Queen Susie and Grandmother Rebecca

This column by Daniel G. Clark about Alexander Clark (1826-1891) first appeared in the Muscatine Journal on Nov. 15, 2023. Above: Detail from illustration by Hayle Calvin.

Susie the Brave
was also Susie the Queen
who was born in a town
called Muscatine.

So begins the picture book Susie Clark: The Bravest Girl You’ve Ever Seen: Desegregating Iowa Schools in 1868.

You say you never knew there was
a Queen in Muscatine?
Well, get ready to meet
the bravest girl you’ve
ever seen!

Susie’s father is Alexander Clark, the most famous “colored” person in 1860s Iowa. He has just won the court case which bears her name and makes her a public figure at age 13.

Now it’s up to Susie to enter Muscatine’s formerly “whites only” high school and show everybody that equality is coming true.

It will be three years since the first time they tried, she and her sister and brother, and the third attempt for her. She has been home-schooled for the past year since her second try, since her father sued the people in charge of the public schools.

Now they can’t refuse her because her skin is dark, or any other kid for any other unfair reason. Anyway, that’s what the Supreme Court said.

On the eve of her first day, Susie’s mother braids okra seeds into her hair. A talisman of courage from Africa, she explains.

In her hand were round seeds
the prettiest color of green.
“Yes, from the Motherland,
where our ancestors were Queens.
Against all odds, and all the way to Muscatine!”

Mother Catherine was born to enslaved parents in Virginia and taken west as a toddler by the white woman who received her as a wedding gift. They called her “Cade.”

In this storybook, there’s also advice and encouragement from Grandmother.

Cry tonight and get it all done.
With the new morning there will be a new sun.

We’ve always taught you the golden rule.
We use it at home and use it at school.

Your father is a leader in making the rules right.
There are others that will help in this fight.
Progress will take time,
it won’t happen overnight…

The picture of wise grandmother warms this grandpa’s heart! Because of one newspaper article, I believe it is historically accurate to make her part of the story, and I wish we could know about her.

Muscatine Journal, May 10, 1887, reported the death of “Mrs. Rebecca Howard, the venerable mother of the Hon. Alex. Clark…at the remarkable age of ninety.”

“Deceased was twice married, and twice widowed, her first husband being John Clark, father of our townsman. Of five children born to her, Mr. Clark of this city alone survives.”

The second husband is not named, but Iowa records show she married a James Howard in Muscatine in September 1865. The four other children are a mystery.

“Mrs. Howard came west in 1863, and has resided most of the subsequent period in Muscatine. At the time of her death she was dwelling with a grandchild, wife of the Rev. Richard Holley, of Keokuk, who with her husband and father attended the remains to this city.”

“The remains arrived this morning, contained in a superbly mounted casket, in dark cloth and silver trimmings. The funeral took place this afternoon from the African M.E. Church.”

It was a new brick building, dedicated the previous year, replacing the original church, ca. 1850, where the Black students used to go to school.

“She will be remembered in Muscatine as zealous in her Christian faith and service, and as a woman of remarkable intellectual force and vision, as well as for great individuality of character.”

But she was not remembered. For a person so remarked upon at death, and as part of a family so well reported over the years, it surprises me that I find no other mentions of her, not in the Journal and not anywhere else.

In an afterword, author Joshalyn Hickey-Johnson says:

Although Grandmother Rebecca acknowledged “progress takes time, it won’t happen overnight,” I’m sure she never imagined it would take nearly another century to integrate schools across the country. Having the honor to shine a light on this family in a children’s book has been particularly meaningful for me, as I am a grandmother now. Like Susan’s grandmother, I understand better about progress. In my lifetime I’ve witnessed that it comes in waves.

Read the book online, download a free PDF, and see ordering information at the Stanley Center’s website.

* * *

Queen Susie. The honorific title recalls to me the report in a national church publication written by the minister who conducted the ceremony when she married Richard Holley. He called her “Miss Susie V. Clark the belle of Muscatine, Iowa, and the second daughter of the honorable and wealthy Alexander Clark who walks the street of that beautiful city and looks up to his three and two story blocks and says, I am monarch of all I survey.” (J.B. Dawson, The Christian Recorder, December 1877)

Next time: History Day champions

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