Iowa Supreme Court’s History of Upholding Racial Equality

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IOWA — The state of Iowa has a history of sparking change within our court systems. More recently Iowa was one of the first in the nation to legally recognize same-sex marriage. But Iowa’s history of legal precedence goes back much further.

The first case ever tried before the Iowa Supreme Court was a landmark decision in America’s fight to abolish slavery. In 1834, a slave from Missouri named Ralph Montgomery came to Iowa to work to buy his freedom. After spending five years working in Iowa, where slavery was illegal, Montgomery’s “owner” sent bounty hunters to Iowa to bring him back – claiming Montgomery hadn’t earned enough to buy freedom.

Authorities intervened and Montgomery’s case made it all the way to Iowa’s new Supreme Court. In its first-ever ruling, the court found Montgomery had lived in “free territory” of Iowa long enough that we was no longer a slave. The decision was handed down on July 4th, 1839 – giving Montgomery his independence on Independence Day.

Three decades later the Iowa Supreme Court would make history again in a case involving 13-year-old Susan Clark, an African-American girl from Muscatine. In 1868 she was forced to walk nearly a mile to the nearest all-black school in her region, despite another school standing just blocks from their home. Clark’s family sued to challenge the segregated schools. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in Clark’s favor and in favor of integrating schools. The Iowa Supreme Court was the only high court in the nation to take that stance in the 19th century.

In 1873 the court was again called on to settle a legal dispute over civil rights. Emma Coger, a teacher from Illinois, was traveling on a steamboat to Keokuk. She had a first class ticket but was denied access to the first class dining room before she was African-American. Coger sued and the case was taken up by the Iowa Supreme Court. The court ultimately sided with Coger, saying that Iowa’s constitution preaches equality for all … not just men or whites.

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