Black history pioneer: Alexander Clark became prominent achiever while residing in Muscatine
Local historian Kent Sissel now owns and resides in this Muscatine house at 203 W. Third St. that once belonged to Alexander Clark Sr., one of Iowa’s most prominent black residents.Beth Van ZAndt/Muscatine Journal

MUSCATINE, Iowa — As  Black History Month 2006 is observed nationwide, Muscatine can claim a former resident as one of Iowa’s prominent leaders — Alexander Clark Sr.

Clark, a native of Washington County, Penn., arrived in Muscatine (called Bloomington at that time) in 1842 when he was 16 years old.

Local historian Kent Sissel speculates that Clark might have chosen Muscatine because other families from Washington County were living in the general vicinity.

A free black man, Clark came here as a barber and was soon a successful businessman who owned considerable real estate in Muscatine. He assisted fugitive slaves and petitioned the state government to overturn racist laws before the Civil War began.

In 1848, Clark, along with other trustees of the (African) Methodist Episcopal (AME) Educational and Church Society, purchased land from Adam Ogilvie and helped found the local AME church in Muscatine. There were 34 names on the list of original church members, which was organized the following year. By 1879, there were 67 members.

In 1848, Clark’s intervention helped Jim White, a young slave, gain his freedom. White was the property of Dr. (first name unknown) Merry, who lived in St. Louis. Merry told White he would give him his freedom if he would work on a steamship for two years.

In the meantime, Merry moved to a new state called Iowa and bought a farm about 13 miles upriver from Muscatine.

White was severely injured while on the boat and the captain no longer had any use for a “little colored boy who was injured,” according to William Randall’s “Little Known Stories of Muscatine (Vol. 3).”

White was sent back to St. Louis, where Merry’s sister, in turn sent him to Merry in Iowa for treatment. The doctor and young boy had some type of disagreement and Merry ordered the boy off his farm. Later, Merry changed his mind and made ill-fated attempts to get White back.

Clark and some friends, who had become White’s protectors, saved White from being captured. Clark took the case to court, and Iowa’s Supreme Court Chief Justice S.C. Hastings, also of Muscatine, made it clear that White became a free man when Merry allowed him to enter a free state.

Black population grows

From the 1840s through the 1860s, Muscatine had Iowa’s largest black population. In 1850, there were 62 blacks listed on the census for the city.

Sissell speculates that Muscatine became known as a safe haven because it was an abolitionist community — and Clark’s reputation spread.

According to the book, “Outside In, African-American History in Iowa, 1838-2000,” published by the State Historical Society of Iowa, several black males were employed by Muscatine sawmills in 1840 and during the 1850s.

Before the Civil War began, there was an influx of blacks into Iowa. Most were en route to Chicago, Detroit or Canada, but many settled in Mississippi River towns. By 1860, there were about 1,000 blacks counted in the Iowa census.

In 1863, during the Civil War, Clark helped organize Iowa’s black regiment, the 60th Iowa Colored Troops, originally known as the 1st Iowa Infantry, African Descent. About 1,100 blacks from Iowa and Missouri served in the regiment.

 After the war, Clark was instrumental in getting Iowa’s laws changed so that black men could vote.

In 1868, Clark sued the Muscatine Board of Education on behalf of his 12-year-old daughter Susan, who had been turned away from a public school. The case went before the Iowa Supreme Court and resulted in a decision that prohibited discrimination in education in Iowa’s public schools.

Clark’s son, Alexander Clark Jr., in 1879 became the first black graduate of the State University of Iowa in Iowa City, the same year the young man’s mother, Catherine Griffin Clark, died. Five years later at age 58, Clark Sr., became the second black graduate at SUI.

After earning his law degree, the elder Clark moved to Chicago and later to the East Coast where he worked as an attorney.

Clark also rose to prominence nationally. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison appointed him as U.S. ambassador to Liberia, a West African nation that was originally settled by former U.S. slaves. Clark served for seven months, then died of fever. He was buried at Muscatine’s Greenwood Cemetery.

Ultimate achievement

David Brodnax, who researched early black leaders in Iowa for his doctorate at Northwestern University, presented a lecture called “Black Hawkeyes” at the Muscatine Art Center in 2004. Brodnax described Clark’s final accomplishment as “the ultimate achievement for a black politician.”

