Samuel Harris Clark (11 April 1885–25 June 1979), labor leader, was born in the town of Vicker in Montgomery County and was the son of a farmer, Charles E. Clark, and his second wife, Julia Lewis Clark. At the age of eleven he joined the New Hope Baptist Church, thus laying the foundation of faith that guided his life's work. After completing his education in the county's public schools, Clark attended Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) before taking his first job on the railroad. On 25 October 1911 in Montgomery County he married Millie Virginia Nichols, who died on 27 June 1961. Their one son and four daughters included Alma Bernice Clark, who married Samuel Lee Gravely, the first African American to achieve flag rank in the United States Navy.

In 1913 Clark went to work in Roanoke as a brakeman for the Norfolk and Western Railway Company. Later he joined the Association of Colored Railway Trainmen and Locomotive Firemen (ACRT&LF), which had been founded in 1912 as the Colored Association of Railroad Employees. The union was one of several that represented African Americans, who were excluded from such unions as the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen (BLFE), which admitted only white members. Clark rose to the presidency of the Roanoke local in the 1930s, and in 1939 he was elected Grand President of the ACRT&LF at the union's convention in Bluefield, West Virginia. He served as president until July 1958, three years after he retired from the Norfolk and Western in May 1955. During most of his tenure the union consisted of a small number of locals in southern railroad centers.

When elected, Clark transformed the association from a primarily fraternal organization and promised that he would work to end racial discrimination in American railroading. In 1939 he approached the noted civil rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston for help in protecting the railroad workers' rights. With Houston serving as the association's chief counsel, Clark led the organization through a number of landmark legal decisions that upheld the rights of black railroad workers. The first victory came in 1940 when the union negotiated a settlement for better wages, hours, and benefits for the black car-riders who worked on the coal piers of the Virginian Railway in Norfolk.

Clark, Houston, and the ACRT&LF then turned their attention to discrimination against black firemen. The union joined with the all-black International Association of Railway Employees to combat an agreement that the Southeastern Carriers' Conference had reached in 1941 that permitted the BLFE and twenty-one railroads to replace black firemen, who could not be promoted under union rules, with white firemen who could be promoted. In 1944 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the combined cases of Steele v. Louisville and Nashville Railroad Co. et al. and Tunstall v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen et al. that because the BLFE was the recognized bargaining agent for railway employees, it could not discriminate against black firemen. As in many other early civil rights cases, difficult as it sometimes was to establish a legal precedent, it was often even more difficult to enforce it. Clark testified in September 1943 about such practices at Norfolk and Western's Roanoke yard before the national Committee on Fair Employment Practices, but its directives to cease such discrimination were ignored. In 1958 Clark himself successfully sued the Norfolk and Western after the railroad employed similar discriminatory measures in deciding which brakemen could apply for promotion to higher-paying jobs as retarders.

Clark's dedication to public service, labor rights, and racial equality extended beyond his work with the ACRT&LF. He was a deacon at Roanoke's Jerusalem Baptist Church and sat on the board of Burrell Memorial Hospital, also in Roanoke. After he retired, Clark moved to Christiansburg, but he did not resign himself entirely to his favorite pastimes, gardening and fishing. He volunteered much of his time and served several terms as president of the Montgomery County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. As a leader of the NAACP and of a local senior volunteer program, he encouraged people to register and vote. Samuel Harris Clark died in a Blacksburg hospital on 25 June 1979 and was buried in the city's Schaeffer Memorial Community Cemetery.

Sources Consulted:
Samuel H. Clark Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C; Marriage Register, Montgomery Co., Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia; Genna Rae McNeil, Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights (1983), 156–158, 162–163, based in part on a 1972 interview with Clark and on Clark's personal papers; Eric Arnesen, Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality (2001), 149, 181, 227; Summary, Findings and Directives in re: Norfolk and Western Railway Company, Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, and Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen…: Public hearings held in Washington, D.C., September 15–18, 1943 (1943); Steele v. Louisville and Nashville Railroad Co. et al. (1944), and Tunstall v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen (1944), United States Reports, 323:192–209, 210–214; Norfolk Journal and Guide, 17 Feb. 1945, 19 Oct. 1946, 18 Aug. 1962 (both with portraits); Roanoke Tribune, 7 May 1955; Norfolk and Western Magazine (Nov. 1958), 609; obituaries in Blacksburg-Christiansburg News Messenger (with birth date) and Roanoke Times and World-News, both 27 June 1979; death notice in Norfolk and Western Railway Company Magazine (15 Oct. 1979), 27.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Evan P. Bennett.

How to cite this page:
Evan P. Bennett, "Samuel Harris Clark (1885–1979)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2006, revised 2021 (, accessed [today's date]).

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