Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987)
An educator and civil rights activist, Septima Poinsette Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina. Her father was Peter Poinsette, a former slave, and her mother was Victoria Warren Anderson Poinsette, a free woman who had spent her early years in Haiti. Although better known for her civil rights activism, Clark used her experiences as an educator as the basis for much of her activism, especially issues dealing with equity in teaching salaries, literacy, and citizenship.
In 1916, Clark completed the twelfth grade at Charleston's Avery Institute, a liberal arts school founded in 1865 by Charles Avery and the American Missionary Association. After passing the state examination, Clark accepted her first teaching position at the age of eighteen on Johns Island, South Carolina. She taught on Johns Island from 1916 until 1919 when she accepted a position teaching the sixth grade at the Avery Institute. In May 1920, Septima Poinsette married Nerie Clark, and shortly after a son, Nerie Clark Jr., was born. When Clark's husband died in December 1925, Clark sent her son to live with his grandparents in Hickory, North Carolina, so she could teach. Teaching did not pay her enough money to support her son, and most boarding houses did not allow children.
Clark's experience as a teacher provided firsthand knowledge of an oppressive system as well as possible solutions to problems of inequality, illiteracy, and poverty. Clark, like most African-American teachers in the South, faced inadequate schoolhouses, lack of transportation for students, short school terms, and overcrowded classrooms, as well as low wages. For the school year of 1915–1916, the value of schoolhouses in South Carolina for whites was more than $5 million compared to a little over $600,000 for blacks. The average expenditure according to enrollment was $17.02 per white child and $1.90 per black child (1916 State Superintendent Report, pp. 140, 146). Out of 1,176 school buildings for African Americans, most were made of logs and only two were brick buildings; 778 were in churches or lodge halls. In 1916, Clark received $35 per month as principal and teacher and her associate received $25 for teaching a class of more than sixty students each. In comparison, white teachers taught classes with no more than eighteen students. One teacher taught only three students. They were paid $85 per month.
Clark became an advocate for a teachers' salary equalization campaign as early as 1928. Later she worked on the issue with principal J. Andrew Simmons of Booker T. Washington High School (Columbia), NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall, and Harold R. Boulware, a South Carolina civil rights lawyer. Clark spent long nights convincing white and black teachers to show records of their pay. In 1945, Federal District Judge J. Waties Waring of South Carolina ruled that black teachers with equal education should receive pay equal to their white counterparts.
In 1935, Clark helped Wil Lou Gray, head of the South Carolina Adult Education Program, establish a program to help educate illiterate soldiers at Fort Jackson. Her experiences training soldiers to sign their checks, to read bus routes, and to learn to count were inspired in part by the citizenship schools Clark had designed at the Highlander Folk School and later Southern Christian Leadership Council. At Highlander in Monteagle, Tennessee, in 1956, Clark accepted a position of liaison between Highlander and Johns Islands residents to combat illiteracy and to teach skills necessary for true citizenship. Clark worked with Esau Jenkins, a Johns Island native, and community activist Bernice Robinson, of Charleston, South Carolina, to develop plans for the citizenship school classes. The Highlander loaned funding for the purchase of a building. Setting the front of the building up as a cooperative store, they used the back room of the building for Robinson to teach classes so as not to risk attracting attention from whites. In 1961, Clark accepted a position with the Southern Christian Leadership Council as director of education and teaching, focusing her attention on citizenship training, voting, and literacy. The program reached eleven states in the Deep South.
In 1956, forty years after her first teaching assignment, the South Carolina legislature passed a law that barred city and state employees from affiliating themselves with any civil rights organization. Clark was fired; she had openly confronted an unequal system, becoming an agitator for civil rights, requesting equal salaries for black teachers, and refusing to dissociate herself from the NAACP. When Clark lost her job at 58 years of age, she also lost her state retirement benefits. She spent two decades fighting for her benefits, which she finally received in 1976.
As an educator within an oppressive Jim Crow system, Clark's understanding of the connections among illiteracy, poverty, and power allowed her to link social reform and educational advancement. These were issues she spent her entire life addressing both as a teacher and a private citizen. In her autobiography, Echo in My Soul, Clark wrote: "In teaching [the poor and underprivileged] and thereby helping them raise themselves to a better status in life, I felt then that I would [also] be serving my state and nation, too, all of the people, affluent and poor, white and black. For in my later years I am more convinced than ever that in lifting the lowly we lift likewise the entire citizenship" (p. 51).
CLARK, SEPTIMA POINSETTE, and LEGETTE, BLYTHE. 1962. Echo in My Soul. New York: Dutton.
Forty-Eighth Annual Report of the State Superintendent of Education of the State of South Carolina, 1916. 1917. Columbia, SC: Gonzales and Bryan.
MCFADDEN, GRACE JORDAN. 1990. "Septima P. Clark and the Struggle for Human Rights." In Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965, ed. Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson.