Susan Clark in storybooks

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

I once drove a busload of visitors to the little park we call Mark Twain Overlook and heard their company’s guide tell them: “He lived in Muscatine for about three years, and his house was up here.”

I simply grinned. I was just the driver, not the history police.

Did you know Mark Twain lived in Muscatine? That part is true—all you need to know if you want to mention his storybook characters for whatever you’re selling or even name some streets and subdivisions. We’ve probably done more of that here than anywhere else outside of Hannibal, Missouri.

How many days he was here—or nights—doesn’t matter. He judged our sunsets the best anywhere. Boosters took it and ran.

“Just spell my name right!” That’s your creed if publicity is your business or your need.

Fact-check the following, from the Iowa PBS “Iowa Pathways” website:

“In 1868 Susan Clark, a young black girl in Muscatine, was not allowed to attend an all-white public school. Her father, Alexander Clark, took the case to court and the Supreme Court declared that public schools were open to all, regardless of race.”

Close enough? Because any publicity is good publicity, right?

If you ask me to nitpick, I’ll say the girl was turned away from school in 1865 and again in 1867. Her father sued in 1867; the landmark ruling came in 1868.

I’ll tell you the court documents got Susan’s middle initial wrong—it was V for Virginia, not B. I’ll tell you she was already 13 in September 1867, no matter how many sources tell you she was 12. (I believe her 1925 obituary is the best source. It says she was born January 4, 1854.)

If you haven’t stopped me, I’ll tell you she was still known as Susie when she became Iowa’s first Black high school graduate in 1871.

What facts matter really? When the important thing is remembering at all.

About four years ago someone suggested naming a school for her. Soon the idea was a serious proposal, serious enough to run into pushback.

Who was Susan Clark? Nobody ever heard of her. Why would we want that for a name?

Susan had a publicity problem. So her backers started telling her story—Iowa’s first Black high-school graduate, role model for bravery and persistence and love of learning, a reputable citizen for the rest of her life. The resistance subsided enough that the former West Middle School building became Susan Clark Junior High School by unanimous vote of the school board in September 2019.

Muscatine Journal, January 28, 2021:

MCSD recently made efforts to increase the diversity in its curriculum, acknowledge the history and culture of other races, and make every student in their district feel welcome. […]

The district also honored Muscatine resident Susan Clark, the first black student to integrate into a public school, by naming the combined middle school in her honor. ‘Our district is very proud of honoring the legacy [of] Susan Clark at our junior high,’ [Superintendent Clint] Christopher said. ‘The entryway features a plaque dedicated to her along with a TV that streams a video highlighting the significance of her story.

That same week I approached award-winning author Rachelle Chase about nominating her to write a Susan Clark storybook. I’d heard her speak about her two books about Buxton: Lost Buxton and Creating the Black Utopia of Buxton, Iowa. I had read them and liked her nonfiction style. I’d read one of her several romance novels, too.

The storybook wasn’t my idea, but my hunch about Rachelle was a good one. Leaders at two Muscatine organizations had shared the book idea with me and my wife Jean because of our part in the school-naming storytelling.

Long story short, the Community Foundation of Greater Muscatine and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security are funding creation of two Susan Clark books! Separate books written and illustrated for different age levels, one of them by Rachelle. Jean and I have been serving as history consultants, fact checkers, and cheerleaders. We’ve seen Susie’s story market-tested on young readers. It will be accessible and appealing like never before.

It’s too early to predict release dates, and this isn’t my announcement to make anyway.

I’m eager to report more, of course. Maybe if I whisper? You can expect rhyming and rapping and time travel and snappy dialogue and whimsical, colorful illustration. Brave Susie will be accessible and appealing like never before.

Here’s a fact. Rachelle and I will present a program together on February 16, 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at Muscatine Art Center. [Canceled due to weather. Rachelle’s talk will be rescheduled; Dan will speak on March 30, maybe joined by Kent Sissel.]

From the publicity: “Several projects are currently underway to introduce the Alexander Clark story to new audiences, demonstrate his national significance, and broaden understanding of Clark’s leadership in his own time. Join author Rachelle Chase and local historian Dan Clark for a discussion on Alexander Clark.”

Without publicity, how will anyone know?

Next time: Alexander Clark Day 2023

Top image: A portion of the exhibit, “Faces of Hope: The Original Residents of the Clark House,” at the Muscatine Art Center, Feb. 16 – April 9, 2023.

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  • Really nice story

    I’m a history buff, but one relying on others to do the research and turn reliable facts into narrative. Thanks Dan Clark for sharing.