She presented herself as a scholar

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

September 10, 1867: the beginning of the end of segregated schools in Iowa; the day 12-year-old Susie Clark tried to enroll at Muscatine’s Grammar School No. 2.

One hundred and fifty-five years ago “on the 10th day of September, 1867, said school being in session, she presented herself, and demanded to be received therein as a scholar under the common school law.” (Iowa Supreme Court, ruling in Clark v. Board of Directors, April 14, 1868.)

Instead of a welcome at her neighborhood school three blocks up West Hill from her home at W. 3rd and Chestnut, someone in charge turned Susie away on orders of the school board.

Admission of “colored” students had been an issue in the election of new board members earlier that year. All were Republicans, members of a party still finding its way on civil rights in the wake of war, still a year-and-a-half away from the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Hedging their bets on local sentiment, all board members had taken a pledge against mixing races in the classroom. This newspaper had supported them over their “copperhead” opponents.

The Muscatine Journal (September 14, 1867) condemned the “high-handed act of despotism…unjustifiable by any principle of law or any sentiment of humanity. … We care not what professions of politics or morality this school board may make, their act is an act of savagery, at war with every principle of religion and morality, and deserves the keen rebuke of every right thinking person. School boards have no right to grind their heels into children.”

We don’t know details of what transpired September 10, but the result is history. Alexander Clark went to court. Maybe one or both siblings had joined in the enrollment attempt, but daughter Susan became the plaintiff.

On October 26 district court judge J. Scott Richman decided in favor of the Clarks.

The Journal applauded “a righteous judgment” on October 28.

Mr. Clark, a very intelligent and prosperous citizen, the father of the children unlawfully and unrighteously excluded from the public schools…appealed from the decision of our school board to the District Court. […]

The Judge decided that the law knows no respect of persons; that it applies, so far as the benefits of our public schools are concerned at any rate, to all alike; that the school board had, therefore, no right to draw distinctions and exclude children for mere color; and that Mr. Clark’s children had as much right to attend the public schools of this city, of which he was a resident tax-payer, as any body’s children.

Susie’s father answered segregationists in a letter (Journal, October 31, 1867):

The truth is that the colored school is not now, and ever was as good as the white grammar schools. No. 1 and No. 2 are graded grammar schools with globes, and charts and competent teachers with salaries from $700 to $900 a year, with assistant teachers with salaries from $275 to $300. The colored school is not and never was a graded school. It has not, and never had a globe, or chart, its teacher’s salary has been from $150 to $200 per year. No. 1 and No. 2 white schools have prepared and qualified pupils by the hundred for the high school: the colored school has never prepared or qualified one that could pass an examination for any class in the high school. The white schools are distributed all over the city for the convenience of small children.

He said the district’s “African” school was “nearly a mile from many of the small colored children, keeping more than a third of them from school.” (In December 1867 the African school had 22 students.)

Not conceding defeat, the board appealed to Iowa’s highest court.

November 29: “The Rev. Mr. Cowles, of the Methodist church, in his discourse yesterday, while referring to the causes which should make our citizens grateful to God, spoke of the action of our city school board in excluding colored children from school, and the decision of Judge Richman, in reversing that action, and thus permitting these children of God to have the benefit of education. ‘For that decision,’ said Mr. Cowles, ‘we should thank God.’ To which all good christians will heartily respond Amen!”

What was it like for Susie taking that three-block walk, likely accompanied by one or more adults? There’s no record of a hateful jeering mob such as many of us remember from desegregation dramas a century later, but it’s easy to imagine how many eyes followed them.

* * *

We can honor Susie’s courage by remembering her on November 14 and taking part in the annual Ruby Bridges Walk to School Day.

Never heard of it? Neither had I. Learn more here.

Next time: Clark farm on Muscatine Island

Top image: Artwork from Ruby Bridges Foundation and Susan Clark Junior High tee shirt.

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