Peter Humphries Clark was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1829. His mother died when he was three. His father, Michael, was a barber whose occupation gave them financial stability. Peter was educated in private schools established for the African American population by white philanthropists.
Not wanting to follow in his fatherís footsteps to become a barber, he decided to learn the trade of printing. He obtained an apprenticeship under Thomas Varney, a white abolitionist. Although the apprenticeship was short-lived when the Varneys left Cincinnati for California, they had influenced his life. When new owner of the printing business refused to train African Americans, Clark planned to emigrate to Liberia but changed his mind when he arrived in New Orleans.
Peter H. Clark
from Cincinnatiís Colored Citizens by Wendell P. Dabney, 1926
Cincinnati History Library and Archive.
Cincinnati Museum Center
Shortly after his return to Cincinnati, his father Michael passed away. He did take over his fatherís business for awhile but it was short-lived. While his father had served only white clientele, Peter opened his barbershop to the African American community as well. When the white clientele objected, he left the profession. He then went to work for his uncle, John Isom Gaines, who had a grocery. His uncle not only became his employer but also served as a mentor.
Gaines was active in the state black convention movement, having attended the convention in 1849 in Columbus which called for the right for the African American population to establish their own separate school system. The state legislature did pass the legislation to do so that same year. Gaines served on the school board and was the chief administrator of the schools from 1849 until his death in 1859 with the exception of the years 1854-56 when the state legislature repealed the right to have the schools run by African Americans. Clark became a teacher in this segregated school system in 1852. In 1854 he married Frances Williams and had 3 children by her. He became a principal of a segregated elementary school in 1857.
While Clark did not serve in the Civil War, when a group of African Americans in Cincinnati went into service to defend the city, he wrote their story, The Black Brigade of Cincinnati. It is the only book he authored.
In 1866 he became principal of the segregated high school, Gaines High School, named after his uncle. This is when he had his greatest impact on the city for he not only served as principal but also trained numerous African Americans to become teachers. While Clark was for desegregation in many instances, he supported the segregated schools because he felt the teachers he trained would not be hired in an integrated school where they would be teaching white children as well.
Clark was not only interested in education but also politics. He first became a member of the Republican Party, then a member of the Liberal Republican Party and then in 1876 joined the Workingmenís Party, a socialist organization. Clark became their candidate for state school commissioner in 1877 and in 1878 as representative of the first congressional district. Though defeated for both positions, he gained the attention of the Republican Party who ran the school board. They insisted he resign from the party or cease serving as principal. The African American population which was predominantly Republican came to his defense and in appreciation he left the socialist party for the Republican Party in 1879. This was short-lived when he became a member of the Democratic Party in 1882.
In 1885, as a member of this party, he became embroiled in a political scandal involving bribery. Though escaping indictment, his political career was over and soon after his career in education, as well. In 1886 control of the school board went from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. The new school board forced him to resign as principal. This time the African American population did not come to his rescue. As a supporter of segregated schools at a time when most of the population was for desegregation, he was out-of step with his own race.
In 1887, when William Hooper Councill was forced to resign as principal of the Alabama Colored Normal School in Huntsville, Alabama because of his civil rights activities, Clark replaced him. His time there was short-lived as Councill maneuvered successfully to get his position back. In 1888 Clark moved to St. Louis, Missouri where he taught in segregated school until his retirement in 1908. He died in St. Louis in June 1925.
To learn more about Peter H. Clark, consult the following
Annual Report of the Board of Directors of the Colored Public Schools of Cincinnati for the School Year Ending. . . 1868-1872
R.B. 371.974 C574, 1868-72 View catalog recordRequest slip