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Black History is Our History: Highlighting Black Achievement in Iowa’s Legal Community

February 22, 2021

Eighty-six years before Brown v. Board of Education, the State of Iowa had to confront the same issue: was separate instruction truly equal? The Iowa Supreme Court found in Clark v. Board of Directors (1868) that it was not.

Education in 1860s Muscatine was segregated. In 1865, after having no educational options, Susan V. Clark and her siblings enrolled and began classes at Grammar School No. 2. Two days later, the Board of Directors dictated that “no negroes should attend the public schools.” The African Methodist Episcopal Church provided space for an “African School” where Susan, her older sister and her younger brother could continue their education.

However, two years later after finishing the “African school,” Susan wanted to again enroll in Grammar School No. 2 to continue her studies. Twelve-year-old Susan was denied that opportunity. Her father, Alexander G. Clark, sued on her behalf.

Following success before the lower court, the school district appealed. The Board of Directors alleged that they had the discretion to determine if and where students attended school. The Iowa Supreme Court found that the basis for their discretion was lacking.

The term ‘colored race’ is but another designation, and in this country but a synonym for African. Now, it is very clear, that, if the board of directors are clothed with a discretion to exclude African children from our common schools, and require them to attend (if at all) a school composed wholly of children of that nationality, they would have the same power and right to exclude German children from our common schools, require them to attend (if at all) a school composed wholly of children of that nationality, and so of Irish, French, English and other nationalities, which together constitute the Amer­ican, and, which it is the tendency of our institutions and policy of the government to organize into one harmo­nious people, with a common country and stimulated ‘with the common purpose to perpetuate and spread our free’ institutions for the development, elevation and hap­piness of mankind.  Clark v. Board of Directors, 24 Iowa 266, 275-76 (Iowa 1868).

With the Clark decision, Iowa became the first state to desegregate education: separate was not equal. “No discretion which dis­turbs that equality can be exercised; for the exercise of such a discretion would be a violation of the law, which expressly gives the same rights to all the youths.” Clark v. Board of Directors, 24 Iowa 266, 275 (Iowa 1868).  “[A]ll the youths are equal before the law, and there is no discretion vested in the board of directors or elsewhere, to interfere with or disturb that equality.”  Clark v. Board of Directors, 24 Iowa 266, 277 (Iowa 1868). Susan went on to graduate high school with honors in 1871.

Susan was one of her graduation’s speakers, becoming Iowa’s first Black high school graduate. Grammar School No. 2 now bears her name. These achievements are only possible because the Clarks were an extraordinary family of dedicated trailblazers. Susan’s mother was born as slave. Susan’s father was born to freed slaves. Alexander G. Clark, Sr. was heavily involved in various causes focused on the advancement of people of color. From military involvement, to helping secure the constitutional amendment recognizing African American’s right to vote, supporting his daughter in her pursuit of her own education, and supporting his son and pursuing a legal education of his own.

After being denied admission to what is now the University of Iowa College of Law, Alexander G. Clark, Sr. advocated for the admission of Susan’s younger brother, Alexander Clark, Jr. Ten years after Susan’s landmark victory, Alexander Clark, Jr. became the first African American law school graduate in Iowa. Clark, Sr. was the second, earning his degree in 1884. The Clarks practiced law together. Clark, Sr. went on to become the United States Ambassador to Liberia. Susan and her husband, Rev. Richard Holley, followed his ministry through Iowa and Illinois, living in Cedar Rapids for many years. Susan focused on civic engagement and her work as a dressmaker. She passed away in 1925.


Kristymarie Shipley serves as Community Relations Counsel for Shuttleworth & Ingersoll, where she actively works with the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee, as well as the 1L Diversity Fellowship Program. Kristymarie also devotes time to her community, often speaking to students and prospective students at Iowa colleges, and as a Volunteer Lawyer for Iowa Legal Aid. She is involved in the legal community, participating in organizations such as the Linn County Bar Association’s Summer Outing CLE Committee, the Linn Law Club, the Iowa Defense Counsel Association, and the ISBA Diversity Task Force.

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