• Rachel R

Septima Poinsette Clark - Educator and Activist

Septima Clark was born on May 3, 1898 in Charleston, South Carolina. She was the second of eight children born to her parents, a laundrywoman, and a former slave. Her parents knew the value of an education, so Septima attended school through 12th grade and graduated in 1916. After graduating from secondary school, she found herself unable to afford to attend Fisk University, and knowing she couldn’t teach in Charleston, she decided to take the exam that would allow her to teach in rural areas. Her first teaching job was at a Black school on John’s Island.

In 1927 she moved from John’s Island to Columbia, South Carolina where she taught and continued her own education. During summers she attended Columbia University in NYC and also had the opportunity to study under W.E.B. Du Bois at Atlanta University. In 1942 she earned her BA from Benedict College in Columbia and then her master’s from Hampton Institute in 1945. During this time Septima was active in a few civic organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She campaigned with NAACP and Thurgood Marshall for equal pay for Black teachers in Columbia. It seems that this campaign was successful in their goal, which means trouble.

In 1956 in response to the above campaign, and I’m sure others, the South Carolina state legislature passed a law banning state employees from being associated with civil rights organizations. The state figured if it made it illegal for the people employed by the state to be part of organizations like the NAACP, they wouldn’t have to deal with them anymore. Septima refused to resign from the NAACP, so after 40 years of teaching the state did not renew her contract.

She took a job in Tennessee working for a grassroots education center focused on literacy and fostering a sense of political empowerment within the Black community. She had been teaching there before 1956 during summers, and now she worked full time at the Highlander Folk School as director of workshops. She even taught Rosa Parks before she helped launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

In 1961 Tennessee forced the closure of the school, but the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) took over and established the Citizenship Education Program modeled after Septima’s citizenship workshops. Septima ended up being the SCLC’s director of education and teaching. She was hands on in training teachers and developing the curricula. She did this until she retired.

Septima retired in 1970, but still hosted workshops for the American Field Service, which is an exchange program. She served two terms on the Charleston, South Carolina School Board beginning in 1975. She also fought for, and won, the reinstatement of the back pay and pension that was ripped from her in 1956. In 1979 she was awarded the Living Legacy Award by Pres. Jimmy Carter and published her second memoir, Ready From Within, in 1986. She passed away on December 15, 1987 in John’s Island, South Carolina.

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