Who was Susan Clark? When the Muscatine school board renamed the combined middle schools for her in 2019, many residents said they had never heard of her.
Susan V. Clark was just thirteen years old when she became the first Black student in the United States to integrate a public school through a court order. Her suit, decided by the Iowa Supreme Court in 1868, gave all Iowa children the right to attend public school regardless of race, religion, nationality, or any other distinction.
Segregated schools were the norm in many states until the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Susan’s case was cited in that landmark decision.
Susan grew up at the corner of West Third and Chestnut Streets (now the Clark House parking garage), the second daughter of Alexander G. and Catherine Griffin Clark. She had an older sister, Rebecca Clark Appleton, and a younger brother, Alexander Jr.
In September 1865, “when the colored people declined renting their church for school purposes,” Susan and her siblings attended their neighborhood Public School No. 2— two blocks away— for two days before the school board, “resolved that no negroes should attend the public schools.” The Muscatine Journal editorialized that this was a gross injustice since the Clarks were paying taxes for public schools, but the decision stood.
Two years later, after finishing the “African School” held at the African Methodist Episcopal Church nearly a mile from her home, Susan wanted to continue her education. In September 1867, she again tried to enroll at School No. 2. Again, she was turned away.
On October 10, 1867, Susan and her father sued in district court for her to have the right to attend the public school. They won their case, but the school board appealed. Then, in late spring, the Iowa Supreme Court issued the historic ruling in Susan’s favor. It had taken an entire school year, but Susan was now able to attend the public schools and enrolled at the high school that fall.
Undoubtedly, her high school years had many challenges, but Susan persevered and graduated with honors in 1871—Iowa’s first Black high school graduate. Muscatine High School was then at West Third and Iowa—just a block from her home. The fact that she was chosen to be one of the graduation speakers attests to her high moral character and leadership.
Susan married the Rev. Richard Holley (1848-1914) on December 6, 1877. A year later her childhood home was destroyed by fire probably from arson. As an AME minister’s wife, she was active in her church and community. The Iowa State Bystander, Iowa’s Black newspaper, reported her involvement with the “colored” Order of the Eastern Star, Heroines of Jericho, JSY Club, and One More Effort Club. She was also a leader in the Iowa Federation of Afro-American Women and statewide chairperson of the Mothers’ Child Study Committee which encouraged Afro-American women to train and educate their youngsters in deportment, civic-responsibility, and the arts.
Mrs. Holley lived most of her married life in Cedar Rapids (1890-1914) where she was known as a popular dressmaker with her own shop. Reverend and Mrs. Holley also lived in Champaign, Illinois, Davenport, and Waterloo. They did not have any children who lived more than a month.
Although there are no known photographs and written records are scarce, one news item from 1898 stands out as an illustration of Susan’s character as an adult. She was a passenger in a train wreck. After listing the two dead and many injured and describing the heroics of the crew and first responders, a single sentence reports, “Mrs. S.V. Holley, a colored woman, promptly left her perilous position in one of the cars and ministered to the injured.”
After her husband died in 1914, Susan resided in Chicago with her niece Clara Appleton Jones. She died of diabetes in 1925 and was buried in the family plot at Greenwood Cemetery.
Susan is a native daughter all Muscatine young people should be proud of and emulate. Iowa Supreme Court Justice Mark Cady sums up her role when he said, “It’s important to recognize how the story of one person—in this case Susan Clark—can become the story of an entire nation, and how the story of one person can lead to change that makes us all better.”
Muscatine Women of Influence and Inspiration works to celebrate the contributions women in Muscatine
have made to the community and women gaining the right to vote 100 years ago in 1920. Muscatine
Women of Influence and Inspiration will publish one article on exceptional local women each month
throughout 2020. Jean Clark, Kristine Conlon, Cindi Kautz, Jacque McCoy, Sharon Savage, and Mary
Wildermuth, with support from the community, have organized this project.