Alexander G. Clark (1826-1891) shaped history in Muscatine County and far beyond on a national and international scale. Born to formerly enslaved parents, John and Rebecca Darnes Clark, Clark’s life began in Pennsylvania. At age 13, Clark moved to live with his uncle William Darnes in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he followed in his uncle’s footsteps and learned the trade of barbering.
When he was 16, Clark found work as a barber on a steamboat, traveled to Bloomington, Iowa (present-day Muscatine), and opened his own barbershop. Clark worked as a barber for 20 years, creating a life for his family in Bloomington.
In 1848, at age 22, Clark married Catherine Griffin. Catherine was enslaved in Virginia until the age of three. Catherine and Alexander raised three children, Rebecca, Susan, and Alexander Jr., and lost two children as infants.
Clark left his mark on Muscatine in many ways. He worked to improve the lives of black people throughout the state of Iowa.
1848: Establishing the African Methodist Episcopal Church
Clark worked alongside over 30 others to establish the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Muscatine, the first in Iowa.
1855: Petitioning the Iowa Legislature
Clark and 32 others petitioned the Iowa Legislature to repeal a law that prohibited "the immigration of free Negroes into this State.” The Legislature rejected the plea.
1863: Recruiting for Iowa’s First Black Infantry
At age 37, Clark volunteered to serve in the Civil War but was barred because of a physical defect. Clark went on to recruit over a thousand men to serve in Iowa’s first Black Infantry.
1867: Landmark Case for School Integration in Iowa Supreme Court
Clark’s daughter Susan was denied access to the public school that white students attended. Clark sued the Muscatine school district, and the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in his favor, stating that all children could attend a common school.
This decision came 86 years before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS in 1954. Clark’s efforts made Iowa one of the first states to integrate its public school system.
1879: Fight to Enter University of Iowa Law School
Clark was denied entry to the University of Iowa’s law school. He then fought to get his son, Alexander Jr., admitted. In 1879, Alexander Jr. became the first Black man to graduate from the U of I law school.
In 1884, Clark became the second Black man to graduate from the University of Iowa law school. During his time in law school, Clark purchased a newspaper called the Chicago Conservator and ran it successfully until 1887.
1890: Minster to Liberia
Clark was active in the Masonic Lodge and Republican Party and often traveled to speak for both groups. He was recognized as the “Colored Orator of the West” for his public speaking skills.
President Benjamin Harrison appointed Clark as U.S. Minister to Liberia in 1890. Clark died from a fever in Monrovia, Liberia, on June 3, 1891. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Muscatine.
Clark is arguably one of the most influential men of the 19th century in Iowa. Today, his legacy stays with our community, as we remember those who fought for the rights of all people in Muscatine early and often.
To learn more about Alexander Clark's life and legacy, check out this series of articles written by a local historian: