Alexander Clark’s initiation to the bar

This column by Daniel G. Clark about Alexander Clark (1826-1891) first appeared in the Muscatine Journal on September 6, 2023. Above: Brannan, Carskaddan, Clark, Richman.

In 1879, Alexander Clark Jr. was Iowa’s first Black law-school graduate. In 1884, his father became the second.

The Vidette-Reporter, State University of Iowa, February 2, 1884: “We had the pleasure of perusing a very able article on the Civil Rights question, written by Mr. Alexander Clark, a member of this class, and published by the Muscatine Journal. The article sustains the dissenting opinion of Justice Harlan.”

I will write a future column about Clark’s letter published December 28, 1883—headlined “Views of a distinguished colored citizen.”

The Vidette-Reporter, April 26, 1884: “Hon. Alexander Clark and Sergeant I.W. Arnold did themselves great credit in their arguments in Moot court this week.”

Upon completion of his degree, Judge William F. Brannan nominated Clark for membership in the county bar association.

Muscatine Journal, June 20, 1884: “Judge Brannan, with a life graced with courtesies to others, has done few more honorable and graceful acts than in moving as he did for the admission of Aleck Clark to a profession to which the mover is so distinguished a member.”

“Here is a colored man, who, at the age of fifty seven suddenly resolves to make himself acquainted with the spirit, structure and history of Law. With only a limited common school education he enters the Law Department of the State University, and acquits himself with an intelligence and industry, that win for him the coveted diploma of the best Law School in the West.”

A few days later Brannan spoke one of the many accolades at a banquet held in Clark’s honor. 

Muscatine Journal, June 24, 1884: “I have known him for a good many years, and he has always had my respect and esteem and the respect of the citizens of Muscatine in general. He has been an industrious, hard-working and pushing man and in his intercourse courteous, and polite to all. I have never known him to do an unworthy act. He certainly deserves great credit for passing through the Law School in so complimentary a manner and in reaching the position he has now attained.”

September 10, 1867. By order of the Muscatine school board, 12-year old Susan Clark was denied admission to the public school near her home. Her father sued, and the district court ruled in their favor. The board appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which upheld the district court.

Brannan was the school board’s lawyer for that appeal, arguing for local control and the segregationist doctrine that would become known as “separate but equal.” As such, he was the eloquent advocate for the losing side in the landmark case Clark v. Board of School Directors, 24 Iowa 266 (1868).

Several other judges attended the banquet and took their turns praising and welcoming Clark to the fraternity. D.C. Richman observed how he used to get a shave in Clark’s barber shop and had known the inductee longer than Brannan.

“I noticed at the time Mr. Clark was very inquisitive and desirous of learning something of every one who came to his shop. He would ply questions on various subjects, and to persons of every calling and profession. … I saw he was not to be kept in ignorance. I also noticed that he had ideas of his own.”

Jerome Carskaddan spoke next. As partners, he and Richman had represented the Clarks in the school case.

“He is a man who thinks for himself and pursues a course he believes right without consulting others,” he said.

“I remember one instance in which his individuality and independence were displayed with marked force and credit. It was the occasion of getting his daughter into our schools. He believed he was right—he knew his daughter was entitled to the privileges of our public schools. He felt it was a grievous wrong that colored children should be debarred from our public schools. Without any fuss, without any threats, without any noise, unaided and alone, he at once instituted in a legal and proper way, a proceeding to obtain admission for colored children into our public schools. He made a test case of his daughter.”

The anonymous writer adds: “The speaker and Judge D.C. Richman were on one side and Judge Brannan on the other. His suit was successful and by that act he broke the barrier that excluded colored children from our public schools.”

Clark said he was first prompted to study law by the casual remark of a Davenport attorney, a Mr. Stewart, who asked, “Mr. Clark, why don’t you study law and get admitted to the bar?” He answered, “Were I younger, I would do it, but the greater part of my life is behind me. I am now fifty six years of age.”

He thought the matter over and did it, he said, not to satisfy his own ambition alone but as an example to young men of his race. 

Next time: Refreshments of the season

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