Women who saved Alexander Clark’s house

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

September 1974. Crisis averted?

At a meeting of stakeholders, members of the women’s group studying historic homes of Muscatine assured city officials they would not block demolition of a house built by historic resident Alexander Clark. Their expressions of concern had raised fears of an impending nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

Muscatine Journal, September 26: “Such a nomination would, in effect, dash the city’s hopes for the 100-unit federally funded complex for low-income elderly, according to Charles Coates, city administrator.”

But study group member Bette Veerhusen said others might take up the cause.

“Mrs. Veerhusen said that if any steps would be taken to save the house, they would have to come from members of what she termed ‘the black community.’”

The African American woman who, in 1958, had initiated the city’s first Alexander Clark Day seconded Veerhusen’s warning.

“I don’t want to frighten you about this,” Aldeen Davis said. “But I think you should know that this could happen.”

Journal headline, November 21: “Area women’s group considers moving Clark house to other site.”

“Mrs. Reid Motley…chairwoman of Links Inc., a national bi-racial philanthropic organization…told the Journal that the group had just become aware of the importance of the home and a study investigating the feasibilty of moving the house began this morning.”

Cedar Rapids Gazette editorial, December 1: “The loss would be irretrievable. The causes of education and civil rights in Iowa have known few, if any, abler champions than Alexander Clark, a black whose 1868 court suit enabled all children, regardless of race, to receive public education in Iowa. … Mrs. Reid Motley of Cedar Rapids noted that the deadline for moving the brick building is less than two months away…. If preservation of the Clark home is deemed feasible, the effort will rate every man-hour and dollar Links, Inc., can enlist.”

On December 9, the Gazette and the Journal quoted Motley announcing the fundraising campaign and declaring the relocation project both “possible and worthwhile.” Other papers around the state carried the report.

Des Moines Register, December 18: “Mrs. Motley said the cost of moving the 2½-story brick house—built by the most prominent Iowa black man of the post-Civil War period—has been estimated at between $35,000 and $40,000. … City officials have set a Jan. 25 deadline by which the building must be moved before it is destroyed.”

* * *

Moline Dispatch, Sept. 27, 1977: “The Muscatine home of a 19th century black leader in Iowa has been saved from demolition, thanks to the efforts of a Cedar Rapids woman and her colleagues. … [Links, Inc.] persuaded the city of Muscatine to postpone demolition and began soliciting donations. The effort was successful. In May, 1975, the home was relocated…and the housing project was built last year as scheduled on the original site of the Clark home.”

* * *

From the 2011 obituary of Burtine Josephine (Washington) Motley: “She was the first African American teacher admitted to the Iowa City School systems and served as president of the Iowa City Classroom Teachers Association. A tireless advocate of the disenfranchised, she was appointed to, served on, and chaired a myriad regional, state, and city commissions and boards…. In 1974, she founded and became the first president of the Alexander Clark Historical Society Inc. By 1978 despite enormous odds she succeeded in moving and thus preserving Clark’s home in Muscatine, Iowa. Burtine was a committed member of many noted social and civic organizations. Her unrelenting drive, intrepid courage, and willingness to give of herself are hallmarks by which she will always be remembered.”

In January 2012, following release of the documentary film “Lost in History: Alexander Clark,” I exchanged messages with Burtine’s daughter Kathy, a physician in Michigan.

“We lived, ate, breathed, and slept Alexander Clark for several years,” she wrote. “I would like to see credit given where credit is due.”

Of course she was right. The film had ended up being mostly about Kent Sissel who bought and restored the house after it had been moved, after it had been spared a hasty demolition and found a new address.

Here’s the exact passage where Burtine Motley did not get her due: “In the mid-1970s, Clark’s house is supposed to be demolished to make way for this high-rise. But those who know Clark’s story protest, and Muscatine officials agree to move the house…to its current location. A short time later, the local historical preservation society runs into financial trouble, and Sissel is contacted.”

Contacted by state historians to take over the work. Kent has done his part faithfully in saving the house and preserving the Clark legacy ever since—after Kathy’s mother had done much of the heavy lifting.

She sent me 1970s articles which I posted to Facebook.

“I am not big on attention,” Kathy wrote. “I am only interested in my mother’s role in this not being forgotten.”

Next time: Alexander Clark project in jeopardy

Top image: Members of Cedar Rapids Links, Inc. (center); Aldeen Davis (left) and Burtine Motley (right).

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