Alexander Clark and the First Successful School Desegregation Case in the United States

In 1867, an African-American businessman named Alexander Clark filed a lawsuit against the Muscatine, Iowa, school district for denying his daughter admission to a public school because she was black. Clark won his lawsuit, but it was appealed by the school board and went to the Iowa Supreme Court. Again he prevailed and in the fall of 1868 his daughter attended the local school. In this clip from the "Lost in History: Alexander Clark" documentary, historians explain the importance of this first successful school desegregation case in the history of the United States.


Narrator: Clark’s legal challenge to school desegregation in Iowa follows almost immediately after his voting rights crusade.

Clark: It was really in that context that in fall 1867, Clark came up with this legal challenge on education. The public school was right next to his house; whereas, his children had to walk a mile or more to get to the Black school, so why couldn't they attend the regular public school? This was the site of the Black school where Clark's children attended before the Supreme Court case. Alexander, on behalf of his daughter, Susan, brought a suit in the local magistrate's court. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and so it was the school board that appealed to the state Supreme Court. The state Supreme Court ruled that the school had to be integrated, that all the children had equal rights.

Narrator: In the fall of 1868 Clark's daughter enrolls in what had been Muscatine's all-white high school. 

Finkelman: It is the first successful school desegregation case in the history of the United States. That makes the Clark case extremely important. It is subsequently cited in a number of cases around the country.

Narrator: It is 86 years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. The Board of Education desegregation ruling. Eighty-nine years before federal troops are dispatched to Little Rock to help desegregate schools there. More than 90 years before James Meredith integrates the University of Mississippi. More than 90 years before Governor George Wallace stands in the doorway, trying to block Black students from entering the University of Alabama.

Finkelman: One other piece of the Clark case that's worth noting is that when desegregation finally comes to the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education that a number of the briefs, that is, the lawyers' written arguments, for desegregation, cite the Clark case -- they begin with the Clark case. They go back and they do the history and they say, oh, my gosh, here's this case from 1868 from Iowa, of all places, which says that you can't discriminate and you can't segregate Blacks any more than you can segregate Germans or Irish or poor kids or Catholics. So in a sense it takes the United States from 1868 to 1954 to catch up to Iowa.

Excerpt from "Lost in History: Alexander Clark," Produced by The Communication Research Institute of William Penn University, Iowa PBS, 2012

© 2012 The Communication Research Institute of William Penn University


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