Friday, March 22, 2013

Peter Humphries Clark, born March 29, 1829

Peter Humprhies Clark was born March 29, 1829 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Peter’s father, Michael Clark, was born a mulatto slave in 1798 in Lexington, Kentucky;  he was the son of his white master, William Clarke.  After his father's death in 1814, Michael was freed according to his will.  Michael's mother, Elizabeth, moved to Cincinnati and married a free African American, Isom Gaines.  

Peter's mother, Ann Humphries, was the mulatto daughter of  an Irish woman and an African American man.

A  few months after Peter's birth, in August 1829, mobs of of while men attacked and destroyed black-owned homes and businesses . Hundreds of  Blacks fled Cincinnati.  The violence was a protest against the number of African Americans coming to live in the city: between 1800 and 1829, the city's black population had increased by over 400 percent - from 433 to 2,258.  Ohio's "Black Laws" proscribed immigration into the state and restricted citizenship rights for people of color.

Michael was a successful barber for a white clientele, and sent his son to private schools because of the absence of public schools for blacks. A brilliant student, he served as assistant teacher in the two lower grades of high school while he completed the remaining two.  His large extended family was active in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.

Peter's mother died in a cholera epidemic in 1833, when Peter was just 4 years old.  Michael Clark remarried the following year.

James Birney
At  the age of 7, Peter witnessed the violence of the April and July 1836 riots in Cincinnati.  A former slave owner from Alabama, James Gillespie Birney, had become an abolitionist.  In January 1836 he set up the Cincinnati Weekly and Abolitionist, a newspaper sponsored by the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society. At first, the newspaper was printed in nearby New Richmond, Kentucky, targeting slaveholders across the Ohio River with anti-slavery propaganda. This angered Cincinnati businessmen who were keen to do business with the southern states. In late January 1836, some prominent citizens organized a meeting opposing abolition which was attended by over 500 people.  In April, Birney moved his press to Cincinnati. On April 11, a mob entered a black community, attacked people, burned buildings and forced many of the occupants to leave their homes. Irish rioters burned down a Negro tenement in the Ohio River bottom section of the lower West End. Several blacks lost their lives. The riot was not brought under control until the governor intervened and declared martial law.  The anti-abolitionist paper the Daily Cincinnati Republican described the tenement that was burned as "notorious as a place of resort of rogues, thieves, and prostitutes - black and white". The paper said the arson was viewed by a "large concourse of our citizens" who made no effort to extinguish the flames.

On July 5, a race riot began when African Americans held an Independence Day  celebration. On July 12, about forty men broke into the building housing Birney's press, and destroyed it.  The men were described as "respectable and wealthy gentlemen". They shredded newspapers, broke the press in pieces and dragged the damaged parts through the streets. 

At a public meeting on July 23 chaired by the mayor, resolutions were passed that included promises to use all legal means to suppress abolitionist publications. On July, the rioters threatened to burn down Birney's house, but were dissuaded by his son.  Men from Kentucky had a prominent role in the mob. The angry whites marched to a black neighborhood nicknamed the Swamp, where they burned down several houses. They went on to Church Alley, where they met resistance from armed blacks, but again destroyed their property.

 Harriet Beecher Stowe was a resident of Cincinnati at the time; she later wrote the classic novel  Uncle Tom's Cabin.  She described the events in a letter: "The mayor was a silent spectator of these proceedings, and was heard to say, 'Well, lads, you have done well, so far; go home now before you disgrace yourselves;' but the 'lads' spent the rest of the night and a greater part of the next day (Sunday) in pulling down the houses of inoffensive and respectable blacks. The 'Gazette' office was threatened, the 'Journal' office was to go next; Lane Seminary and the water-works also were mentioned as probable points to be attacked by the mob. By Tuesday morning the city was pretty well alarmed. A regular corps of volunteers was organized, who for three nights patrolled the streets with firearms and with legal warrant from the mayor, who by this time was glad to give it, to put down the mob even by bloodshed". 

It took several days for things to calm down. The authorities made no arrests.

Salmon P. Chase, who was until this time opposed to abolitionism, was shocked when his sister fled the mob and took refuge in his house. Viewing the riot "with disgust and horror", he organized a mass meeting in favor of law and order.  Later he helped with a damage suit that resulting in compensation of $1,500 for the owners, printer and editor of the Philanthropist, and went on to become prominent in the abolitionist movement. 
Fifth Street Market

Riots broke out again in 1841, when a mob of white men met in the Fifth Street Market and marched on "Little Africa", an area along the riverfront that was mainly inhabited by African Americans. The blacks were armed and ready, and had a cannon to defend themselves. However, after declaration of martial law, 300 of the black men were arrested, and while they were in custody many of their homes were attacked.
Orphan Asylum for Colored Children, Cincinnati
Michael Clark was one of the founders of the Orphan Asylum for Colored  which opened in downtown Cincinnati in 1845. In 1866 the orphanage moved north in the city to a site in Avondale. (It operated until its closing in 1967.) 

