to Iowa's Muscatine public school no. 2. This event led to Alexander Clark Sr. filing a lawsuit in 1868; the Iowa Supreme Court held that separate was not equal and ordered Susan Clark, an African American, to be admitted to the Muscatine public schools. This lawsuit occurred ninety-six years before the historic Brown v. the Board of Education in Topeka. In 1879, Alexander Clark Jr. became the first African American to graduate from the University of Iowa's College of Law. Five years later, Alexander Clark Sr. became the second African American to do so.
Achieves in Military and Political Life
Prior to Clark, African Americans did not play an important part in Iowa history or politics. Clark, a champion of racial equality and social justice, held key positions in various organizations. In 1868 when the Iowa legislature considered eliminating the word "white" from its constitution, Clark delivered a speech, asking for the right to vote for African Americans, using the platform of the black men's service in the military and the sacrifices they made. The general assembly adopted amendments that were ratified by popular vote and proclaimed part of Iowa constitution on December 8, 1868. The momentous decision advanced the cause for equality between whites and African Americans in Iowa two years before the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In 1863, Clark enlisted in Iowa's first colored volunteer infantry; however, a defect in his left ankle prohibited him from military combat. Nevertheless, he held the rank of sergeant-major and was an active recruiter for the Union forces. As a recruiter, Clark worked hard for the interest of the colored infantry. As a delegate from Iowa, in 1869 he was appointed chairman of the committee to lay before the Senate and House of Representatives equity claims of black soldiers to ensure they received equal pensions and bounties to those which white soldiers received. As spokesperson for this committee, Clark was also the person who conveyed congratulations on behalf of black people to President Ulysses S. Grant and vice-president Colfax on their election. Although Clark lived in the North, he was aware of the turmoil that tormented black people in the South. An unwavering Republican, Clark urged other members of his race to stand by the party. Because of his dedication, in 1869 he was elected vice-president of the Iowa state Republican convention. A year later, he was appointed a delegate to the Republican convention. Despite being devoted to the party, Clark, in 1873, declined President Grant's invitation to be appointed consul to Aux Cayes, Haiti because the salary was too low.
In 1849, Clark along with three other men founded Muscatine's African Methodist Episcopal Church. For more than twenty-five years Clark served as a trustee and Sunday school superintendent. Clark often attended the church's general conferences. In 1881, he served as a lay delegate to the Methodist Ecumenical Conference in London. Clark's religious affiliation complimented his Masonic membership. In 1851, he joined the Prince Hall Lodge No 1 in St. Louis. In 1868, he was elected deputy grand master of the Grand Lodge of Missouri.
- Born in Washington County, Pennsylvania on February 25
- Moves to Muscatine, Iowa
- Marries Catherine Griffin, an ex-slave
- Enlists in Iowa's first colored volunteer infantry
- Files lawsuit against the Muscatine Board of Education; elected deputy grand master of the Grand Lodge of Missouri
- Appointed chairman of the committee to lay before the Senate and House of Representatives; elected vice president of the Iowa state Republican convention
- Appointed delegate at-large from Iowa
- Declines President Grant's appointment
- Purchases the Chicago Conservator
- Graduates from University of Iowa College of Law
- Accepts post of Consul-General to the Republic of Liberia
- Dies in Monrovia, Liberia on June 3
Life as a Lawyer, Editor, and Consular General
After graduating from the University of Iowa College of Law in 1884, Alexander Clark practiced law for a while in Muscatine and then opened a law office in Chicago. Also, Clark became a partner in the weekly newspaper, the Chicago Conservator. He later became the sole owner and editor of the paper. Clark used the Conservator to voice the protests of black people.
Clark was well known as an orator. To many blacks and fraternal brothers of the Masons, Alexander Clark was known as the "Colored Orator of the West." His eloquence as orator comes through in his writing in the Conservator. The Conservator had an audience of approximately 1,200 readers who were aware of Clark's objection to the Supreme Court decisions of 1883 that denied blacks from using public accommodations as private citizens. Clark often criticized then-President Rutherford B. Hayes for his stand on issues that limited blacks. After Clark sold the Conservator in 1889, he divided his time between Chicago and Muscatine.
In 1890, Clark accepted President Harrison's appointment as consul-general to the Republic of Liberia. Clark served in this capacity for a short period. Word came seven months after he took the position that Clark had died in Monrovia of a fever. His remains were returned to Muscatine where a state funeral was attended by local and national dignitaries. Alexander Clark was buried in Muscatine, Iowa, along side his wife Catherine and the two children who had died in infancy.
Alexander Clark and Catherine Griffin Clark are still remembered in Iowa. Pamela Nosek's "Historical Detective Work," in the Iowa Griot recounts the lives of Alexander and Catherine Griffin Clark. In 1975, the Clarks' home was moved from Third and Chestnut Street to 211 West Third Street; it was refurnished to illustrate the style in which the Clarks' lived and then opened as a museum. Efforts of the AME church of Muscatine led the mayor of Muscatine to proclaim February 25 as Alexander G. Clark Sr. Day.
Davis, Aldeen L. "Alexander G. Clark." In Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.
Simmons, Rev. William J. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive, and Rising. New York: Arno Press, 1968.
Jackson, Marilyn. "Alexander Clark: A Rediscovered Black Leader." The Iowan (Spring 1975): 43-49.
Nosek, Pamela. "Historical Detective Work: The Story of Alexander and Catherine Clark." The Iowa Griot 4 (Winter 2004): 4-5.
Padgett, James A. "Ministers to Liberia and Their Diplomacy." The Journal of Negro History 22 (January 1937): 50-92.
Annie Malessia Payton