Black History Month School Choice

7 African-Americans Who Fought for Educational Opportunity

Key Points

  • Access to quality education is a top conversation in Georgia and many other states and has been for decades.
  • Stories of black educators offer inspiration for continuing to pursue better education opportunities for every kid. 
  • The examples set by African American educators remind us how critical education is for supporting kids’ mental health, preparing them for jobs, and helping them become active citizens in their communities.

No matter what chapter of history you look at, education is often one of the top issues that states and communities have wrestled with. Even today, Georgia is grappling with the reality that thousands of kids are stuck in underperforming schools, and change is needed if we are going to give them a chance to thrive. 

As we celebrate Black History Month this February, it’s a perfect time to look to the African American community for inspiration on the issue of education. Having suffered obstacles ranging from zero education access to segregation and racism in schools, numerous African Americans throughout our country’s history know firsthand the struggle—and the gift—that education can be. Many have dedicated themselves to the cause of education, driven by a shared passion and vision for giving every kid a quality education, regardless of their race or circumstance of their birth. 

Let’s meet a few of these leaders who dedicated their lives to fighting for more educational freedom and opportunity.   

  1. Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837-1914)

Charlotte Forten Grimké grew up in Philadelphia in a family well-known for its activism against slavery. In her early school years, she was taught at home by tutors. Because Philadelphia’s school system was segregated, Charlotte’s parents sent her to Salem, Massachusetts, where she could attend a more progressive school that accepted Black students. As an adult, Charlotte paid the opportunity of education forward. She attended teacher training school, and during the Civil War, she was the first Black teacher to work at the Penn School in South Carolina, a school established to teach African-American children both while they were enslaved and after they were freed. After the war, Charlotte worked for the Freedmen’s Union Commission and the U.S. Treasury Department to help recruit and train more African-American teachers. 


May those whose holy task it is,

To guide impulsive youth,

Fail not to cherish in their souls

A reverence for truth;

For teachings which the lips impart

Must have their source within the heart.

– From The Journal of Charlotte Forten, 1853

    1. Fanny Jackson Coppin (1837-1913)

    Fanny Jackson Coppin was born into slavery and was not freed until age 12. For the rest of her young adult years, she worked as a servant for author George Henry Calvert in Newport, Rhode Island. Fanny yearned for education, so she used her earnings to employ a tutor for about three hours a week. Thanks to her academic diligence and financial help from an aunt and the local African Methodist Church, Fanny entered Oberlin College, Ohio, which was the first college in the United States to enroll both black and female students. 

    It was at Oberlin College that Fanny embarked on her career as an educator—a vocation that would create learning opportunities for thousands of African Americans. While a student at Oberlin, she taught a free night class for African Americans in reading and writing. The College also appointed her to teach classes at their preparatory division, the Oberlin Academy, making Fanny the first black teacher among the Academy’s faculty. After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in 1865, becoming one of only three African American women to do so, she accepted a position at Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth. Over the course of her career, Fanny would become the first African American woman to serve as a school principal and to fill the role of superintendent of a United States school district. 


    “I feel sometimes like a person to whom in childhood was entrusted some sacred flame…This is the desire to see my race lifted out of the mire of ignorance, weakness and degradation; no longer to sit in obscure corners and devour the scraps of knowledge which his superiors flung at him. I want to see him crowned with strength and dignity; adorned with the enduring grace of intellectual attainments.” – Fanny Jackson Coppin, writing to Frederick Douglass in 1876

    1. Inez Beverly Prosser (1895-1934)

    Inez Beverly Prosser was born into a family that highly valued education. Opportunities were scarce for African American kids during Inez’s childhood, and her family moved often in search of the best education available for Inez and her 10 siblings. Inez’s schooling led her to earn a teaching certificate, a bachelor’s degree, and a master’s degree in educational psychology. 

    Inez had a deep passion for education and believed in its power to change lives. She held various roles as a teacher and assistant principal in segregated schools, but her interest in psychology set her apart from other educators. She devoted herself to understanding and improving the educational and psychological development of African American students. In 1933, she became one of the first black women to earn a PhD in psychology. Her research undertook a pioneering and bold examination of segregation’s impact on black students’ social, psychological, and educational development. Findings and arguments from her dissertation were cited in the larger debate about school segregation, carving out a legacy for Inez as one of the leading advocates for the educational and mental health of African American kids.  