After his father’s death in 1849, Peter, who was 20 years old, took over the barber shop.  He decided to break with local custom and run an "equal rights" shop, which would cater to both white and black men. This led to complaints from white customers and Clark decided to leave the profession.

Daniel Payne
In 1854 his stepmother, Elizabeth, married Daniel Payne, an American Methodist Episcopal bishop, educator, and author. He was one of the founders of Wilberforce University in Ohio.

Peter Humphries Clark was 32 years old when the Civil War began.  

In 1849, black schools were authorized by the Ohio legislature. This was largely due to the efforts of Peter’s uncle, John Gaines, the son of Isom and Elizabeth Gaines. Peter became the first teacher in the black school.

He was fired by the white Board of Education  in 1853 as an "infidel" for having publicly praised the political and religious thought of Thomas Paine.

  Clark was an abolitionist publisher, editor, writer, and speaker. He edited and published his own weekly abolitionist paper, the Herald of Freedom Along with his Uncle John, he participated in the Ohio Conventions of Colored Men. He was appointed secretary of the 1853 National Convention of Colored Men, by Frederick Douglass.   
In 1856, he moved to Rochester, New York to serve as Douglass's assistant on Frederick Douglass' Paper (formerly the North Star). Clark had married Frances Ann Williams, an Oberlin graduate, in 1854; he, his wife, and their infant daughter, Ernestine, lived with the Douglass family in Rochester.  Clark performed his editorial duties, gave abolitionist speeches throughout the midwest, and, as one of Douglass' assistants, attended national abolitionist meetings.  At one time, he contemplating moving to Liberia because of discrimination in the United States. Peter and Frances would eventually have three children: Ernestine, Herbert, and Consuelo. 

In 1857 he was rehired by the black trustees of the colored schools and made principal of the Western District School in Cincinnati.

When Clark returned to Cincinnati, he became active in the new Republican Party. The local Republicans were led by Alphonso Taft and George Hoadly, both prominent attorneys and abolitionists who were members of First Congregational Church (Unitarian) of Cincinnati.   Taft became a business associate of Clark's, and Hoadly was to become a close friend.
Alphonso Taft

George Hoadly
The minister of the Unitarian Church was Moncure D. Conway, who had been fired from his Washington, D.C. pulpit for preaching abolitionist sermons. His well publicized liberal and abolitionist lectures and sermons, including a lecture in praise of Thomas Paine, must have appealed greatly to Clark. 

Moncure D. Conway
Clark joined the Unitarian Church, one of the few local churches that did not exclude blacks,  in 1868.  He was attracted by the Deist theological position espoused by its new minister, Thomas Vickers, and the access it gave him to powerful establishment leaders who were sympathetic to black aspirations.  Clark also maintained his ties to Allen Temple AME Church.
Levi Coffin

Clark was also friends with Levi Coffin, the Quaker who was involved in the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati.  He served as a pallbearer at Coffin's funeral in 1877.

During the Civil War, Clark and his family lived in Cincinnati,  In 1864 he published a book. "The Black Brigade", about black contributions to the defense of the city. 
Peter Clark with Staff of Gaines High School, Cincinnati, 1866
In 1866, Clark convinced the board to establish a high school, comprising grades 7-12, with himself as principal. The school was named for the beloved John Gaines, who had died in 1859 at the age of 38. Clark became principal of Gaines High School in 1866 and held that post for twenty years.  Over the next twenty years, virtually all the teachers hired by the colored schools of southwestern Ohio were trained at Gaines High.  More than half of the Gaines graduates (including all three of Clark's children) stayed in Cincinnati, providing the city with a black middle class which had a strong interest in equality of political and economic opportunity.

In 1871, Rev. Vickers, Clark, and another Unitarian layman represented the Cincinnati congregation at the National Conference of Unitarian and Other Christian Churches in New York City. Clark may have been the first black to represent a member church at a national Unitarian meeting. Clark joined the church's Unity Club, speaking to its members frequently. He raised substantial support for the Colored Orphan Asylum in Cincinnati, a charity his father and other family members helped found, and which he served as treasurer or secretary for more than twenty years. 
Clark concentrated his post-war political efforts on securing national legislation to enforce the rights guaranteed black citizens by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution. He was the most prominent black Republican speaker in the Ohio Valley during the presidential campaigns of 1868 and 1872. The Republicans, who promised a national civil rights law and more federal jobs for black workers, won both times with nearly 100% of the black vote. They failed to deliver on either promise, however. In 1873 Clark organized a meeting in Chillicothe of Ohio's black leaders. They issued a statement asking black voters to vote for candidates, irrespective of party, who would respond to their needs. Although Clark remained a Republican, he insisted that black voters make the two major parties compete for their votes. 
"I do not forget the prejudice of the American people; I could not if I would. I am sore from sole to crown with its blows. It stood by the bedside of my mother when she bore me. It darkens with its shadow the grave of my mother and father. It has hindered every step I have taken in life. It poisons the food I eat, the water I drink and the air I breathe. It dims the sunshine of my days, and deepens the darkness of my nights. It hampers me in every relation of life, in business, in politics, in religion, as a father or as a husband. It haunts me walking or riding, waking or sleeping. It came to the altar with my bride and now that my children are attaining their majority, and are looking eagerly with their youthful eyes for a career, it stands by them and casts its infernal curse upon them. Hercules could have as easily forgotten the poisoned shirt which scorched his flesh, as I can forget the prejudices of the American people." 
~ Speech by Peter Clark in Dayton, Ohio, 1873 
In 1876 he joined the Workingmen's (Socialist) Party, and on July 22, 1877, he delivered a speech at a Workingmen's Party-sponsored rally in downtown Cincinnati.   The striking workers were part of the Great Railroad Strike in 1877.  The speech outlined his views and his belief that the strike was part of a broader class struggle that would lead to the fundamental transformation of the American economic system.
"The too ready consent of the state and national governments to lend themselves to the demand of these wealthy corporations cannot be too severely condemned. "
In 1878 he ran for congress on the Socialistic Labor Party ticket, one of the party's first congressional candidates. He ran in Ohio's 1st congressional district, garnering 275 votes.

