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University of Iowa News Release

 

Feb. 14, 2007

Law Graduate Alexander Clark Was Iowa Civil Rights Pioneer

Alexander Clark was already one of Iowa's most notable civil rights leaders before he became one of the first African-Americans to attend the University of Iowa College of Law in the 1870s, according to a Marshalltown High School student and Clark biographer who spoke at the UI law school Tuesday.

By then, said Marshalltown student Stephen Frese (photo, left), Clark had already organized the African-American community in Muscatine, led the effort to extend the right to vote to the state's black residents, and started the lawsuit that would ultimately end segregated education in the state.

Frese's paper, "From Emancipation to Equality: Alexander Clark's Stand for Civil Rights in Iowa," chronicles the life of a Muscatine barber turned civil rights leader. The paper won the grand prize in the 2006 National History Day essay contest, winning Frese a $100,000 scholarship to Case Western Reserve University.

Frese said he spent about eight months writing and researching his paper at the Iowa State Historical Society facilities in Iowa City and Des Moines, the state law library in Des Moines, and in Muscatine, the city where Clark arrived as a young man in 1842. There, Clark found a territory with numerous segregation and exclusionary laws designed to keep blacks and whites separate.

"Iowa was one of the most racist territories in the north, but Clark saw potential," Frese said. He opened a barbershop, sold lumber and started a newspaper. He organized an African Methodist Episcopal Church, the city's first, and during the Civil War organized a Colored Batallion of African-American Iowans to fight for the Union.

Frese said Clark also worked to end the state's segregation laws, an effort that paid off in 1868 when Iowa voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment granting blacks the right to vote. In 1867, he sued the Muscatine school district to allow his 12-year old daughter to attend one of the city's elementary schools for white children instead of forcing her to attend the school designated for black children. The case went before the Iowa Supreme Court in 1868 and the justices found in Clark's favor, ruling that separate schools for blacks and whites was unconstitutional more than 80 years before the U.S. Supreme Court reached the same finding in Brown v. Board of Education.

In 1890, Clark was appointed the U.S. ambassador to the Liberia, making him the first African-American appointed to such a high post in the U.S. government. Clark died the following year.

Frese's presentation was part of the university's African American History Month commemoration.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010, tom-snee@uiowa.edu.