    “I am interested in that type of research which will lead to better teaching in elementary and high schools.” – Inez Beverly Prosser

    “Many have dedicated themselves to the cause of education, driven by a shared passion and vision for giving every kid a quality education, regardless of their race or circumstance of their birth.”

    “Many have dedicated themselves to the cause of education, driven by a shared passion and vision for giving every kid a quality education, regardless of their race or circumstance of their birth.”

    1. Kelly Miller (1863-1939) 

    From his early school days, Kelly Miller showed a talent for math. After an impressive academic career spanning the study of math, sociology, Latin, and Greek, Kelly received a bachelor’s degree from Howard University. He became the first black man to be accepted into Johns Hopkins University for post-graduate work in mathematics, physics, and astronomy. 

    However, Kelly was forced to leave Johns Hopkins when the school increased its fees, and he returned to Howard University where he took a teaching job and continued his own education, earning advanced degrees in math and law. In 1907, Kelly became the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Howard. His passion for education motivated him to modernize the College’s curriculum and to tour states across the South in recruitment of new students. Under his leadership, enrollment tripled, and curriculum improved. 

    “The instruction which you have received here, and upon which your diplomas set a seal, will be of value to you only in so far as you digest and assimilate it, and wisely adapt it to the tasks which lie before you.” — Kelly Miller

    1. Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961)

    Nannie Helen Burroughs was born in Virginia, and after her father’s death, she moved to Washington, D.C., with her mother where she completed high school and graduated with honors. While Nannie’s career began with roles in secretarial and bookkeeping work, education would eventually become her focus. 

    Her mark in education was a unique one: Nannie wanted to help poor, working African American women. She believed that these women should have opportunities to learn skills beyond domestic work, so in 1909, she founded the National Training School for Women and Girls in partnership with the National Baptist Convention and through the support of small donations from the black community. The school provided job training and academic instruction to young black women, giving them the option to enter the workforce and pursue careers. The school was one of the first of its kind in the early 20th century, and Nannie served as its president until her death in 1961. 


    “To struggle and battle and overcome and absolutely defeat every force designed against us is the only way to achieve.” — Nannie Helen Burroughs

    1. Esau Jenkins (1910-1972) 

    Esau Jenkins was a shining example of how community members can contribute to improving education for underserved kids. Having grown up in the era of segregation, Esau knew what it was like not to have access to educational opportunities. If he had anything to do with it, the kids in his South Carolina community would not have to suffer the same injustice. 

    So, Esau and his wife used part of their income to buy a bus to transport their own kids and fellow children on South Carolina’s Sea Islands to schools in Charleston. Esau also used his bus to help adult workers get to their jobs. During these rides, he and his wife would teach the workers about the U.S. Constitution and other information that was required to pass literacy exams and become a registered voter. This experience showed Esau that a better approach to adult education was desperately needed, and he founded the first Citizenship School on Johns Island to provide more structured education for adults, including instruction in basic literacy and politics. Thanks to his efforts, thousands of African Americans became registered voters. 

    Even while supporting adult education, Esau’s motivation to help kids did not falter. In 1951, Esau played a key role in establishing Haut Gap School on Johns Island so that the youth in that community would have a quality education option. Today, Haut Gap is a middle school that functions as a magnet school—a type of public school option that specializes in certain curriculum areas, such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), the arts, or vocational training.


    “It takes a pretty large person to love. Any small person can hate.” – Esau Jenkins


    1. Septima Poinsette Clark (1898-1987) 

    Septima Poinsette Clark’s legacy was that of a community teacher. Septima grew up in Charleston, South Carolina—a place where the lines of segregation and class were strictly and harshly drawn, especially when it came to education. Septima was a bright student. After sixth grade, she tested directly into ninth grade at the Avery Institute and graduated from high school in 1916. Financial constraints prevented her from attending college, but even without a degree, she passed the state examination that allowed her to teach. 

    Charleston did not allow African Americans to teach in its public schools, so Septima took a teaching job in the rural community of Johns Island just outside of Charleston. Throughout her 40 years as an educator, Septima had various jobs where she would teach children during the day. At night, on her own time, she would teach African American adults how to read and write and, in the process, she developed several innovative methods to help them pick up these skills more quickly. Septima believed that literacy and citizenship went hand-in-hand, so as she taught basic literacy skills, she also helped adults learn about their rights and become informed, registered voters. Through her work, she became an influential civil rights leader and activist, known as “The Mother of the Movement” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others. 


    “What we are working for is an educational program that has become a resource and rallying point for scores of brave southerners who are leading the fight for justice and better race relations in these crucial days.”

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