MUSCATINE, Iowa - Kent Sissel has no idea how long it will take the National Park Service to decide if his house will be named a National Historic Landmark.

But when he bought the Alexander G. Clark House 32 years ago, Sissel made a promise that he's keeping by pursuing the coveted historic designation.

"I promised I would take this on as an obligation,"Sissel said. "I promised the people I bought the house from (the now defunct Alexander Clark Historical Society) I would be the best steward I could possibly be."

Clark, one of Muscatine's most famous residents, organized and led a regiment of African-American soldiers to fight in the Civil War and later sued and won a case that reached the Iowa Supreme Court to integrate Muscatine schools.

In 1868, almost a century before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated school facilities are unconstitutional, Iowa's highest court gave Clark and his daughter, Susan, a victory, ruling that segregated schools, even if equal in resources, were inherently discriminatory.

He died in Liberia afer being appointed minster to that nation by President Benjamin Harrison.

Clark built his house 10 years later, after a fire, perhaps started by an arsonist, destroyed his home. Sissel purchased the house at 207 W. Third St. a century later, in 1978.

Before he bought it, it had been moved about 200 feet from its original location on Third Street between Iowa Avenue and Chestnut Street.

Sissel, 66, a retired college professor, is working with a team of Muscatine residents, including Dan Clark, to help write the narrative the Park Service requires to consider the National Historic Landmark designation.

"By the time we're done, we'll have a book," Sissel said.

A pair of scholars will help develop the application, and their services are being paid for by a $10,500 grant: Paul Finkelman, a professor of law and public policy at Albany Law School in Albany, N.Y., and David Brodnax Sr., assistant professor of history at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Ill.

Finkelman, who's taught and written extensively on race, slavery, civil rights and baseball, is keynote speaker this week at the 2010 National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom conference in Topeka, Kan., which Sissel and Dan Clark plan to attend. Sissel said Finkelman also plans to speak in Muscatine in September.

In 2004 Brodnax wrote the article "The Equality of Right: Alexander Clark and the Desegregation of Iowa's Public Schools, 1834-75."

Besides contributing a chapter on the house he now calls home, it'll be Sissel's job to research Clark's genealogy. Already he's learned that Clark's grandfather may have fought under Gen. George Washington during the American Revolution.

And this nugget: Clark's ancestors came from Washington, Pa., the same town that Sissel's forebears called home.

"They probably knew each other," Sissel said.

If the application is successful, Sissel said he doesn't plan to stick around and show visitors around his famous home. He'd rather an academic institution run the place.

At any rate, that's probably some years down the road.

By that time he expects to be living in a sunnier clime - say, Mexico, where he's traveled extensively.

While his admiration for Clark grows the more he learns about him, Sissel said he's also learned to put the famous man in his historical context.

"What Clark did wasn't terribly outstanding,"Sissel said of the man who was also a barber, lawyer and newspaper editor. "He just did it here first."

Subscribe to Daily Headlines

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Load comments