Through story and song

This column by Daniel G. Clark about Alexander Clark (1826-1891) first appeared in the Muscatine Journal.

I was excited when I learned Simon Estes would narrate the Iowa public television documentary “Lost in History: Alexander Clark.”

Ahead of the premiere showing at Muscatine Community College in March 2012, the Muscatine Journal highlighted the bass-baritone’s role in “the 27-minute film by award-winning New York producer Marc Rosenwasser that chronicles Clark’s life from his birth in western Pennsylvania in 1826 to his death in 1891.”

Kent Sissel and I had helped the production team. Then, to Kent’s chagrin, the story line ended up focusing on his own role in saving Clark’s house and telling the story of Clark’s achievements. “The old white guys,” we called ourselves.

But Simon Estes! The whole world knew the Iowa-born singer. Alexander Clark couldn’t stay lost anymore.

Muscatine Journal, March 18, 1987:

International opera stars Simon Estes and Roberta Alexander were given a standing ovation by a receptive Muscatine audience Tuesday night. Estes and Alexander performed at the Wesley United Methodist Church as part of the Jackson Concert Series, a memorial trust used to provide free concerts to the general public.

The headline said “capacity crowd.” I was among 900 or so entranced concertgoers that night.

Journal columnist Aldeen Davis: “A native Iowan, Estes has made a name for himself throughout the world in the field of music—opera in particular—breaking many barriers. … He sang in the high school chorus and was the first black member of the Old Gold Singers at the University of Iowa.”

Like Estes, Davis was a native of Centerville, Iowa, where both were members of the Baptist congregation where he first sang at age 8.

October 2011. Estes returned and sang at Muscatine Center for the Performing Arts, along with Juan Carlos Mendoza, at the 13th annual Iowa Latino Conference. Local pianist Lori Carroll was their accompanist.

The preceding Monday, I introduced Kent to a special Estes admirer who is now a world-class singer in his own right—Anthony Brown, Baritone.

College friend Tony was visiting my wife Jean and me during a brief stop between gigs elsewhere. I took him to see the Alexander Clark House, which has been Kent’s home since 1980. We told him about Estes narrating the documentary, and about the upcoming concert. Tony professed envy, regretting that he wasn’t free to stay.

Sissel, like Estes, was once an Old Gold Singer, too. After seeing the house, Tony sang for us—just us—in the music room of the Muscatine Art Center. Fantastic!

He loved the acoustics. He’d never heard of Alexander Clark until that day, he said, but now he felt moved to honor him in song and tell his story.

So we told him we were making plans with Jeff Armstrong, president of Muscatine Community College, for an ongoing series of public lectures, maybe other programs as well.

“Call it cultural so I can sing for you,” Tony replied.

Muscatine Journal, July 11, 2011: “Armstrong announced that in February 2012, MCC will host the first of a lecture series that will explore topics including the Underground Railroad and the struggle for civil rights.”

Muscatine Journal, March 1, 2012: “In addition to the film, the college will announce the kick-off of a fundraising campaign in support of the Alexander Clark Cultural Series. … Clark’s story is one of a man who was extremely focused on succeeding in the world, regardless of the color of his skin.”

Over the past decade the series has presented speakers: Rachelle Chase, Dwain Coleman, David Connon, Terrell Dempsey, Thomas Norman DeWolf, Michelle Kuo, Russell Lovell, Charles Pearson, Jessica Welburn, Adrien Wing.

July 2022. To rave reviews, Simon Estes, 84, gave his final operatic performance in Des Moines Metro Opera’s production of “Porgy and Bess.”

Thanks to MCC President Naomi DeWinter’s collaboration with the Jackson Concert committee, Tony finally sang for a Muscatine audience last month. I was ecstatic.

The free concert, “Songs and Stories of Peace, Hope, and Justice,” happened on September 22 in the Wesley sanctuary. Lori Carroll accompanied Tony.

“Anthony Brown is an internationally acclaimed baritone and a promoter of peace and human rights who uses music and the spoken word to bring people together across divides of race, culture, and religion.”

Like Alexander Clark, our friend is a native of southwest Pennsylvania. “Actually I live one mile from Washington County,” he said when I asked if I could say he comes from Clark’s birthplace county.

More connecting dots: Robert and Elizabeth Jackson, who endowed the concert series, lived at the top of West Hill in the house they built on the site of the home of Alden B. Robbins, the pioneer pastor whose congregation was described as abolitionists. And it was Robbins—Congregationalist pastor—who led the wedding ceremony for Jackson’s parents, Douglas and Alberta—at the Methodist church! Douglas became a long serving judge and Clark’s fellow member of the county bar association.

Next time: One of her favorite places

Top image: Tony Brown and Lori Carroll performed in Muscatine on Sept. 22, 2022. Photo provided by Daniel G. Clark and published with permission.

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