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.
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|
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.
Peter Humphries Clark was 32 years old when the Civil War began.
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.
|Moncure D. Conway|
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|
"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
"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. "