Clark joined the Democratic Party in 1882 and supported his friend and fellow parishioner George Hoadly's 1883 campaign for governor on the Democratic ticket. Hoadly promised to repeal Ohio's remaining racially oppressive Black Laws and to appoint African-Americans to posts of responsibility. Clark was credited by both parties with swinging enough black votes to the Democrats to ensure Hoadly's victory over Republican Joseph Foraker. Hoadly kept his promises. He secured the repeal of most of the Black Laws early in his term and he appointed prominent black citizens to a number of positions, including Clark as the first black trustee of Ohio State University. 

Governor Hoadly wrote in an 1885 letter to President Grover Cleveland: "His color has kept him in the shadows; had he been a white man, there is no position in the state to which he might not have aspired."

With the help of his son, Herbert A. Clark, he began publishing the Cincinnati Afro-American.

Ohio's colored and white schools had been placed under all-white boards in 1874 as a prelude to enacting a mixed race schools law. Hoadly introduced such a law in 1884. Clark was in favor of it provided the teachers, as well as the students, were of both races. But white parents were not willing to have their children taught by black teachers. Clark predicted that black children were not ready to compete with white children without the support of black teachers and that the black students would be victimized. Thus he fought against passage of the law, although most black voters were for it. The law failed to pass that year or in 1885. In the gubernatorial race that fall, Republican Joseph Foraker, who had learned from his previous defeat, promised to pass the mixed race school law, to appoint more African Americans to state jobs, and to give needed financial aid to the AME-affiliated Wilberforce University. Foraker ensured that three black politicians were nominated for the state assembly on the Republican ticket. After winning handily with a huge majority of the black votes, Foraker kept all of his promises. 

(In 1897 more than 700 black parents signed a petition condemning the school board, the superintendent, the principals, and the teachers for the indignities and insults to which their children were subjected in the mixed schools. Further, in 1908 it was revealed that only 89 black children had graduated from the two Cincinnati High Schools in the 20 years since mixed schools were initiated, although the population of school age blacks children had doubled in that interval.)

In the 1886 Cincinnati municipal elections. the Republicans recaptured control of the Board of Education. Clark was soon fired from his job. Clark was charged with political corruption. He was forced to resign as a school teacher and for a while sold textbooks. Gaines High was closed in 1889. Clark believed that this was punishment for his apostasy, and a warning to black political aspirants that the right to wield power was reserved exclusively for white citizens. 

Clark left Cincinnati in 1887 to serve as principal of the Alabama State normal and Industrial School.  He left after only one year because of disagreements with local white. 

 In 1888, he went to St. Louis where he taught at the segregated Sumner High School for twenty years.  His daughter, Ernestine Nesbit, also taught in St. Louis.  In 1892, his son, Herbert, moved to St. Louis where he established a newspaper called the Afro-American News.  

Clark retired in 1908, and lived in St. Louis until his death on June 21, 1925.  

Clark remained unchurched from the time he left Cincinnati in 1887. His will specified that no religious rites be performed at his funeral and that Unitarian William Cullen Bryant's poem, "Thanatopsis," be read. 

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take  
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch  
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
He left his philosophy books to a St. Louis library. His large collection of poetry books by black poets were given to a Cincinnati library.

His younger daughter Consuelo, was  a Unitarian; she was a graduate of Boston University Medical School.  She was the first African American woman licensed to practice in Ohio, and worked in Youngstown, Ohio.


  1. Hi - I'm looking for an image of Peter Clark to use in an exhibition. I'm wondering what the sources are for the photos you use here. Would you be willing to give me permission to use them?

  2. Oh oops. You can contact me at Annedelanoataoldotcom. Sorry to spell it all out, but I find I get way less spam that way.

  3. Hi,
    I am looking for pictures of Peter H. Clark and John I. Gaines that you have here for a history presentation. Would you be willing to give me permission to use them? My contact information is

    Thank you!