Clark v. Board of School Directors

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Year Decided: 1868 Judge:Chester C. Cole, George G. Wright Plentiful: Susan Clark and Alexander Clark Sr Defendant: Board of Directors

Clark v. Board of School Directors was an 1868 court case in the U.S. state of Iowa. In 1868, Susan Clark, a 12 year-old African American, sued the local school board of Muscatine, Iowa, because she was refused admittance into Grammar school no 2. under the notion that it was a white school only. Clark, in her lawsuit, said that the segregation was a violation of Iowa law and the Iowa State Constitution. Iowa trial court and state district court sided with Clark. When the case was appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court they upheld the district court's decision.


When Clark v. Board of School Directors was argued, the nation was still recovering from the Civil War. Segregation was the norm, and that continued for decades after. In this case, it was decided twice that each school district in Iowa needed to provide education to all children in the district, and that they could discriminate based on location, but not on race. This started a long string of cases that found loopholes to get around laws against racial segregation in states where it was prohibited. Iowa’s Constitution stated that, in the words of Judge Chester C. Cole’s words, “Provisions shall be made “for the education of all the youths of the State through a system of common schools,” which constitution declaration has been effectuated by enactments providing for the “instruction of youth between the ages of five and twenty-one years,” without regard to color or nationality, is it not equally clear that all discretion is denied to the board of school directors as to what youths shall be admitted? It seems to us that the proposition is too clear to admit of question." 1[1]

The decision of this case integrated Iowa schools almost a century before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case in 1954.[2]

Susan’s brother Alexander Clark Jr., went on to be the first black graduate of the College of Law at the University of Iowa, her father, Alexander Clark Sr., was the second.[2]


This case was about Susan Clark, a 12 year old African-American girl from Muscatine,Iowa who was told that she was not allowed to attend the local school in her neighborhood because it was for white children only. Clark sued the school board claiming that the school was violating Iowa's law and the state constitution by the way that they were segregating the school. The State school district agreed with Clark and the fact that the school district was violating the state constitution. After this decision, the school board decided to appeal the decision and take it up with the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court sustained the lower court ruling, striking down school segregation. Judge Chester C. Cole stayed with his decision that schools that were segregated were inconsistent with the Iowa constitution and that schools were required to educate all children. An important thing to note about this case is that on March 12, 1858, it was provided that the district board of directors "shall provide for the education of the colored youths in separate schools, except in cases where, by the unanimous consent of the persons sending to the school in the sub -district, they may be permitted to attend with the white youths." This act was, however, declared unconstitutional in December, 1858, by the Supreme Court, because the power to provide a system of education was given by the constitution to the board of education, and could not be primarily exercised by the general assembly.[1]


The court sustained the ruling of the trial court which permitted Ms. Clark to attend "Grammar school No2". This ruling was substantial because it was the first court to argue that separate was not equal.[1]


In the opinion of the court the Judge Chester C. Cole makes the argument that separate was not equal because he concluded that the people of color was just a separation of nationality. He then goes on to argue that if the board is to separate one nationality from the rest that they must then separate all people based on their nationality. As his argument progresses he states that all youths are equal before the law, that while school directors may have the ability to dictate school uniform they do not have the ability to say who can attend their school when the student meets all the necessary requirements.[1]


Judge George G. Wright stated that even though the constitution provided education for all the youths of the state, he believed that the school directors should have the overall say in arranging schools, and that they can direct where the children should attend schools provided that they are kept within their proper districts. Judge George G. Wright stated how he conceded that the law made no distinction as to the rights of children between the ages of five and twenty-one and how all people have the right to attend common schools. He believed that this right was recognized by the directors in this case and he stated “ I cannot admit that the refusal to admit this scholar into this particular school was so wrongful as that the courts should interfere by mandamus.” Judge George G. Wright also made it clear that if Susan was allowed to go to a school that was in the proper district, then he didn't know of any principle in which she could complain about. He believed that it was not Susan's or her father’s decision to make, but that it was the school board's decision.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e "24 Iowa 266". LexisNexis. June 1868. Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  2. ^ a b "A timeline of Iowa's Civil Rights History". City of dubuque. Retrieved 13 December 2015.
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