Brodnax noted that in 1880, there were nearly 10,000 blacks in Iowa, and Keokuk was the city with the most blacks. By 1900, Waterloo and Des Moines had become Iowa’s cities with the largest black population, yet less than 1 percent of Iowa’s total population was black.

Others achieve                 prominence

Other Muscatine African-Americans have made their mark.

Another barber, Thomas C. Motts, also arrived in the 1840s. His business acumen made him, in less than a decade, the wealthiest black man in Muscatine with real estate valued at $6,000, according to the book “Bright Radical Star: Black Freedom and White Supremacy on the Hawkeye Frontier” by Robert R. Dykstra

In 1891, history was made when African-American Benjamin Mathews was elected city wharf master — the first black elected to office in Muscatine.

A Muscatine man who was a drummer boy in the 60th U.S. Infantry, the unit Clark had organized, was one of four men to receive a gold medal for long and satisfactory service at the Rock Island Arsenal. Milton Howard was a custodian at the Arsenal and saved the life of Gen. Daniel W. Flagler when the commandant fell through the ice near the Arsenal.

Howard, a former slave who escaped in the 1860s by using the Underground Railroad, settled in Muscatine after his discharge from the Army. His award was presented in 1921.

According to a 1906 report in the African-American-owned newspaper, the Iowa State Bystander, there were about 500 blacks then living in Muscatine, many of them owning farms or truck gardens of 10 to 100 acres. The report named “Mr. Fairfax and Mr. Nelson Carr as two of the successful farmers.” (According to the 1900 Census, this would be Philip Fairfax. He and Carr were neighbors and  both  were Virginians who had lived in Iowa less than 20 years.)

Aldeen Davis legacy

More recently, a black Muscatine woman, Aldeen Jones Davis, who died in 2000, rose to local and statewide prominence.

She belonged to several African-American women’s clubs, became a social activist and became a leader in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a civil rights organization for ethnic minorities in the United States.

She was a columnist for the Muscatine Journal from 1978 to 1990, writing “Soul Food and Thought” about African-American history, food and modern life. She also wrote regularly for the Iowa Bystander and Prime Time, a publication for Iowa senior citizens.

Davis served on the Muscatine Human Rights Commission, the Equity Committee of the school board and the city’s library board. She also taught a course about black history at Muscatine Community College.

She took up painting after retiring in the late 1970s. Former Gov. Terry Branstad appointed her to the Governor’s Commission on Aging, and in 1989 she received the Governor’s Volunteer Award.

Muscatine Mayor Dick O’Brien declared Jan. 14, 2001, Aldeen Davis Day in Muscatine. The African American Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa, in Cedar Rapids, also dedicated a room to her called “The Aldeen Davis Memorial Hall.”

Today, Annabell Luth is a voice for civil rights in Muscatine.

Luth’s family dates back to the area’s early free black settlers and Anna Clay, whose 1920 obituary describes her escape from slavery on the Underground Railroad.

Fighting prejudice

Luth’s mother, Berneice Williams, 84, has said that her childhood in Muscatine was free of prejudice. However, Luth, 53, believes the older blacks in Muscatine “knew what they could and couldn’t do and never challenged it.”

Luth says there is still prejudice toward people of color in Muscatine. She wants to promote self-reliance and a cultural dignity for all people through the newly created Muscatine-based National Association of Multicultural Services (NAMES).

“Prejudice here is thinly veiled,” Luth said. “It is more a lack of sensitivity and respect. For example, I tried for years to have the word ‘niggerhead’ (referring to a clam shell)  removed from a local Web page about the Pearl Button Museum. The word was finally removed last year. The shell is now appropriately listed as the ebony shell.”

Luth, a nurse and avid family historian,  makes presentations on black history at Muscatine High School.  She says some blacks in Muscatine do not have the strong sense of self that promotes success. She said the overall goal of NAMES is to assist people in overcoming the fear of failure by providing jobs, education, a strong sense of future goals and keeping area youths involved in their community.

Contact Connie Street at: 319-527-8164 ckcasey@louisacomm.net

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