Refreshments of the season

This column by Daniel G. Clark about Alexander Clark (1826-1891) first appeared in the Muscatine Journal on September 20, 2023. Above: Detail from Clark’s law-school graduation photo, 1884.

In my previous column I quoted the long report about lawyers and judges inducting Alexander Clark into their fraternity, but I did not tell nearly everything readers might want to know.

Muscatine Journal, June 24, 1884: “The members of the Muscatine Bar met at Delmonico’s as per invitation of their newly elected brother, Alexander Clark, Esq. at eight o’clock last evening.”

(Delmonico restaurant was on Second Street.) 

“They sat down to enjoy ‘the refreshments of the season’ in the line of ice cream and cake, strawberries, &c.”

After much speechifying comes this: “Mr. Clark himself now arose [and] expressed himself as much gratified at the kindly feeling manifest toward him.” He called it “one of the proudest occasions of his life.”

“The generous words of cheer from members of the Bar he was proud of—prouder of the reception and greeting he had received that evening than when he was banqueted by the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of London.”

(Did you know Clark visited London? I’ll tell that story some other time.)

After superlatives on and on, he almost ends with a “mic drop.”

“There was only one position that the speaker found more pride in than in that of his new relations to the bar, and that was the Superintendency of the A.M.E. Sunday School, which he had held for thirty years. (Cheers.)”

But just before that, there was this: “He would have been but too happy to have the bar accept of his hospitalities even if Mr. Lauder had not perpetrated that great and daring fraud upon him.”

That’s right, Brother Clark got pranked into buying the banquet held in his honor! Let’s pick up the story where he has been directed to sign his membership document a few days earlier.

Muscatine Journal, June 20, 1884: “Mr. Clark…seated himself before the following writing: Circuit Court, seventeenth day. In the matter of the admission of A. Clark, Esq., to practice law. Be it remembered that on this 20th day of June, 1884, upon motion of W.F. Brannan, Esq., Alex Clark, it being satisfactorily shown that he was a graduate of the Law Department of the lowa State University and of good moral character, is upon subscribing hereto, admitted to practice law in the various courts of the State of lowa.”

“Mr. Clark put on his ‘specs’ read the document with true professional caution, and then subscribed his name. This done, he wiped his brow and passed out of the Court room. Then the conspiracy, was unveiled at once.”

“The above writing which he had innocently supposed he was [signing] had been lightly pasted over something entirely different, and being removed disclosed the following PLEDGE, standing out in the plainest of English over Aleck’s signature—all upon the same sheet of paper: I do hereby, and by these presents pledge myself to furnish the delicacies of the season to the members of the Muscatine Bar, including the oflicers of the Court, in consequence of my being admitted to practice. So help me God. ALEXANDER CLARK.”

“Mr. Clark will not know of the ‘swindling patent-note’ practice that was perpetrated upon him right there in open Court, until he reads his solemn obligation in the JOURNAL. It will not do for him to deny it, as the JOURNAL has been entrusted with the original pledge with his plain, undisguised signature thereto. Farthermore, the pledge was shown to Judge French who remarked that it evidently being Mr. Clark’s voluntary act, the Court would instruct Brother Lauder to sue on it at once, if it were not promptly met.”

“All of which will be as enjoyably appreciated by Mr. Clark as by any of the fraternity.” 

The man who nominated him had been the lawyer representing the Muscatine school board against Clark’s desegregation lawsuit of 1867. This newspaper called it one of Judge Brannan’s most “honorable and graceful acts.”

“He certainly deserves great credit for…reaching the position he has now attained,” Brannan said.

I think he meant more than law graduate. By 1884 Clark had achieved prominence in business and politics and, not least, masonry and the church.

And I think the refreshment Clark felt among his lawyer brethren was genuine. It was the season for strawberries, but treating a Black man as a social equal was decidedly out of season.

A few months earlier the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the equal-rights protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Its promise of fairness under law for all citizens no longer existed even on paper. Jim Crow laws would flourish for many seasons, and the setback would not be corrected until the civil rights acts of the 1960s. Even on paper.

Reconstruction season was over, but Iowa lawyers welcomed a Black person as their equal.

Footnote: That banquet was when they decided to create a formal bar association.

Next time: 1883 rights ruling “will frame mischief”

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  • This story is such a wonderful contrast and relief...

    …after reading the latest news stories about Iowa Republican efforts in the Legislature to corral Iowa’s public schools and teachers into teaching versions of history that would be better suited for old BEWITCHED storylines. (And that is possibly unfair to BEWITCHED.)