Cascading through history

This column by Daniel G. Clark about Alexander Clark (1826-1891) first appeared in the Muscatine Journal on Dec. 27, 2023. Above: Historian Paul Finkelman at Susan Clark Junior High in February 2023.

What will it take to get Muscatine’s Alexander Clark House declared a National Historic Landmark?

From Guidelines for Preparing National Historic Landmark Nominations (2023): “Nationally significant properties embody stories that have exceptional value to the nation as a whole. … The history embodied in NHLs may not always be familiar, but their significance to the nation means that they are no less deserving of recognition.”

Our city’s Historic Preservation Commission didn’t expect a “national significance” hurdle back in 2010 when we received a grant to hire an expert in U.S. legal history to help us make the case to the U.S. National Park Service. I was HPC chairperson at the time.

Not far into the project, the feds told us it wasn’t good enough that our Alexander Clark House had been listed on their National Register of Historic Places in 1976 as a U.S. Bicentennial project. No, they pronounced Clark’s significance established at state level only, thus disqualifying our NHL bid until we might win national-level certification. Long story short, that hasn’t happened yet.

“It might help if you could show a cascading effect from Clark to Brown,” advised Lorinda Bradley in a meeting this month. She is Iowa’s National Register Coordinator at the State Historic Preservation Office.

Thanks to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, every state has a SHPO—an expert, or staff of experts, mediating access to the National Register of Historic Places which is a program of the NPS. We preservationists pronounce the acronym “ship-oh.” We listen when SHPO speaks.

In 1978 the Iowa Division of Historic Preservation—SHPO of the day—intervened against a city threat to demolish the then-derelict house. Pat Eckhardt told the council her agency considered it “the last physical remembrance of Alexander Clark,” whom she described as “a man of national significance.”

When the restorer of the Alexander Clark House, Kent Sissel, introduced me to the preservation process, SHPO was at the State Historical Society in Des Moines where it was part of the Department of Cultural Affairs. This month SHPO moved into new digs as part of the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

So, back to cascading Clark to Brown. That would mean showing falling dominoes in school-desegregation cases from Clark v. Muscatine (1868) to Brown v. Topeka (1954). One victory leading to the next and the next and the next.

Can such an argument be made? Maybe. I’ve heard our legal-history expert, Paul Finkelman, react to the upgrade requirement, ticking off half a dozen Clark achievements, saying after each one, “If it were only that, but also….” As if the evidence is overwhelming.

Speaking at Muscatine Community College in February 2023, he said: “Bringing this case is not merely changing the law so [Clark’s] daughter can go to school. He is setting up the circumstances to begin to change American law in what will be a very long and painful struggle to reach racial equality in the United States.”

Here’s a link cued to his discussion of many legal citations of the Iowa ruling including “five different briefs” leading to Brown.

“It is a significant case,” he concludes. “It should be in the pantheon of American liberty.”

And then add context, advised SHPO’s Bradley. What was happening in other states at the same time? Why Iowa? Why the Clarks?

On December 7, a few hours after our SHPO conversation, the City Council voted unanimously to endorse the current HPC’s proposal for Muscatine to compete for hosting the 2025 Preserve Iowa Summit, a big deal for preservationists statewide. Host cities must have a “showcase project” as part of the application, so HPC proposes an intensive survey of local sites with possible Underground Railroad significance. The Alexander Clark House is one of those, of course. See this video, cued to the HPC item.

The timing could be just right. February 2026 will be Clark’s 200th birthday. Also, 2024-2025 is the 50th anniversary of “rediscovering” Clark and saving the 1878 house from demolition. The interpretive panels made for a major exhibit at Muscatine Art Center last spring could be used for the Summit showcase.

Cascading. I’ve been spinning on the word since that night. And turning points and tipping points.

“Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” (John Lewis)

”The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” (Theodore Parker, quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
    A voice, a chime,
    A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

(“Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

Next time: “A fine figure of a Negro”

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